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Slaves with laude

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How being (excellent) slaves of competitiveness can put the true value of education in the shade  

“In seguito a questo momento [di difficoltà e di presa di coscienza], in cui finalmente ho preso familiarità con tutte le emozioni, anche quelle più dolorose e scabrose, ho deciso di ripartire da zero, cambiando università, città, ma soprattutto riconciliandomi con una certa e diversa idea di successo (…).” 

“Following this moment [of hardship and realisation], in which I finally familiarised with all the feelings, even the most hurtful and rough ones, I decided to start from scratch, changing university, city, and, above all, reconciling myself with a specifically different idea of success (…).” 

The point of beginning of this reasoning on students’ condition is an article by TPI titled ‘Slaves of the with laude’ (December 2021). Observing the displayed points of view of different students, I had the chance to delve a bit into the topic of academic pressure and academic status, understanding how there are many different realities that go beyond those of academic success. Many stories of students that hit the headlines: some by being prodigious, some due to the consequences of being overwhelmed [1]

Why do we have to feel as if we had to stand out in every single subject? Why can’t we address all academic experiences as enriching ones, but we often fall into the oblivion of grades, certificates, marks? Should we rearrange all our priorities on a social level, should we learn how to do things for ourselves and not in order to have just another patch on our coat that is going to signal how good, how excellent, how brilliant we are? 

Even if Italy has observed a slight improvement over the past years (dropout rate decreased to around 13% in 2020, lower with respect to the 18% in 2011), it is still very far away from the European average goal of reducing the rate of school (and university) dropout – around an average of 9% [2].

Different studies have found how the Italian university system is characterised by a high level of dropouts, so high that it is considered by many as one of the main critical traits of the system itself. This could perhaps be one of the main reasons why in Italy only around 20% of the population aged 25-64 has a degree (contrasting with the average of 32,8% of the EU). It has been noticed how the share of students obtaining their degree within the expected timing positions itself a bit above 30% of those enrolled (while the average European value situates itself around 40%). Concerning dropout rates, some statistical surveys highlighted how the rate of failed completion of cycles of studies in Italy is around 40%. 

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University dropout manifests itself mostly during the first year, showing how student integration and person-environment fit are missing: there is a gap between prospective students’ expectations and the perception those same students have once they enrol.  

What about Bocconi? 

Having a look at the data inside Portale dei dati dell’istruzione superiore [http://ustat.miur.it] by the Italian Ministry of University and Research, it can be highlighted how there have been changes in the distribution of graduates among different mark ranges. The distribution was originally bell-shaped (with many graduates obtaining a final mark between 91 and 109, while few were able to reach 110 or 110 with laude, and few were receiving a final mark below 90). 

Something changed during the years and in 2020 it looked as if this bell-shaped distribution was somehow ‘flattening’, with more students receiving their degree with a final mark of 110 with laude (2020 saw an increment of 9% with respect to 2019), and more students graduating with a final mark falling in the range 66-90 (2020 saw an increase of 15% with respect to 2019). 

Being it very complicated to make inferences on data without proper analysis, one is left with some hints: could academic pressure be a drive towards improvement, on one hand, and towards a self-referential oppressive system that leads to worsening of the academic performance (and, in extremis, to dropout), on the other? 

Emerging from the ‘season to hell’ the academic process has become for some students, certain graduates found themselves finally getting to understand what education really means. To continue with the analogy of the French poet, just as Rimbaud completely renovated his approach towards literature and his works in “Saison en enfer”, graduates shall renovate their approach to studying and earning skills to be employed in life. Many of us acknowledge how the importance of education overlooks the grading system; then why is it so hard for us to detach from this marks-related structure which, in the end, haunts us and sometimes prevents us from really taking advantage of the possibilities that we must learn and to expand our knowledge? 

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As we all know, the pandemic has had repercussions on the general level of mental health – especially on the one of teenagers and young students. This was not unexpected, the bubble burst after the Covid-situation exacerbated pre-existing conditions which had been building up in a twisted societal scheme. We live in a world in which we often feel as if everything boiled down to mere numbers: our personal documents, our score in a test, our mark in an exam. 

These concerns can be connected to another worrying phenomenon: the one of the so-called hikikomori, also known as ‘acute social withdrawal syndrome’, which consists of an almost total withdrawal from society and of extreme degrees of social isolation and confinement [3]

This phenomenon was first defined in the late 1990s in Japan, and, since then, it has been a serious social problem. In time, it has been recognised as being a relevant issue even in other countries: in Europe, hikikomori is usually connected to young people ‘not in education, employment, or training’ (NEET) – a subject of policy concern even in Italy, a country in which the phenomenon of hikikomori is more diffuse than one would believe [4]

Studies are only recent – and, thus, results are not definitive; still, scholars have theorised the causes to be rooted in the evolution of pre-existing conditions, in some specific social habits (or in a peculiar social culture), and in an excessive social competitiveness – together with a push towards conformation to this academic competition, a push which is strongly perceived in the Japanese scholar system. Hikikomori protest against this academic pressure and competition by isolating from a society they do not want to adhere to, which values they do not recognise and do not abide by [5].  

In the end, what matters most? 

When we subjugate ourselves to this quantitative system of marks and grades, we end up being slaves with laude, slaves of exceptionality and of success – not understanding how these could all be means to reach personal fulfilment. If every single one of us were to be a subject of this academic trap, then there would be no real long-term point in education: grades give back only short-term satisfaction and, thus, short-term results and learning. As hard as it seems (and is) we should focus on what really gives us sense of purpose, sense of fulfilment (one as permanent as possible), putting aside all temporary gratifications which in the end leave us emptier than we were before. 

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While not wanting to claim the status of an official research, this article would still want to drive readers towards a higher level of questioning and pondering topics such as the one of academic pressure, first on a personal and individual level, secondly (maybe) on a broader level. Some food for thought: does higher (perceived) academic pressure lead to higher dropout rate? And if this is the case, how should we tackle this? Should we re-think the whole system? 

There has been praising directed towards the Finnish school system, specifically towards its reform which put at the core of the structure the value of cooperation (almost entirely substituting the concept of competitiveness); the Finnish system stretches out in the direction of innovation, research, experimenting (teachers are mostly young and in a continuous process of high-level formation). Just a small example to show how education should be perceived as having a long-term system of incentives. Perhaps we should reset the academic structure in the direction of a life-long process of formation that is going to push individuals towards an intrinsic value of learning and not towards a merely quantitative understanding of studying, a numeric approach to knowledge gaining.

Author profile

Just an average guy that read “On the road” a bit too soon and was led to tending to fall in love too much with too many things. In Bocconi I am studying International Politics and Government.

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