Smells like teen ambition

Posted on March 12, 2013


Smells like teen ambition

Michael Gove has once again sparked outrage among teachers over the last week, this time singling out schools in East Durham for ‘lacking ambition’. A tad confusing, as he hasn’t even been there.

Claiming that five north-east schools were underperforming dramatically, Gove recently told those at the London launch of a book on GCSE underachievement that he could ‘smell the sense of defeatism’. Apparently East Durham provides the perfect scapegoat for the types of schools he feels are mired in the ‘problem of ambition in certain traditional communities’. Yet local Labour MPs and educationalists insisted they could not remember Mr Gove visiting a single school in East Durham, in almost three years in the job.

Unsurprisingly local teachers and students alike were incensed – one sixteen-year-old so enraged that he has written a letter to Gove, branding his comments as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘out of touch with today’s youth’. Sound familiar?

Rather than tumbling into a pit of depression over our incumbent education secretary’s persistent use of outdated ideas and systems to flog the nation’s youth for poor performance, I got to thinking about ambition, and what it even really means to us anyway…and I learned something. It doesn’t really mean anything.

An ambitious person, as described by the Oxford dictionary, is someone that ‘has or shows a strong desire or determination to succeed.’ But what, I hear you cry, is success? As a 27-year-old lolcat enthusiast who’s been known to eat blue cheese off the floor and hula-hoop to Celine Dion, I’m not about to solve the existential problem of lifelong achievement for you. I will, however, say that success means a myriad of different things to different people, and certainly doesn’t always boil down to GCSE grades.

Modern society has an aggressively entrenched habit of defining success and ambition in purely professional and academic terms. Is it really that simple? Does a hard-working parent who abandons a high-flying executive career to spend more time at home lack ambition? Does someone who forgoes higher education to pursue work that already them happy misunderstand success? Of course they don’t. Their aspirations simply don’t mirror what we’re taught about ‘achieving’ throughout the education system.


Under pressure

I was spoon-fed academic ambition from the age of seven when I took my first SAT test.  Then it was a conveyor belt of essays, exams, assessments and constantly reaching for achievement to secure that dream job and some illusive conception of ‘success’. Success that of course would mean a deliciously happy and contented life.  However after being dumped out the end of the education system into the real world, it didn’t take me long to realise that there wasn’t a job on the planet that could guarantee my wellbeing. Spending time with those I love, my self esteem and stepping back from unnecessary stress have been the real key to happiness for me, and these are all things I’m still learning, nearly a decade on from leaving school.

That’s not to say academia and career planning aren’t important, but when fewer students can afford University fees and graduates are facing abject failure and disillusionment in the form of rocketing youth unemployment, a little less tunnel vision might be helpful. The Bard himself traditionally portrayed ambition as a vice, and who wants to end up like Macbeth? Fine, studying too hard for A-Levels probably won’t result in anyone getting stabbed by a dude called Macduff, but still. Let’s be careful.

When success in terms of a degree and a job falls through, a reality for so many at the moment, young people need to learn how to remember their self worth outside of their ‘achievements’. After all, being crushed by the weight of your own ambition is no way to spend your 20’s – and educators would do well to better prepare their students for these difficult times.


Teacher pointing –
Under pressure –