The greatest threat to (true) education in America is apathy. Students don’t care about their education. I don’t just mean on-level students; high achieving students are apathetic as well, but theirs is disguised in their positive demeanor and outward attitude. There are three forms of apathy that I see in students: blatant in low achieving students, shadowed in average students, and hidden in high achieving students.

When most educators complain about apathetic students, they’re talking about the traditionally blatant, low achieving slacker we see parodied in characters such as Bart Simpson, Jeff Spicoli, Allison Reynolds, and of course, John Bender. These are the types of students who when they’re in class, if they show up at all, sit and stare at the desk, or sleep, or text, or sleep. One of my favorite interactions with them is when I’m about to make a great point in class, I ask a question and they, for the first time ever, raise their hand and when called upon, they ask to go to the bathroom.

What fuels their apathy? Well for me, when I was this kind of slacker, it was a lack of connection of what we were doing in class from anything meaningful in my life. I don’t mean that the work I did, or didn’t do, in high school wasn’t flashy enough, or that my projects weren’t rooted in real world problems, but that I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing, why what I was supposed to be learning was important. I was never shown that my schoolwork would make me a better person. I was just told to “do.”

I don’t mean to lump every blatantly apathetic slacker in the same group as me, but I believe that they just don’t see how education truly helps them.

We try to motivate these students by giving them reasons that don’t really connect. And I believe our reasons are usually quite flawed.

I envision these conversations are normally like this:

Student: “Why are we doing this?”

Teacher: “You’ll need this in college.”

Student: “Wow, thanks teacher for telling me I should spend 5 hours putting together a visual for a project I spend ten minutes actually doing research for so I can continue on a path that I will constantly be doing more work making what I do look good than learning actual content. No thanks, I’ll pass.”

Teacher: “You need to be able to work well in groups in the workforce.”

Student: “So you’re teaching me to be a mindless worker?”

Teacher: “Well you’ll need to make money to support yourself.”

Student: “So you want me to write a paper so I can put food on the table? I’m not sure those two things go together.”

We can’t use the argument that students need to do something to make them value their education. We need to make them want their education.

At times, however, I would rather have students like the ones just described over those in the latter categories because their actions are honest; they refuse to play a game that they don’t want or that doesn’t support them.

Those students in the shadow category are harder to see because they do their work. They turn in their assignments, on time for the most part, and participate in class. However, their work is usually average and lack personal voice. They most likely found a method early on in their educational experience that allowed them to coast through by doing the minimum amount of work. They know if they don’t do their work the teacher, mom, and dad will get on their case; to quote Peter Gibbons from Office Space, “that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” These students care just enough to do what they’re told, but they never seek out learning opportunities. Although it looks like they’re decent students on the outside (especially in on-level classes), they really couldn’t care less about what they’re supposed to be getting out of the work they’re doing. Without an intrinsic drive to learn, they are not going to grow from their education.

The last group, the hidden apathetic students, are the the most frustrating to me. These students are bright eyed in class every day, always ask questions (usually concerning how to do the work right), and always raise their hands to answer questions. They are normally our go-to students for answers or examples of work because they want to make sure they’ll get an “A,” but really they’re just good at playing the game. They work hard everyday, go above and beyond, but honestly don’t care about anything beyond the grade they need to get into their school of choice. They take advanced classes only because of the GPA boost, not to challenge themselves.

We need to stop the apathy cycle and not just in our blatantly apathetic students. We need to create a real drive in students to want to learn. To want to learn because it will make them a better person and for no other reason. Our excuses of needing good grades and skills for later in life fail because they’re external. Real learning grows from the inside. Let’s focus on the meaning behind what we do.



  1. Do you think this cycle of apathy can ever be broken? What are realistic potentially-successful solutions (emphasis on realistic) to break the cycle of “playing school” and caring? Also, the thought just occurred to me– do you think that the phase of “playing school” and being apathetic about education could just be a phase in the American student’s educational career? For instance, in HS, I felt like I was really interested in certain areas, and lesser so in others, but because I was required to take a slew of classes to graduate, I’d “save my brain power” in the classes I deemed less important, and jumped through loopholes when necessary. It’s unrealistic for students to be totally invested in every subject available. But because I wanted to be able to pursue my passion in college, I had to “do what the education system wanted” to get there. Once I got to college, I could branch out, and I began to take classes for the sake of learning, rather than GPA (although GPA is still EXTREMELY imp for med school). Not saying that that drive wasn’t there in high school, but I feel like once I was given freedom, I started becoming more passionate about my education. I’d say I don’t play school anymore, even though the need to do well in school is greater now more than before. Are we “playing school” because the school isn’t giving us the space to explore? I realize I’m only focusing on the apathy of high-achieving students, but I’d like to hear your opinion on this!

    1. You make some good points, Janet. Yes, I think it can be broken. I am always optimistic when it comes to students; I think you have to be as a teacher.

      I believe it can be a phase, but one that is cultured by those most influential to students: parents, teachers, counselors, and most of all, other students. How often are parents telling their students to “learn” as opposed to “do well?” Does the dinner conversation revolve around what a student is learning (in good detail, not just what are you doing) or “are you keeping your grades up?” How much time does a teacher spend discussing the human importance of their classwork verses “if you don’t do x, y, and z you won’t get a good grade?” When you have counselor meetings, are they asking you about the favorite thing you’ve learned this semester or “get your GPA and SAT scores up?” When you get a paper back from a teacher, is the conversation with another student centered around what you wrote and how you wrote it, or “what did you get?” The culture you’re surrounded by has a major impact on you’re attitude. When everyone around you is concerned with the end goal, you will be too.

      If we changed the entire culture and attitude towards education, we can change education.

      It is impossible to be 100% invested in every subject. However, one of the best complements a non-literature lover can give me is, “I hated English before your class, Mr. Vergien, but I get it now. I understand why reading difficult literature is important.” They may still not love it, but I’ve done my job if they understand why it’s important beyond using it in college or to get a grade.

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