Friedman ’19: Self-doubt at the ‘chill’ Ivy

Staff Columnist
Thursday, October 6, 2016

I found myself in the Sciences Library last Tuesday night staging an all-too-familiar last-ditch effort to complete my differential equations problem set the night before it was due. I was staring at code in Python, a program in which I still feel incompetent, feeling resigned to the possibility that I wouldn’t finish it before 2:00 a.m., if at all. Then one of my classmates approached me and asked me if I had started the homework for the next week yet. When I asked him for help on this week’s problems, he replied, “Oh, number four? Yeah that one’s easy, you’ll get it eventually,” withholding any further advice. Somehow, I doubted him; if it were easy, why would I be asking? Needless to say, I spent the next four hours figuring out how to troubleshoot my numerous coding errors in Python while my friend’s comment lingered in the back of my mind.

Mathematical computing isn’t easy. Neither are most academic endeavors at Brown. And that’s kind of the point. If attending a school like Brown were a cakewalk, our education would not be nearly as valuable as it is. But I regrettably notice that many of my classmates choose to put on a facade when it comes to being candid about the difficulty of their academic pursuits. Whenever I hear that a certain exam or homework assignment was “easy” (when in actuality, I found it very difficult), I am inevitably overcome by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Like many students on campus, I, as someone with lofty academic and professional goals, feel — perhaps irrationally — as though I should not find most of my schoolwork particularly challenging, especially those assignments that my friends have labeled “easy.” But I suspect that in reality, my feelings are much more common than I once thought, as much of Brown’s curriculum is designed specifically to challenge the students who found standard secondary-level coursework unchallenging.

The problem is that few people at Brown are brave enough to confirm my suspicions. For some reason, I find that when one person labels something “easy,” everyone else feels strongly compelled by peer pressure to express the same sentiments. This academic peer pressure is especially powerful among Brown students because of our paradoxical reputation — on Youtube and among the general public — as “laid-back Ivy League” students. This inaccurate perception precipitates a unique and unfortunate inferiority complex among Brown students that compels us to desperately understate the difficulty of our assignments. But in doing so, we unintentionally create a disconnect between the realm of social normalcy and reality that reaps negative consequences for our collective sanity and for our education.

The social conformity that compels students to claim that homework is easy is precisely the same force that compels students to withhold important questions in lecture. I have certainly abstained from asking clarifying questions in class because I feared that by asking, I would take class time away from students who appeared to have found the material easier to understand. Struggling to formulate an articulate question, I wondered if I hadn’t even understood the material well enough to take up class time with a request for clarification. While it is true that one should refrain from asking too many questions during lecture, it is also true that the vast majority of students withhold perfectly legitimate questions for fear of appearing unintelligent or unprepared.

In high school I found that the expression “easy” had a significant amount of descriptive power, but at Brown I find the same word overly simplistic. Understating the complexity of a midterm or homework assignment by calling it “easy” is usually a sly, less easily perceived method of academic intimidation that most people can get away with. It is an artificial way of elevating one’s intellectual status. We have to question the value of putting on an easy-going facade in the face of seemingly insurmountable academic challenges. The act of covering up our struggles is inefficient and selfish; by doing so, we artificially insulate ourselves and isolate each other.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.eduPlease send responses to this op-ed to and other op-eds to