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 

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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15 replies

  1. Even Einstein recognized the role of luck in his case, that without it, all the work in the world would not have achieved for him the success he had. However, good luck coming your way won’t help you if you haven’t put the time in to being prepared for good luck. Everyone probably knows of at least one instance where they did not keep up with certain skills and missed an opportunity when it knocked. If you grab an opportunity but were not prepared for it, at some point people will discover you are not prepared and you stand to lose everything that good luck brought you. (A recent president comes to mind here). Unfortunately, the privileged keep right on thinking that their hard work paid off for them. Most will not concede the role of luck. If they do, they consider it constituted about 1% of what it takes to succeed. No one seems to be able to get them to understand reality.

    On another note, I’d like to point out that not all brains are alike. We all keep assuming that what we lived with early in life is what all others did. For years I could watch the relationships that worked out on the TV dramas and laugh to myself, as if people really thought that way. Later in life, I realized that most people around me thought those dramas actually represent reality. I am still baffled at their naiveté. A woman who discovers that her embryo was stolen by another and now feels entitled to a good relationship with the 7 year old she meets? I am sorry, that bond that never developed between 0 and 3 years of age can’t suddenly appear and won’t ever be what it would have been if she had been raising that daughter herself from birth.The most she could hope for is the rank of “friend”, but not “mother.” The father who discovers the child he didn’t know about doesn’t suddenly develop the drive to protect that child. The father who said to his wife, I want nothing to do with a baby until he/she can talk, will never know the feelings he should have toward his child, simply because he did not bond during those first 3 years of life.

    The very nature of a person who ends up showing enormous heroism may actually reflect the devotedness of his/her parents to them when they were born, giving them the gift of being able to trust another person, and the security to trust themselves. A hero’s mother knows within 3 weeks what rhythms her baby follows, and can anticipate when they will wake up or cry for food, and she will be there to respond quickly. However, there is a huge range of attention quality between such parents and the parent who could never accept a baby born at the wrong time and the wrong place.

    The first 3 years of life are critical because the brain is undergoing its most development during that period of time. You cannot make up later for what did not get done during this time because it determines the trajectory of life for that child. The fact that this country refuses to have a real parental leave policy and that employers do not value the rights and duties of parents has helped to create this huge gap between the optimum and the worthless parent, and all the versions in between. That has a real effect on who will be successful in college and who will not, simply because those first 3 years establish a baseline against which we all compare every interaction we have with anyone else during our lives. We can easily see how minimum interactions help to make it highly unlikely that the person will learn the networking skills needed for success. How to figure out what to do in an interaction if you have never experienced a good one, except by luck? If you have the money, you can make the time to parent, but if you don’t, you write your child’s future sucess in life in a single sentence. Once the birth has occurred, you have run out of time for procrastination.

    Years ago, most men did not get married unless they were making a decent living and could support a wife and family. We have no such “social rules” today, and people tend to start a family long before they have any assurance that they will be able to raise that child to adulthood. The consequences of this shift are seen today with 60% of children growing up in single parent households, with female heads of household. Homo sapiens succeeded and H. neanderthalensis did not because the former had developed a method of raising kids with two parents involved. Why has our society chosen to go backward in time?

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    • Dr. Hyde! Hope you’ve been having a good week. 🙂

      Thank you for these extended thoughts. I do wish more people (and the institutions of society!) realized the importance of the early, early years. It would never be popular and will probably never happen, but some kind of “required” parenting class sure could be helpful. But, it would only work if jobs cooperated, too.

      I’m frequently so very irritated when people say things like “you’re an adult, act right, only you are responsible for you.” There’s a popular meme that has a version of this. It’s so inaccurate. Parents are responsible, to degrees, for the actions of the children – even when those children are adults. The problem, then, becomes how do we (or do we, can we??) allow for that when it comes to colleges, laws, and so on.

      People are just too complicated! 🙂 And yet, people like very simplistic, wrong explanations.

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  2. Thank you for asking, Dr. Pegoda. Yes, a very frustrating week, but finally got past it.Whew! I have to greatly control stress while getting rid of these toxins or they run amuck.

