Absolute or Relative Excellence: Are American Schools Teaching Students to Underachieve?

I graduated from high school in Russia with all As. At graduation, those of us who had achieved all As were called on the stage to receive a special award. It’s not based on class rank, percentile, or GPA range. Only absolute excellence. That’s how Russian schools define success. You either meet all the standards or you don’t. Absolute excellence.

Since I’ve been at Mount Holyoke, I realized that this is only one way to think about academic excellence. Here students are judged quite differently with, I think, mixed results.

Russians believe there are good students, who always work hard and succeed at everything, and bad students, who don’t do well at anything.  This is how students were defined in my high school and when I got to university it was quite the same.  There were students who were good at every subject – we were motivated and tried our hardest in every class. We only got As. And of course, there were those who got Cs or Bs, if they were lucky.

There is even a word in Russian used to refer to this kind of people who work hard enough to excel in every subject – otlichniki. This word has a positive connotation and literally means “people who are different from others in some good way” or “students who only get As.” Interestingly, there is also a word applied to students who don’t excel in anything – troechniki – “students who only get Cs.”

During finals, every university student in Russia carries a copy of their transcript, and the professor puts their final grade right on that transcript copy. This means that every professor can see all of a student’s grades when giving their final grade. Some students believe that once you get all As your first couple of semesters, it’s easier to get As in subsequent semesters because your professors will know you are a strong student and will be more inclined to give you yet another A. The opposite is true for troechniki.

From these experiences I came to believe that you can’t be good at one subject and not good at another. You are either motivated to succeed or not. Good at everything or not at anything. You are either otlichnik or troechnik.

Yet at Mount Holyoke, a few weeks ago, one of my professors told me, “You can’t be good at everything. You’ll go crazy.”

Why shouldn’t I be able to juggle all this?

“But I have been good at everything,” was what I thought in reply.

My geography professor was surprised when I told him that I was also taking three math classes that semester because I speak more than any other student in his class, which made him assume his subject was my specialty.  When I go to Mount Holyoke’s writing center to check my paper for a politics, they are confused when I tell them I am actually majoring in economics and math.

At my university in Russia it was mandatory to take a wide range of subjects, from art history to finance, law to math, philosophy to marketing, and if I wanted my reputation as a good student, I was expected to get As in all of them.

There are, of course, students at Mount Holyoke who work hard in every class and get all As, but getting all As is not the only way to be considered a good student. At Mount Holyoke, if I get all As and one C, I can still graduate with honors based on my total GPA. Here, I feel more that I am expected to excel in only two or three particular areas and just try to do my best in all other areas.

This scenario wouldn’t work in Russia where excellence cannot be lopsided – recognition is only for students who excel in every subject.

But from this belief that absolute excellence is the only acceptable outcome, it also follows that if I don’t excel in a class, it must be because I’m not working hard enough. It makes me feel guilty and angry with myself. And when I realize that I had put all the effort I could put in a class but didn’t succeed, I get frustrated.

Better than this. Not by much.

This semester I am taking tennis. I had never played tennis before. Naturally, I was the worst player in my class at the beginning of the semester. Halfway through the semester, I realized that I was still the worst player. I was upset with myself because I blamed myself only for failing to learn playing tennis.

My tennis instructor told me, “Relax. Don’t worry about it. Tennis is just a game.”

In my yoga class last semester, when I struggled to do some exercises, the professor reminded me, as she kept reminding the class throughout the semester, that I was taking the class for myself and my own pleasure. I was expected to do what I could.

In fact, in many of my Mount Holyoke classes, including the academic ones, the professors don’t expect anyone at all to reach the maximum standard. Grades are awarded on a curve, meaning that if no one in the class scored an A, the highest grade is adjusted up to an A and all other grades are moved up accordingly.

In my classes in Russia this wouldn’t happen. There were always standards that everyone had to meet. In my PE class, everyone was expected to run a marathon of a certain distance and cross the finish line at the same time. The standard of excellence was absolute. No matter what your major is. No matter what your background is. No excuses.

It’s not that American professors necessarily expect less of their students, but that the definition of success is different. In the U.S. students are expected to be motivated to work hard and do their best. If they do that but still can’t score an A, the belief is that their effort and other achievements should not be invalidated. Not everyone can be good at everything. Scoring an A was beyond their ability, not beyond their effort and motivation.

In Russia, students are assumed to be lazy and trying to get away with not doing the work. If they don’t score an A it’s no one’s fault but their own for not trying hard enough.

It means that professors here can actually set their standards higher, challenging each student to work towards their own ability in reaching towards them. If no one reaches the maximum level, they simply adjust the grades accordingly.

But it also means that students here have more excuses, and are good at deflecting the blame, when they fail. Because the standards are negotiable, if they fail they can say it’s because the professor made the class too hard or didn’t teach properly. Or they explain their failures by the factors they cannot control, like the way their brain functions. They would say that this particular subject is not their subject, meaning it is not the subject they are particularly good at.

That’s the downside of the U.S. approach. In recognizing and allowing for differences in how students think, it also puts, I think, too much trust in students and too much reliance on their self-motivation.

It makes me feel truly grateful that my Russian background has influenced me in a very profound way. It convinced me that there are no boundaries to my performance in any subject. My performance is entirely the result of my work and motivation.

When I register for a 300-level class in math or geography, I don’t expect one of them to be easier for me than the other. I believe that I can excel in any subject if I put effort in it. If I had more time at Mount Holyoke, I would take chemistry, neuroscience, and computer science, just out of intellectual curiosity. And I wouldn’t expect those subjects to be any harder for me than an Economics class. This is the belief instilled in me by my Russian education – I can excel in any subject if I want to. I don’t know if American students have had the opportunity to believe this about themselves.