Out with the "Ex-", in with the "In-"

in Editorials | October 20, 2023

          This past weekend, parents from all over the world visited Lawrenceville to get a glimpse of their children’s day-to-day life. Parents were welcomed on campus by cutesy Halloween decorations, newly planted flowers, and freshly mown lawn, and watched students give well-planned presentations and conduct interesting experiments. While what the parents experienced on Family Weekend was framed to be a snapshot of student life at Lawrenceville, most students can attest to the fact that the daily Lawrenceville experience differs from the small slice of life that was shown. A regular meal at the Tsai Commons has neither a garland of squash and pumpkins nor roast beef cut live, and the regular school day is much less spectacular as well. A gap clearly exists between the image of Lawrenceville from Family Weekend and what students experience each day. Although the touched-up displays can be interpreted as a form of hospitality, this performance echoes a facet of Lawrenceville’s culture as a whole: valuing image over authenticity. This plight is not unique to just Lawrenceville, but part of a greater culture of performativity throughout American high schools. So what is wrong with being performative if academic cultures nationwide value the outcome over the process?

          When outward appearances are valued over authenticity, students seek to look accomplished on their resumés rather than authentically working to improve themselves. At Lawrenceville, clubs are often founded by students who want to harvest leadership titles, with many clubs becoming inactive as soon as their student leaders’ college resumé is plumped up. Similarly, some students would refuse to join JV when cut from a Varsity team, valuing the Varsity title over their love for the sport. Students often discuss which teacher curves the most or who grades the easiest, valuing the outcome on their transcript over the learning process. This emphasis on the perceived outcome, which comes at the expense of authentic experience and learning, causes the community to value the outcome over the process. For when the superficial outcome is valued over all else, students become driven by extrinsic motivations—external rewards and accolades—rather than intrinsic motivations, which stem from genuine interest and passion. But with the college process assessing applicants on what they already accomplished, perhaps being extrinsically motivated is the right way, or the smarter way to live, ensuring we have enough titles and good enough grades by Senior Fall. If superficial outcomes are what colleges measure, then should we not play the system and be extrinsically motivated?

          The danger is that when students are extrinsically motivated, they may oversimplify their time at Lawrenceville, reducing these years to simply a stepping stone towards college admission. For many students, grinding hours just to get an A+ on a transcript transforms classes into menial jobs, rather than opportunities to truly interact with the material and satisfy innate curiosities. Similarly, playing a sport with the sole intention of being recruited reduces the activity’s joy and excitement. When the joy of doing something banks solely on the reward, failure to receive the final goal is devastating. One may feel like one’s actions were for naught. And unlike how Minecraft pigs can eternally chase a carrot on a stick, Lawrentians are prone to being burned out. Students simply cannot keep up with the incessant drive to meet external expectations, creating a painful divide between who they are and who they believe they should be. When their self-image depends on receiving a high grade or making the varsity team, outcomes out of their own control, students often find themselves deeply unsatisfied.

          To prevent becoming burned out, Lawrentians must find an intrinsic mode of motivation. In being intrinsically motivated, students who value the process over the outcome can be satisfied by their own actions rather than what an external verdict decides. Intrinsic motivations also free students from the pressure of constant performatism and resumé plumping, allowing them to devote time to their own personal improvement. Successful development comes with consistent, selfless, and passionate practice—especially in an uber-academic setting like Lawrenceville, where the School’s success is measured by college matriculations. It is important for students to take matters into their own hands to escape the shackles of external expectations and to pursue their own authenticity and self improvement.