    I guess we have to get used to asking what were the early years like for the person we think of. But that won’t happen unless we are constantly reminded to do that analysis. That is one of my pet peeves with all those true murder exposés done on TV (20/20, 48 Hours, etc). They miss an incredible chance to do just that. No one ever talks about the perpetrator’s childhood, even when that information is readily available (e.g. the serial murderer Ted Bundy and others–they all had been badly abused). Even Texas judges are considering that information today as in a recent criminal case. That lack only keeps the public believing the myth that murderers are born and not made. How can we develop effective methods to prevent crime if we don’t have a clue as to what causes a person to “turn bad?” It just leads to the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality. Europe, with its rehab approach, has had far better success with crime prevention.

    Your desire for “parenting classes” has been voiced by others, but usually they are much older than you are. My mother wished people had to pass a test before being allowed to have a child. A bit drastic, but I wondered more recently if that thought was more of a wish for her case, than aimed at other parents (the latter is what I had always thought before). Part of the problem with having such a requirement would be the political divide over the purpose and content of the classes.

    Texas already has too much government involved with teaching now and look at the political display that takes place every time the SBOE meets. You can argue that Texas probably decidedsome years ago that all of its members should be elected to avoid the partisan politics of being appointed by a governor. But when a state makes a mockery of its elections already, one has to wonder how we could ever make education non-partisan, apolitical again. Maybe we need to restrict candidates for the SBOE to those who will not divulge their party preferences, will not use political terms like “conservative” or “liberal” in their campaigns, never have been active at all in politics before, and refuse endorsements from anyone in politics now (maybe that should also apply to judges, too, since the justice system is supposed to serve everyone, not just the wealthy and certain political parties, as it does today). In a state whose residents seem to think that the only good reference you can have is from someone who has been seen and heard a lot before (and that means political associations), what a turnaround! It puts the onus onto the news media to truly look into the background of these candidates and those who endorse them. It might mean Dr. Pegoda is interviewed or some other educator instead of some local legislator who doesn’t have a clue about what the SBOE stands for. Maybe it will stop those who want to use the position to launch a political career instead of wanting to make education better in Texas.

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  3. Teaching must be recognized as dealing with individuals with individual problems and challenges. Any formula that can be “applied to any (or even “most”) students is bound to be doomed to failure. i wish teachers had more freedom to deal with each individual situation/student without being labeled as “unfair.” I was told, “What you do for one, you must be willing to do for all.” The key word here is WILLING. Sometimes, students are harder on their struggling classmates than teachers and/or administrators in the name of “fairness.” At least this has been my experience. I recently had groups that have met together all semester to rate/grade each other on participation and contributions to the group. I actually had to demand that no one could receive lower than a B (based on my observation of the groups in action) and even then, one student even asked, “Can we give a B-” I find this mean-spirited, especially when students do not inquire why a student was absent or quiet on the day the group met. Thanks for letting me vent.

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  4. Ah, Dr. Longest, I suspect you are seeing the 20 something mind at work. I was once 20. I recognize it. Some of us never realize there is supposed to be a difference between the 20 yr old brain and the fully mature one. For quite some time, as part of treatment I have had the merciless task of remembering that time as I recall all the things that triggered panic attacks. (That task elicits many of “I said that?!!!!”). You are older and get the nuance. They are just being introduced to that nuance and it takes years of cultivation to be able to reach a good level of understanding. They are still stuck at the “fairness” is more important than individual need or desire stage, leftover from typical childhood rules. Older students tend to keep quiet because they recognize their age difference are still trying to understand if it is that or a real cultural difference between the generations that is at play, or they fear that they might become victims of unfairness because of assumptions that they need to fit in with the rest of the younger students.

    We could, as one possible solution, address this problem right at the beginning of the term with a discussion of what “fairness” means, that it includes leveling the playing field for all and that you have many more years behind you of observation than most of your students do, so that you can tell better what individuals need to improve their learning. This makes a strong point for your students to come talk to you in your office so that you can better understand them as individuals. Oh, boy, that opens a can of worms, doesn’t it? It smacks of authoritarianism. And well, a huge possibility of “unfairness” to the student who can’t come talk with you. Worse, you probably do not have that kind of time to devote to this task, too. It is probably not considered a priority to your supervisors or to the school.

    Then there is another possible way, getting the students to determine what is fair to any particular student. However, that involves every student being as open as possible with each other. Again, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Many students are going to have trust issues because they were not born into a family which nurtured trust. They start out with far fewer cards on the table, and all are of extremely low value.

