At least once a day, I hear the voice of Prince Hamlet in my imagination. He’s bundled up on a crisp, clear, cold Denmark afternoon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his mates from college, puzzled by his moodiness, stand nearby encouraging him to lighten up, to have a more positive attitude. He believes Denmark is a prison. They don’t believe it is. And then Hamlet says it–that thing I hear, daily. He says, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Why do I hear this refrain every day? I work at Foothill College as an instructional associate; in other words, I help manage a high-volume tutorial center. Last quarter, this center served over 1200 individual students seeking help with reading and writing-related concerns. In short, those people whom it is my mission to serve are college students, struggling to learn new concepts–but also to score that most precious of labels: a high GPA. Before I began working full-time as an instructional associate, I was an adjunct faculty member in the English department; that is, I was the person judging their work, assigning their grades, and determining their GPA. I was the cause of their anxiety. Now, to a certain extent, I am meant to be the cure. Thus, Hamlet’s words have become my refrain. But, again, why? There are good things and bad things—aren’t there? Some ideas are good and some are bad, right? A comma before a conjunction is sometimes good but sometimes bad, right?
Well, the truth is, I don’t know. And the longer I think about the question, the more I am inclined to agree with Hamlet: no, there aren’t good things and bad things. There are only things—and then there are the words we have invented to describe them and the emotions we feel when we interact with them. In other words, everything is neutral until you think about it—only then does it become whatever you believe it is, whatever you define it as.
About now, you are likely wondering why this thought process matters–especially in the field of education? After all, aren’t educators in the business of judging what’s good and what’s bad? Without those poles, wouldn’t the system lack criteria for judging the students it seeks to mold?
It matters because students are people, first. They are students at Foothill College, and they are here to learn, to achieve, to grow, to transfer, and to be successful in their working life. But they are always, first, people. And when people feel that they are either right or wrong—good or bad—terrible consequences follow: anxiety, depression, even suicide.
My point, in the end, is this: the educational system is currently built to judge and place people (using GPA as one of the measurement tools). This kind of structure will inevitably make people feel good or bad, but we, the educators within the system, can do our part to remind students and remind ourselves that the world is neither good nor bad. Only thinking makes it so.