In his legendary commencement speech “This is Water,” given at Kenyon back in 2005, David Foster Wallace alluded to a reality that has rung true for me in my first couple of weeks at college.
“[If you] worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out,” Wallace said in his speech. I never really understood what he was conveying in this passage until now.
Like most Kenyon students, I consider myself to be an intelligent person. I had a pretty solid GPA throughout high school, I thrived in various extracurriculars and I was pretty well-liked by most of my teachers. In a very narrow sense, I was the epitome of what parents and administrators like to call “college-ready.” But in retrospect, my academic success in high school was largely attributable to the rampant grade inflation brought on by ample AP and honors course offerings, as well as my uncanny ability to suck up to my teachers. I owe my A in AP Statistics not to my mastery of the subject, but to the fact that my teacher and I shared a love for Sublime and Afroman.
Of course, there were classes and activities that I participated in where my skill was authentic, but these were few and far between. For the most part, I excelled academically at my public high school because I was adept at gaming the system. It is now evident after only a short time here that my approach to education in high school will not be viable at Kenyon. This is something that I am attempting to reconcile, and in the process, I can’t help but feel fraudulent and at times even undeserving of a spot at this prestigious college.
Students here are eager to participate in class discussions and their commentary far exceeds the superficial or redundant points offered by my high school classmates (and myself, for that matter). Additionally, with much smaller class sizes here than what I’m used to, it is more difficult to remain unnoticed by the professor when I am unprepared to contribute.
It is not my intention to suggest that I am merely a lazy student, nor do I wish to imply that I was oblivious to the fact that college is inherently more difficult than high school. But I do believe that I am not alone in my insecurities surrounding my intellect and academic ability, specifically as I entered Kenyon. From what I have seen, many of my first year peers are also wrestling with feelings of inadequacy. This is why it is crucial to promote a supportive learning environment over a competitive one.
A supportive learning environment encourages students to practice two things: humility and empathy. Humility is important because at one time or another we all get confused, frustrated or bested in an academic setting. Conversely, whenever you are confident in your abilities on a certain topic or assignment, be mindful and empathetic of those who are not and offer them support and encouragement.
The social atmosphere at Kenyon is overwhelmingly positive and inclusive. Let’s be sure that this mentality permeates the academic setting, or else we will risk becoming a hyper-competitive, stress-inducing institution like many other top schools in the nation.