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  5. You make some very good points, and I will save your comment and re-read it in moments of contemplating, “Was I fair?” “Why doesn’t she ‘get it’?” and like times. Thank you for reminding me that students’ minds are different from our own, and to expect them to think like we do is not only futile, but “unfair.” I forget often that students are not privileged like I have been to have been born into a “good” family situation with a great deal of love and encouragement. Sometimes when circumstances cause me to learn a student’s situation (If only they trusted me enough to tell me what’s going on!) my empathy level and understanding level rachet up exponentially.

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    • Thank you Rae, as always, you also give me ideas to think about. Ah, if only our educational institutions valued and allowed enough time for a teacher to reflect as you want to do. Most people think of teachers as glorified baby sitters in the k-12 grades, and just those who give grades to certify someone as worthy of the college degree in higher ed. Legislators think of it as a 9-5 job, where all teachers should be in the classroom from 9am to 5 pm, completely ignorant of the enormous time it takes just to get to the point that you can walk into the classroom and start “teaching”. Teaching is both a science and an art, but it is a discipline that needs a lot of outside-the-classroom work as well. How many people making widgets do homework away from the job that is clearly related to the job they get paid to do?

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  6. Obviously, those of us who teach don’t do it to be paid. I tell my students each first day, “I realize you have a life outside these four walls, but I don’t! For the length of this semester, you ARE my life.” And, I set my priorities for the semester accordingly.

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    • Really good idea, Rae. The other thing I mention to just a few students, because they will spread the word, is that teaching at a university is an 80 hour work week. This is because we have to do things other than teaching, like run the university and do research. If they think that teaching in k-12 is only a 7 hour day, they are in for a rude/happy awakening depending upon whether or not they end up teaching there or sending their kids there. In fact they also need to realize how much time each week they have to teach, too when they have children of their own. Most do not budget or even think of that duty at all.

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  7. I was just going to raise a few points here but got really deep into explaining something. Please forgive my long comment.

    I was reminded of our discussion about the very early years of life when I ran across an article by Niki Gratrix, who suggests that 50% of all adults have suffered from early childhood trauma. http://www.nikigratrix.com/silent-aces-epidemic-attachment-developmental-trauma/comment-page-1/#comment-35050 . She goes into depth about the repercussions on the individual and on society in general. Niki’s is a very sobering article to read, just thinking about how it applies to your students, let alone to your own life or the risks you take with your children. It almost makes you parent by guilt when you know you should not do that.

    She mentions Bessel van der Kolk’s research on early childhood trauma. But she doesn’t mention one of his most profound conclusions–that early childhood trauma changes the entire trajectory of one’s life. Forget all the statistics showing how one’s success in life depends upon being in the right schools, living in the right neighborhoods, having high parental income, high socioeconomic rank, etc. If you are ignored by parents, or verbally, physically, or sexually abused, witnessed family members so abused, or witnessed violence in your neighborhood during the beginning years of life, all the predictions based on these statistics get thrown out, and life goes 180° in the opposite direction.

    That is one reason why I suggest that early childhood trauma will cause PTSD almost automatically despite what the psychologist’s bible, the DSM-5, says. We cannot recognize terror in a baby now. So how can we assume that victims of this trauma automatically cannot be categorized as having PTSD, as the DSM-5 says? The signs of PTSD may change as we grow up but not the triggers. As they say, everything you have ever experienced in life is stored in the brain. You can never truly “forget,” but you can block the conscious memories enough to get by in life But you would still have strong, unexplainable symptoms because you cannot recall why you should have them. In fact, if you grow up with them, it never occurs to you that you should not be feeling this way. So reporting of these symptoms would suffer enormously. And it does.

    PTSD is not the only result of this trauma. When parents do not pay close attention to the baby, and respond with certain actions, involving facial, sound, body posture, or other conscious and unconscious acts, certain centers in the brain never develop in the baby. Certain circuits never develop. These are the foundations for the networking skills learned later that are so necessary to be considered a real human being. There is no baseline for self-soothing, for building self-esteem, even building an identity. So when someone does something that causes those victims to feel the rug pulled out from under them, they have no floor to stand on, and are grabbing desperately at the air to avoid the black hole beneath them. The person who had that parent establish the baseline, will feel the floor under them in the same circumstance. They cannot understand why the former person is having such a difficult time recovering and developing resilience. The victim must learn a new tactic for survival after every event. The more secure person can rely upon what they learned before, because those circuits got laid down by the parents’ actions. The secure adult has a shortcut.

