The fall after the high: academic validation
Validation is the affirmations we get from others. Some people view it as something with positive connotations behind it, whilst others see the negatives. I am extremely blind and refuse to wear glasses, so I see neither. Though looking past my own blindness, there is something almost too patent to ignore: academic validation. Academic validation is when students seek out praise and approval by excelling in their academic courses, through GPA, grades, etc. Academic validation was set in place to uplift the students who have 4.0 (and above) GPAs, take rigorous courses, and score high on tests. Though in recent years it has come under scrutiny for its negative effects on students’ mental health and confidence. I’d call academic validation the most helpful, useless affirmation out there. It’s something that drives and motivates me, but in the same breath, it’s what stresses me out. I look back and reflect, was the praise worth my mental health? Is academic validation doing what it was meant to? Though it’s hard, we must understand the difference between the intent of academic validation and its impact.
Now thankfully in recent years, the harm of academic validation is a primary topic. We, as a society, have been able to conduct research and conclude various interpretations. A 2019 study organized by the Newport Institute proposed a new perspective on academic validation. The study revealed that people are more prone to anxiety, depression, declining health, poor habits (smoking, substance abuse, drinking), and depersonalization due to academic stress. This conclusion is a very common theme among this topic, regardless of who researches it. Though academic validation was created to make students feel better about their hard work, it tends to have the opposite effect.
Now being who I am, I decided to do my own research. I interviewed some of the top students of the class of 2024 at Tech Boston Academy asking them questions about their work, how the workload impacts them, and if they think the positive remarks they receive make up for the tediousness of the work. When it came down to the question of do you believe that people praise you based on the grades you get rather than the “hard” work you did to get them, the answer remained constant, “Yes.” Although it is still very important to positively acknowledge someone’s top marks, the main focus should be how hard they worked to achieve that. (Also half of these kids got real bad egos [myself included, but this isn’t about me] and need to be humbled).
In my study, I also asked them one major question, do you think doing well in school affects your mental health in any way? If so, how? The responses I received actually shocked me, this was a personal question for me to really understand how they felt, yet it felt the opposite. There was a recurring theme of many students saying no and then further explaining the negative effects on their mental health. Lise-Hengy, an 11th grade student, stated, “I wouldn’t say it affects my mental health, or maybe I just don’t notice. I have to worry about my dad seeing my grades or maybe disappointing my teachers, but then after a hot second I’m over it, if I fail it’s the teacher’s fault.” This is an obvious sign that achieving their grades causes them to stress because they’re disappointing other people, rather than because they’re disappointing themselves. They also can’t cope with not doing well in their academics properly, so they find others to place blame on. I actually would like to note that every single student I interviewed mentioned how their guardian(s) and or teachers felt about their grades, rather than what I asked, which was about their own opinion, feelings, and emotions. From my perspective, it seems like the academic validation these students receive is what they rely on, even without realizing it (which is why I should be valedictorian, but I digress).
The thing about academic validation is that you have to analyze every aspect of it; the good, the bad, and the ugly. An article by The University of Adelaide, an Australian Ivy League school, does a wonderful job of identifying these elements. In short, the good is the motivation it gives us, the bad is the burning out it causes, and the ugly is the grasp academic validation has on one’s self-esteem. Though the truth isn’t necessarily something we always want to hear, it’s what’s needed in this case. Academic validation does have a positive effect on students and is a great way to motivate them but to ignore the extent to which it goes would be pure ignorance.
In a nutshell, academic validation does more harm than good, though that’s not its intended purpose. It’s good to validate others, especially for something as significant and hard to maintain as grades, but some lines need to be drawn. Validation is only good when someone doesn’t base their self-worth on it because their grades shouldn’t define them as a person. So all in all, go ahead and appreciate those academic scholars and their accomplishments (or don’t), but don’t forget to remember how much hard work it took them to achieve it.