A.J. Ashman, high school senior, on success, character, and education

Ah, teenagers. They make you shake your head for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes it’s amazement. Recently, I had an insightful chat with A.J. Ashman, a high school senior, on some of today’s hottest topics including success, character, and education. Check out the above video and the below Q&A. I think that you will be struck by his thoughfulness and maturity as I was.

Debate over America’s education system is reaching fever pitch, and it is high time to have a serious discussion about the purpose of an education. Too often, such discussions are confined to bureaucrats, lobbyists, scholars, and teachers. This is a mistake. Let’s include our young people as well because, as A.J. demonstrates, they have valuable insights to contribute. It’s their future we are talking about here. Grant them a role in shaping it. 


TRANSFORMED GAMES: What is the purpose of the education system?

ASHMAN: Education in general has a primary purpose of being a place where you grow as a person and discover fully what kind of a person you are. School should expose you to ideas, people, fields, and experiences that you have never encountered before. School should serve as a proving ground for you socially, academically, ethically, and mentally before you step out into the real world.

TRANSFORMED GAMES: What does “success in life” mean to you? Do college degrees assure success, or is something else required?

ASHMAN: Success doesn’t come from being better than anyone, richer than someone, or smarter than someone. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden puts it, success comes from “peace of mind, attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best that you are capable.”

A college degree does not itself make you successful nor more likely to be successful. It makes you a lot of things, but successful is not one of them. So yes, something else is required, and that “something else” is the enlightened realization that success is not money-based but heart and effort-based. Success comes through effort to the best of one’s ability, not through one’s profitability.

If people are taught that they cannot be successful without a college degree, if they are taught that success is found through only one avenue, then they set limits for themselves. We all know what happens when only one road to a destination is open: no one gets there on time and everyone is miserable by the end of it.

TRANSFORMED GAMES: Do you feel that high school adequately prepares students for future success? If not, how can things be improved?

ASHMAN: First of all, preparing students for life after high school is a difficult task. That being said, I think that high schools have failed in this task. I think a high school’s role should be to emphasize skills that are transferable such as analytical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, critical reading, relationships, argumentative writing, and research. But instead the focus of schools is on abstract information that is nice but is in no way conducive or meaningful to life after high school. It’s nice that you read Shakespeare and know about the great Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and Locke. But do you know how to think logically? How to listen consciously? How to absorb, categorize, extrapolate, and interpret information? How to ask meaningful questions and seek out their answers? And, most importantly, how to fail? I fear that these skills are being devalued when they are the very skills that allow people to really leave indelible marks upon the world.

High school is the place to start learning these skills because college does not, by default, give students the tools they need to figure out what to do with their lives. College provides an environment for interactions and experiences through which students can find themselves, but only if they are actively looking and asking the right questions.

How do we improve education and the preparedness of high school graduates? By emphasizing the process of logical thought, deductive reasoning, divergent thinking, resilience, and true growth. These may seem like grandiose ideas, but in reality, they are principles of education that can be adopted by individual teachers and schools while existing within the confines of curriculum and budget cuts.


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