“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” – Goodhart’s Law
As a fellow CS 106B student, I was reading dozens of Fizz posts about our midterm a few weeks ago, when a recurring comment struck me. It asked, in various forms: “did CS 106B get harder since I took it, or have freshmen just gotten softer?” Posts reporting extreme mental and physical distress as a result of the exam, which was taken over a 48 hour period, were followed by other posts, generally by older students, telling them that class/college/CS is meant to be hard, so we should get used to it.
While I don’t think the “get over it” narrative is ever helpful, it brings up a valuable conversation about our approach to intro CS and education more generally. It’s probably most relevant to us fresh-faced first-years, but will be familiar to every student who has felt the pressures of Stanford’s perfectionist culture.
The problem with simply being told to “toughen up” is that it presumes some kind of choice to falter at hurdles; a choice to be anxious and afraid, that is too often framed as entitled laziness. It’s not as though kids now are born with lower stress tolerances than kids growing up thirty, or even three years earlier. Rather, we are simply the results — the “successful” results — of a school system that equates intelligence with test scores and doles out opportunities based on that “intelligence.” Schools themselves are evaluated by these scores, and consequently inflate grades instead of addressing the root of the problem. As students, we need to reframe our entire view of education, viewing it not as a means to an end but as an ongoing process of mind- and person-building.
We forget that the point of a class like CS 106B — an introductory CS class — is to learn new ways of thinking and problem-solving, not to measure our ability and weed us out of a field we’ve only just begun to explore. We don’t expect toddlers to run as soon as they can stand; we expect them to fall, we help them up and guide them, and most importantly, we delight in watching them gain confidence and go further and further. If toddlers were perfectionists, we would all still be crawling around, having miserably convinced ourselves that this is just the way it is.
I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking that if something doesn’t come easily to me — even after attending lectures, asking questions when I’m confused, doing assignments and studying a reasonable amount — then it’s not meant for me. If I can’t solve this problem even after staring at it for hours, then I just can’t hack this kind of thinking. But why am I just staring at a problem for that long? Perfectionism makes it difficult to even try out an idea, which is precisely the process of learning; try, fail, fail again and again. You’ve probably heard this mantra a million times — “fail fast, fail often” is a favorite aphorism in Silicon Valley.
However, not everyone has the same freedom to fail. For example, feminist academics have pointed out that the perfectionist mindset particularly limits women and girls, who are often raised with far less emphasis on building things “just to see what happens,” and getting back up again after being hurt. Additionally, people who are underrepresented in fields such as CS are often implicitly regarded as representatives for other marginalized students, especially when it comes to potential shortcomings. If we fail, we know we may confirm others’ biases, which adds even greater psychological pressure to immediately succeed and hide failures. Perfectionism isn’t inherent to anyone — it’s learned from the way that we are taught to reckon with failure and its consequences.
This is not a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” argument. There is a massive onus on Stanford to continue scrutinizing why certain classes lead perfectly capable students to cheat or change their majors, and especially to provide greater support to students who come to Stanford from underserved high schools. But since these systems will be imperfect for our times at Stanford, being a little hard-headed and remaining adamantly undiscouraged throughout the struggle will help us to learn more than we ever expected, which will gradually lead to genuine confidence. If you’re not finding things difficult, you’re probably not in the right class for your current ability.
I’m definitely not saying that I’ve achieved some sort of enlightenment and will now be perfectly happy to receive bad grades. But next time I’m trying to debug a few lines of code, whether alone in my room or in LaIR, I hope I can recognize that this is what learning feels like — not being able to pass all the tests after 5 minutes of work. As long as you’re trying, you are learning and you are succeeding, whatever that means.