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Gold Stars

Gold Stars
Published on Apr 18, 2023.

Our education system does much more than teach us how to read and calculate. Its ostensible purpose is to teach us skills that are the product of centuries of human effort. To put in our minds the fruits of their labor. To give us a head start, by making sure we don’t reinvent the wheel.

But that is not all it does. Whether by design or not, education also teaches us how our society works, what it values, and how we need to behave in order to be part of it. It teaches us the structures and hierarchies that define our life, that we ingest unquestioningly, and then later look on as obvious facts.

Start with hierarchy. The first social group a child is exposed to is his family. He knows that his parents are superior to him – he spends on them for sustenance and acceptance. But he doesn’t have too many peers to compare himself with in the family. They’re maybe siblings or cousins, and that causes enough tension. And then they go to school.

That’s when their peer group blows up. There is still only one or a couple parental figures – a teacher gets added in the mix – but now there are dozens of other kids just like them. And they are not all treated equally.

Grades are the first hierarchy we’re exposed to. They don’t always start in an explicit form of letters or numbers, but there’s some kind of symbol like a special sticker or a gold star.

I still remember the first one that I got. I was in 1st grade, and there was a board in the back corner of the room. Each row was labelled with one of our names. The columns spread out in a grid formation. The grid was bordered by a big, fat red border.

I don’t remember how we earned the stars – I think it involved being the first one to get the right answer to a question the teacher asked, or the first one to complete a task she assigned – but I definitely remember how they grew along each of the rows. Each time I got one, it was placed in my row, at the end of the other gold stars I had gotten before. It was like a horizontal bar chart, where the bars kept growing.

Over time, some of the rows grew much longer, with more and more gold stars stacked along that row than the others. Midway through the year, the race wasn’t even close. There was me and one other kid with something like 20 stars, while every else had 5 or maybe 6.

I used to sneak to the back of the class sometimes at the end of the day, when we’d all get our jackets and lunchboxes, just to look at the board. I’d count up how many gold stars I had – I remember one moment specifically when I had 21, and the next closest kid had 19. That day, our teacher brought the class together in the back of the room and held up the board. “Should we see who’s in the lead?” As all of us sat on the floor, she said my name with a beaming smile. I just stared straight at the board, knowing the other kids were looking at me. And I loved that feeling.

There wasn’t anything that came of those gold stars. We didn’t have grades back then – at least nothing more than “satisfactory” and “not satisfactory”. But the gold stars left an impression on me. I loved getting them. I loved having the most. It made me feel special.

It was my first taste of that feeling, and I was hooked. I can’t tell you where it came from. I had more than enough love at home, so it wasn’t like I was starving for praise or attention. But I loved feeling special. It made me feel like I was a hero, like one of the superheroes in the cartoons.

What I got the gold stars for was doing things well, where “well” meant following the rules and completing tasks faster than everyone else. I don’t remember ever feeling like I had done something really impressive, like I was impressed by myself over it. The goal was always to impress the teacher, to get the gold star, to do whatever it took. The joy came from seeing the stars line up on the board.

Today, I look back on that as an adult and it strikes me very differently. This was an incentive system to shape young children into doing what they were told. It was the early tendrils of a feedback loop that would define my life for the next couple decades. A system that in many ways still defines how I look at success in the things that I want to do – that it’s about following a set of known steps, of having the discipline to drudge through them to get to the the end, to the gold star waiting for me at the end.

Is it any surprise that this mode of operating has gotten me to a cushy corporate job – the very thing I wanted to avoid? There’s no creativity in this approach, no unique individual flavor, no real spirit emanating from within. If I mimic the same steps as everyone else, of course I’m going to end up in the same place as them. If I want to end up somewhere different, somewhere uniquely mine, I have to do things differently.

I wonder sometimes what would be different if I didn’t get channeled onto the golden road of education. How much of me would be the same? How much would be different? I probably wouldn’t have the same penchant for creating to-do lists and plans. More of my energy would go into figuring out how to enhance the feeling of creative energy and output, rather than building a curriculum for myself, with the constant nagging feeling that I’m not doing enough. Never doing enough.

But having gone through it, what I want to tell everyone, what I want to shout, is that we are all stooges. You and I, the lot of us – down to the last boy and girl – stooges of a system that implanted us with a psychology we never chose.

Much in the same way we look at ancient peoples and are baffled by how they could stomach barbaric practices like human sacrifice, future generations will look on us and wonder how we could have been so stupid and naive that we bought what they told us. Hook, line, and sinker.