    Many a teacher is the only person there to help the child recover and get set on the right pathway to succeed at small tasks. I call this “step one.” It is not what secure people understand as “step one” for any endeavor. Tthey just assume that everyone already has this stage behind them. “Step one” involves being able to gather up one’s self-esteem and be reminded of one’s own identity, and of those one can trust. Here’s a suggestion: Just become conscious of what you think about before you start doing something that takes a tiny bit of risk, like asking a friend for advice. As you increase your own mindfulness skills, you become aware of things that pop into mind, even fleetingly, like images of people who are your strongest backers, or of words they would say, of what your passion is that drives you to ask for advice, of past interactions with that friend where they gave you good advice that you could trust.

    The victim of early childhood trauma would have difficulty even with finding those fleeting images. Instead they would remember the derision they would have gotten from their parents or siblings, even if they are not the people they are turning to for advice. They would remember the pain and force those images, words, laughter out of mind. Of course that would lead to avoiding asking for advice, and telling onself that the friend would never respond to such a request. The friend would probably wonder why they were asked at all. The victim would ask why the “friend” as depicted on TV doesn’t exist.

    With every rejection that occurs in life, that event is associated in the brain with each past rejection, which is also so associated. So the pain of each rejection gets multiplied by the memory of each previous rejection, making it absolutely critical to avoid anything that could lead to rejection again. Emotional pain is not just a sensation, but a thing with potentially unending consequences. I suspect that all negative emotion circuits are capable of variable voltage, ramping up the voltage with the strength of the emotion. Because strong negative emotions carry such large voltages, they endanger all neuronal pathways nearby. Extreme fear, terror, anger, rage, depression fries other neurons. Recovery from a bad event involves having to repair damaged cells in the brain. Repeated damage also damages the repair circuitry so that repair takes longer after subsequent events. Eventually repair becomes impossible. I strongly suspect that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia result from “overuse” of negative emotion circuits which never got repaired. But no researcher is even considering this possibility, despite the predictions of a huge boom in patients with these disorders.

    With so few trustworthy people in the life of the victim, especially of those on whom they should be able to count, this puts a HUGE burden on teachers to recognize this desperate need. But most people avoid such victims, fearing those needs. This behavior only increases the feelings of rejection by the victim with its consequent memories of memories.

    Until our society recognizes the frequency and significance of early childhood trauma, we create serious dilemmas for those who must be involved with the treatment, growth and development of victims. Furthermore, as more people are forced to work more jobs, or longer hours, or to constantly look for work we can expect to see an increase in the occurrence of early childhood trauma. This also has suggests a higher likellihood of generational continuance of damaging behavior. This observation should figure strongly in predicting how the state of the economy today affects future generations. Now add to reduced parenting the addiction to “social media” and you have a ticket to the next huge disaster movie.

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  8. I read your comment carefully and was fascinated. PTSD is the exact response I’ve seen in students who have undergone sexual abuse or other childhood trauma. When I first approach these individuals with constructive criticism, their first response is defensiveness, just dealing with their writing assignments alone. Rick Warren of A Purpose Driven Life has said what I have taken as my motto for teaching:”People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Whether I was teaching 6th graders or juniors and seniors at the university, when students know you like them and like their work, they will “bust their behinds” to please you and do well.

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    • oh, Rae, that is so true. I saw it in my students, although no one even knew of my own traumas. Yeah, about criticism. I had to search for extremely gentle ways of offering suggestions. If it came across that I was thrilled with their effort first, and then followed with something that was blatantly a “suggestion” and definitely NOT a criticism, with the note from me that they can take my advice or leave it, or do something completely different, that was ok with me.

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  9. However, I don’t believe you “have to say something good” if there is no good in the piece or even more when there is obviously a lack of effort.

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    • You are very right. I usually suggest they come see me if possible, or email me. I still try to say/write something like, “This isn’t up to the effort I expected to see from you, because I know you can handle at least some of this material, but let me know if you are having any problem with this assignment/test and we can figure out ways to go over the obstacles together. I know of many mental tricks to use to get me through tough times so that I can perform up to the level I want to. Even if you just cannot get the enthusiasm up for this material we can address this problem, too. I need to know if there is some way that I could make this process a lot easier for you. I am here to help you perform to your best level. If you are so overwhelmed right now with other things, just let me know in a note, so that I can be ready for you when you are ready for me”.

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    • I’m enjoying “listening in” on y’all’s conversation! 🙂 Don’t stop! 🙂

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