In Defense of the “Achievers”

I was talking with a colleague today, and he said something very simple that nevertheless made me stop and think. He said of one student, “He does his work. He’s not going to do any more than than he has to, of course, but he gets his stuff done.” The student in question is not an academic superstar by any means, but my colleague is right: he does his work.

I’ve had countless students like this over the years, but for some reason, I never stopped to think about in quite this way. As our conversation continued to play in my head this evening, it occurred to me that we don’t really have a label for students like this. We have our “overachievers” and our “underachievers,” but we rarely talk about the kids who are simply “achievers.”

I wonder why. It’s as if simply achieving is not enough. To be worthy of our attention (that is: teachers’, college admissions officers’, prospective employers’), you can’t just do what you’re supposed to do. You have to do more. How much more? As much as you can, of course. And if you do more, we’re going to push you to do even more than that. More, more, always more. Are kids so wrong to say, “No thanks, not for me. I’m good with a C if it means I get to enjoy my life a bit during these four years of high school?”

As an educator and on a certain level, I get it. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in action. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, we’re not expanding kids’ comfort zones. Sometimes, we’re simply pushing to see just how much kids can handle. (And, oh yeah, because we “have to” sort them into honors classes, elite colleges, and competitive labor markets.) And we wonder why “kids these days” are grade-grubbing, perfectionist, careerist, etc., etc., etc. As Denise Pope argued in her book Doing School, it seems that we are indeed creating “a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”

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