A Culture of Competitive Apathy

Opinions  /  by Isabel Karohl '18  /  February 17, 2017

Fiona Gould '18/The Lawrence

“I only started writing this paper last night,” he admits, stapling his crisp, five-page report and dropping it in the basket. “Well,” she laughs, “I started this paper at five this morning.” Another chimes in from across the table, “I had to write all three of my body paragraphs during my free last period.” “I didn’t even write the paper, but whatever, I’ll take the late,” a girl adds. In the classroom next door, students shrug their shoulders and confess they took an hour, 30 minutes, five minutes, or no time studying for the test. In reality, some students had worked for much longer while others merely shouted a time that seemed appropriate. But it doesn’t matter who is lying or who is telling the truth because all the students are contributing and investing in the same game: the culture of competitive apathy.

I might be imposing an oxymoronic lens on our Lawrenceville culture, but the trend baffles me nonetheless: Why would we put effort into appearing that we don’t try? First, by admitting that they place little to no effort into their homework, students hint at the more important or time-consuming activities that dominate their lives. A quick “Did you do the homework? Good, me neither” might translate to I’m too busy for even this reading, and you most likely are too. These kinds of statements reveal a Lawrentian’s search for common ground by connecting peers over the fact that, no matter who you are or what you do, we are all “busy.” I’m not saying all of our schedules are completely and constantly filled, but the fact that we go to a academically rigorous prep school validates the excuse that we are busy. It’s like saying if you’ve never pulled an all-nighter, you haven’t fully experienced Lawrenceville.

Also, in admitting to not completing or understanding the homework, your subtext might read: I’m as lost in this class as you are. Lawrenceville’s academic rigor gives us permission to be lost—to not understand the material or not keep up with the syllabus. Personally, I find it freeing because I don’t have to pretend I understand what’s happening in class if I truly am confused. Maybe the tendency to say we’re confused when we’re not is an effort to connect with our fellow Lawrentians.

And not only does expressing minimal effort connect us as Lawrentians, but it connects us as teenagers as well. BS tactics—skimming readings, rushing papers, incomplete worksheets—occur by virtue of the fact that we are young and in high school. “Did you do the homework? Good, me neither” then becomes I don’t take myself too seriously; I have fun too. As a culture where one of the highest praises is “he/she is chill,” taking one’s academics seriously comes off as too anxious, pretentious, or serious. If a student never lives on the edge and skips a reading, it implies that he or she isn’t spontaneous. If he or she never indulges in a Netflix-binge once in awhile or sleeps through study hall, activities we consider characteristic of our age and development, they are uptight and separate from youth culture. So demonstrating minimal effort every so often is an attempt to fit the archetype of a typical teenager and stray away from the pretentious stereotype attached to our School’s name.

While this competitive apathy functions as a collective pity party, it also functions as a defense mechanism on the personal level. We can all imagine “that person.” That person who swears they didn’t study but ends up earning an A, ruining the curve. That person who “barely put any time in,” but slaved over the paper for hours, making everyone else look bad. That person who juggles a million balls in the air, goes overboard to please teachers, and cares about the unimportant details for show. We all hate that person, yet at some time or another, we’ve all been that person. Students at this school fear being labeled as a “try hard,” someone too passionate or who cares too much about what others think. In this scenario, “Did you do the homework? Good, me neither” equates to you’re not that person, and neither am I or I won’t ruin the curve for our class and you won’t either. It’s an exchange, an agreement between students with a communistic approach: The proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Personally, as I search for the appropriate amount of weight to give to the assignment, test, or essay, I find guidance in how much my peers are investing in it too, both mentally and time wise. If the assignment is too insignificant to warrant my aspirations of doing well or might risk showing others up, then why waste the time?

Lastly, “Did you do the homework? Good, me neither” is the insecure voice in our minds: I can’t look like a fool when I fail. We set low expectations so that if we fail or struggle, at least it is what is expected of us by our classmates. The preventative measure communicates that the reason you failed was not due to your intelligence, but because of your unpreparedness. Moreover, when we set the bar low, we convince ourselves that we are continually improving and exceeding expectations. The ultimate frustration is placing your heart into your work—struggling with a problem for hours, researching until your eyes bleed, believing you have discovered a new truth about the world or yourself—only to have it shot down or torn apart or crumble away. Indifference is the ultimate protection because, without it, we are left to address the problems so important to us that it scares us to try.