The Sad Buffet: Emotions and the Failure of the Education System

As an engineering student, I have definitely felt pressure to remove my feelings from the work that I do. I have also learned how to resent “the system” as well as taught that there is nothing that I can do as an individual to actually change that system. I think that the constant push to create solutions that are practical and economical directly contradict the lack of consideration for the social, emotional and larger societal effects of decision making in engineering. Parker J. Palmer’s article, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” was a very interesting and profound argument for embracing our feelings in the professional world. Harnessing our emotional power has the potential to create the environments that we believe in and that we want to participate in.

At all levels of education, immense pressure is placed on students to achieve with the best degree, the highest grades, and the strongest portfolio in the fastest possible time. This, supposedly, is for the betterment of the student’s career. Students struggle to balance life responsibilities. Furthermore, education is served at a cookie-cutter pace. Seemingly, students have little control over the orientation to graduation timeframe. Individualized curriculum does not exist; instead, students have a sad buffet with limited direction. We are left overwhelmed. There is no room for failures and no time for feelings. This is a failure of the system not the student.

What Palmer points out is not just that these feelings are justified, but the importance of recognizing these feelings.  As students, we need to stand up and consider if instead there is something wrong with the structure of the system. I was really struck by his idea of how the education system should adjust to create the “new professional” as described in the following paragraph from the article.

“The education of a new professional will reverse the academic notion that we must suppress our emotions in order to become technicians. Students will learn to explore their feelings about themselves, the work they do, the people with whom they work, the institutional settings in which they work, the world in which they live. They will be taught to honor painful emotions such as anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and burnout. They will be taught that such feelings are neither signs of weakness, nor sources of shame, nor irrelevant to the complex challenges of knowing, working, and living.”

-Parker Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” 

I wish I had been exposed to these ideas early in my college career. Realizing that all of these feelings are completely normal and maybe more importantly that feeling is not a limiting factor in success. The most successful people are just as prone to feeling anxious, angry, burnt-out, etc. The difference is learning how to recognize those emotions and “riding that feeling into action” as Palmer puts it.

Feelings are directly related to passion, and when we are passionate we do better work. Therefore, stifling emotions simply smothers our passion. Now considering the recent tax bill that passed the Senate, graduate students face added financial burden. It is important for us, the students, to recognize the fault in the system, when the system does not have our interest.

If we are even partly responsible for creating institutional dynamics, we also possess the power to alter them. We need to help students understand and take responsibility for all the ways we co-create institutional pathologies.

-Parker Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” 


3 thoughts on “The Sad Buffet: Emotions and the Failure of the Education System

  • December 5, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Some excellent points Abram. You and George have similar ideas. I guess what I am wondering about is where to start with the moving to action or do you think it may be happening already and we just don’t know about it or haven’t figured out how to be a part of the movement for change…?!

    • December 5, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      First to Jyotsana’s point: I think it needs to be a ‘movement’ similar to the women’s march that is girded by a dedicated and connected leadership group. If it’s already under way at VT, I’m not aware of it.

      Secondly, thank you, Abram, for your astute observations. There are a couple of things you said that have helped me think a little deeper about Palmer’s sentiments.

      “Students have a sad buffet with limited direction. We are left overwhelmed. There is no room for failures and no time for feelings. This is a failure of the system not the student.”

      It is so true that it is difficult to see beyond your immediate circumstances, particularly when we are pushed to our limits. I actually left public school teaching with similar sentiments: there was little time for what mattered – working with students on learning experiences that created opportunities for more learning – and too much time spent dealing with things that didn’t – teachers with bad attitudes (toward students, toward colleagues, toward parents), reporting expectations that were about beaurocracy rather than student success, parents who felt no shame in making a federal case out of a poor grade on a test. It felt overwhelming to me to try and do something within the melee.

      “Feelings are directly related to passion, and when we are passionate we do better work.”

      I could not agree more. When we are passionate, we are committed. When we’re committed, we are invested in success. When we are invested in success, we plan for it and work toward it, checking ourselves along the way.
      Imagine if we (students) were ‘graded’ on our passion quotient instead of simply fulfilling someone else’s expectations. What depth of potential could be tapped then? And what would we learn about ourselves as humans?

  • December 6, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    Well said. I have felt the same. It is weird that education is one of the few fields that experiences such extreme pressure. If you get a decent job at some local company, nobody is going to say “ha, that’s not a Fortune 100 company”, they’re going to consider the specifics before determining if it is a good job. But when it comes to education, it is common to hear someone dismiss a college outside the top 25 rankings (even if it is a bad fit for you, and the college you chose is perfect).

    You internalize this to such a degree that you feel like a failure yourself if you can’t make it. What a toxic system…


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