What would it take for a culture shift?

Volume 120 Board

If you didn’t hear it at the opening assembly, your grade meeting, or senior college night, here’s the deal: Horace Mann has a culture problem. A competitive, cutthroat, “what did you get on the last test” culture problem. And — if you believe what the adults have been telling us — students have the power to change it. But what, exactly, do we mean by school “culture”? Who creates it, who can overhaul it, and what will it take?

At the opening assembly, Dr. Levenstein told the student body:

Students often talk about the competitive culture of the school, as if that culture is a preexisting condition, a fact of nature, something in the air. It is none of those things. Cultures are created by the community that lives in them; they are perpetually remade, reshaped, readjusted, and each of you can choose to be part of a culture shift.

HM is challenging: the curriculum is ambitious and the pace is fast. But, each of you can decide which questions you ask your friends when you get assessments back; each of you can decide how you measure your own success; each of you can choose whether you tie your personal value to a grade you earn. The adults at the school do their best to turn the heat down on the sense of competition among students. If there are things we’re doing that turn that heat up, instead, please let us know, so we don’t inadvertently encourage competition among students.

We, like many students, were skeptical. To many of us, it sounded like an off-loading of responsibility: here is the school’s reputation that far precedes you; fix it. In follow-up conversations, some placed the blame on parents, while others saw it as built into the school’s reputation. But any argument that shifts the blame around, from students to faculty to parents to the administration, misses the point. Each of us has a hand in the culture of the school; none of us can undo it without radical change to how this institution operates.

Students, we need to own up to our role. We are not powerless. We do create a culture by comparing our scores, picking apart our peers to place ourselves in a grading landscape flattened by inflation and a college application process that gets more competitive every year. Unprompted, students announce semester grades, rattle off 400-level classes, and declare how we spent X hours and Y cups of coffee and Z amount of lost sleep to finish an assignment.

Behind those comparisons is a nagging insecurity, a need to prove that you are smart enough, that you worked hard enough, that you deserve to be here. Trust the admissions department. You are smart and capable, and you don’t have to broadcast every A to prove it. These are beliefs and behaviors that, if we wanted to, we could change.

Yet, we know that many of you will receive that next assessment, look at the letter and ignore the comments, duck outside the classroom, and ask how your classmates did. Many of us will, as well. There are larger forces at work, ones that cast culture out of our control. Tinkering around the edges will not change our relationship to this academic environment; the school switched APs to 400s and doesn’t show how students rank against their classmates, yet come mid-January and June, we remain hyper-focused on every plus or minus in our transcripts. 

When our parents harp about grades, when we study for months for standardized tests and assess our futures by our scores, when GPA is the deciding factor in college applications, when college counselors say you’re more than a number but everything you do in class adds up to one, how can we not fixate on outcome and hang onto every half-credit? Not asking about someone’s grade on a test will not erase the fact that we are all competing.

Horace Mann is a college preparatory school — competition is inherent in that identity. Our league even calls itself the Ivy Preparatory League (despite no affiliation with the universities). That culture is not a preexisting condition, fact of nature, or something in the air. Nor is it something that we can shift without fundamentally altering how our school measures its prestige. Students come here with a long-term tunnel vision on college. That focus is the driving force behind much of student participation in classes and extracurriculars, much as we would like to pretend otherwise. That’s not to say students don’t have intellectual curiosity and genuine passion, but college always factors into the equation.  

Are we even willing to give up on our competitive culture? Is that part of the school’s appeal? Would Horace Mann retain our academic rigor and reputation without it? 

What we want is an honest acknowledgment of the school’s identity, one that does not shift blame from one party to another, but examines the culture that we live and breathe. Let’s have that conversation.