We are used to being selfish. In general, a lot of what we do is motivated by our own narrow self-interest: we vote for policies and governments who favour our own vested interests, as opposed to what may be more helpful for the many, we keep our revision notes to ourselves in case the person next to us ends up scoring better on the test, and we panic buy loo roll during pandemics so there’s none left for anyone else.
At risk of reducing it to crude terms, capitalism is built upon self-interest and personal pursuit of profit. A level of self-interest is inevitable and of course essential — it is only natural to want to protect and financially support ourselves. However, a capitalist society can often reveal, in extremes, humanity’s propensity for greed and selfishness. The focus easily becomes a question of what is it that I want and who do I need to step on to get there? Today, healthy self-interest and self-protection can easily degenerate into something predatory, whereby the powerful few take advantage of the poorly paid at the bottom for the sake of extraordinary individual profit. We need only look at some of the world’s most successful companies. For instance, in the final quarter of 2019, Amazon boasted revenues of $87 billion, $12 billion of which went straight into founder Jeff Bezos’ already astounding $128.9 billion fortune. At the same time, countless Amazon factory workers, earning around $17 an hour, worked dangerous jobs in poor conditions while relying on food stamps and subsidised housing to get by. This is certainly not rare. In 2020, CEOs of America’s top 350 firms made, on average, 351 times more than a typical worker of their respective companies. The personal greed of the few at the top completely outweighs the needs of those at the bottom.
Hyper-competitiveness at the expense of others is not limited to business, this tendency towards individualism permeates all areas of society. Individualism places complete focus on your own goals and personal needs, and this kind of thinking can easily be identified in the world of education. Even in primary school, we cover our answers during tests, in case someone else copies them and piggy-backs off our hard work. As we get older, individualism and competitiveness become more ingrained at school; grading on a scale means that the better other people do, the harder it is for us to do well comparatively. If everyone else is scoring better, the grade boundaries go up. Titles like valedictorian and salutatorian in the United States highlight personal academic merit. The need is not simply to score as well as everyone else, but to score better.
“Meaningful human connection became more important than ever; the more we were pushed into isolation, the more we realised we needed to reach back out to those we were missing.”
In the lockdown of March 2020, we all had to turn inward. Stripped of things which ordinarily foster a sense of community like schools, universities, shops, pubs, and restaurants — our worlds became a lot smaller. The pandemic revealed the best and worst of humanity. We reached out and built connections with lonely neighbours, did food shopping so the vulnerable could stay inside, and saw countless doctors and nurses work tirelessly across the globe. But simultaneously, we bulk-bought and hoarded food supplies so there was none left for anyone else, and refused to wear masks in the name of defending personal liberty. Meaningful human connection became more important than ever; the more we were pushed into isolation, the more we realised we needed to reach back out to those we were missing.
As schools and universities adapted to new online learning, the pressure upon students to perform under strange circumstances in new exam formats mounted. As much as professors could try to offer remote support, it was impossible not to feel alone and overwhelmed — particularly for first-year students, who hadn’t yet had the chance to meet anyone on their course, it was up to you to get by on your own.
“The more we nurture each other at college — whether that be through the sharing of lecture notes and revision resources or the organisation of study groups that foster discussions of trickier course content — the better off we all are.”
Unsurprisingly, this kind of individualistic approach is detrimental to our mental health. The more pressure we place upon ourselves to figure things out alone, the more stress builds. Without being able to rely on others at college, we can feel increasingly isolated and overwhelmed, undeniably contributing to the ever-increasing mental health issues among young people, like anxiety and depression. A shift needs to take place in our mindsets; we need to look after ourselves, but we also need to look after each other. Prioritising more compassion and collaboration among students will certainly lessen the stress placed upon each individual. As American psychologist Louis Cozolino puts it: “We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured.” The more we nurture each other at college — whether that be through the sharing of lecture notes and revision resources or the organisation of study groups that foster discussions of trickier course content — the better off we all are. Not only does collaboration promote greater creativity and innovation, allowing us to enrich and develop our own ideas between classes, but knowing that we can support and be supported more by one another would definitely ease stress come exam time, and reduce the risk of burning out on your own.
“We don’t need to be wholly responsible for our own success or happiness; it is possible, and likely preferable, to rely more on the support of others.”
This notion of collectivism places a much greater emphasis on the goals of the many, or the collective group, and recognises the significance of interpersonal relationships. An approach that prioritises collective care over self-care removes such a concentrated, and often overwhelming, pressure on the individual. We don’t need to be wholly responsible for our own success or happiness; it is possible, and likely preferable, to rely more on the support of others. Of course, there are systems in place across universities that continue to promote individualism and prioritise personal achievement, and the importance of academic integrity often discourages collaboration between peers. But the more we realise that our peers have never been the enemy of our own academic success, the more successful and happy we’ll be long term. We are not each other’s competition, we’re here to build each other up.