Status Anxiety and Norm Defiance

February 23, 2024 22:45

I am privileged to be in a position where I can learn from, and be inspired by, incredibly talented, creative, and thoughtful students on a daily basis. Teachers often learn more than students than they can teach in the classroom context. And of course, much of the learning takes place before, after, and beyond the narrow confines of the classroom. The off-syllabus conversations, the in-depth probes that take discussions beyond the delineated boundaries of imagination – these are the pathways to true engagement with knowledge and intellectual ideals.

Yet in conversing with young, budding talents, I have come to see – first hand – the virtues and limits in how we are raising our next generations. And I would submit that the problem lies primarily not with the university education – but with the preceding stages of education, at primary and secondary levels.

Norm conformity has become par for the course for children and adolescents in this city. Norms concerning how to socialise and interact with others in academic settings. Norms concerning performative (albeit by no means genuine, or substantive) respect for one’s teacher – which, in many instances, manifests through excessively courteous mannerisms. Norms determining how much effort and time individuals should spend on particular subject choices – the more complex and beyond one’s comfort zone, the more the (DSE or A-level, or IB or AP) subjects are to be avoided, so as for the individual to optimise the chances of getting the prerequisite grades to jump through the hoops, to chase the ever-elusive targets of prestige.

The path of least resistance is equated with the path of maximal utility, whereas educational options with unconventional contents or carefully designated assessments are frowned upon as diversionary and a distraction. Norms inform us that excellent students must get excellent grades, but barely has anything to say on what excellent grades mean or why they should matter. Norms also dictate that assessments must concurrently stretch the boundaries of what students can know without making them uncomfortable – ideologically or otherwise; though much of the genesis of the discomfort appears to rest with unrealistic expectations, ultra-competitive classroom dynamics, and an overarching, excessively zealous reliance upon copious formative assessments. Students are assessed, but are not examined. Students are encouraged to learn, but learn to accept and concede discouragement.

Now, many would reasonably think that it is far too early for secondary school students to begin thinking about their careers. After all, that’s the point of college! Yet we live in a society, in an era, where the proverbial ‘rat race’ begins at a precocious age. Freshly graduated high schools students (yet-to-be-freshers) have told me that they see themselves as fitting neatly within the stereotype of becoming a doctor, or a barrister; a top investment banker, or an engineer. These careers are admirably impactful and transformative – that’s indubitably true.

Yet what of the writer who spends a decade tracking and exploring the nuances and subtleties of life in suburban and rural Western China, or a photographer who traverses the savannah in search of exotic wildlife, or the banker who opts for a career in impact investment and social enterprise, for they realise that they want to do more with their own lives? We are primed to see these cases as exceptions, as rarities built upon stacks of privilege and endowments. After all, who could afford writing about Camus or Althusser, Butler or Badiou for a living – apart from career academics, whose wage growth in most parts of the world (but for Hong Kong and Singapore), has been immensely inhibited by trends of casualisation, anti-unionisation, and increasing commercialisation of higher education?

Students are encouraged to see the act of career choosing as an act of maturing – when we are young and cherubic, we start off as idealists, prioritising compatibility and fit with our interest in our occupational choices. Then we grow up, and we (somehow) come to the magical epiphany that the way out and forward rests with finding an economically stable job. And indeed, it’d be a plus if the job were revered and designated as socially superior in the status hierarchy. This is what Alain de Botton (2004) terms status anxiety – “a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect”. This is the condition that is at once modern – in its instantiation across the advanced and developed world, and post-modern – in its defiance of simple, rationalist reasoning and calculus.

In truth, the above narrative sets up a false dichotomy. Defying norms concerning education, interaction, and employment or occupational choice, need not require that one embarks upon an ascetic lifestyle that jettisons all pleasure, all wealth, all economic mobility. Defying the norm, bucking the trend, merely requires that one interrogates the motives and desires that drive them – are we wanting this because we want it? Or are we wanting it because we want others to think we want or have it? Where did our wants come from? Answering these questions would then inform us on the wants we should keep, and the wants we should weed out.

Indeed, answering these questions honestly could in fact be liberating. By realising that there is much that we can and should opt out of, we are thereby taking the first step towards leading lives dictated not by how others perceive us, or how we imagine others to be perceiving us, but how we would want our ideal selves to look – somewhat encumbered, most certainly detached, from the madding crowds. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

Assistant Professor, HKU