Will + Skill ≠ Success: Intersectionality, Student Depression, and Reality

In their introduction to college textbooks, Sherrie Nist-Olejnik and Jodi Patrick Holschuh explain to students that college success can be achieved with the appropriate skill and will. In other words, they argue that if you know how to read, study, and write at the college-level, for example, and if you are appropriately motivated and set goals, college success–in the form of good grades and a degree–is yours.

Unfortunately, this is a model that I believed in at one point, or at least accepted without fully considering its ramifications. Earlier this week as I was walking to one of my classrooms to teach, I saw a poster that had another version of “Will + Skill = Success.” Same idea but in different words – forget exactly the iteration it used. Anyway, in that moment it hit me that such a notion is embodied with racism and classism and does not recognize intersectionality, systemic oppression, or the increasingly reality of students and mental health crises.

This semester I am teaching four classes – and there is at least one student in each of these classes currently facing a mental health crisis. They are facing health challenges that are only beginning to receive any kind of institutional recognition. For these students, any version of “Will + Skill = Success” is irrelevant at best, offensive and potentially a factor that worsens their health at worst.

On a similar note, given systemic oppression–including in too many institutions of higher education and elsewhere–no amount of will and skill will result in “success.” Society simply does not always allow some people–minorities–to be “successful.” Furthermore, given systemic problems in the United States’s public schools and everywhere else in society, some students are not able to suddenly (or ever) attain “skill” and “will.” Intersectionality matters. “Will + Skill = Success” assumes that everyone has had and has privilege and just needs to “get with it” to be successful – it assumes that students are all alike. 

Finally, such a simplistic formula does not recognize that college is not necessarily and automatically for everybody. College is not automatically required to be educated, smart, and successful. And grounded in the “Will + Skill = Success” conceptualization is the supposed inevitably of capitalism.

People are still valuable and successful even without “will” or “skill.”    

A more appropraite formual–based on current mores and social constructions–might be: Lots of Privilege + Luck + Money = Will = Skill = A Chance For Something Different .

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda