The Wilton academic curriculum is laudable in its strategy to expose the young, developing mind to a broad spectrum of disciplines. For four years at Wilton High School, committed and passionate teachers gave generously of their time to prepare us for college or whatever path we might choose in life. Except for the occasional stressors of exams, I anticipated my classes with interest and enthusiasm. I’m not saying it was all fun and pressure-free: students were expected to study for their math exam, finish an English essay and a social studies essay, and create labs in science all by the end of each week. I did scramble to complete the overwhelming wave of work that was launched at me, and even subjects I enjoyed got relegated to 45-minute time slots wherein I had to determine the most efficient way to finish my work, while keeping a good grade.
The inherent contradiction and resonant truth which began to emerge from this intense immersion approach to learning was ironically communicated by the mantra and manifesto of every subject practice. The stairway from information to true understanding and mastery is tiered with practice and experience. From their collective advice, I learned that experience was the best teacher I could — or would — ever have in my lifetime.
This is not new news. Colloquialisms like “practice makes perfect” and “the master was once a beginner” reiterate this idea. To become the “best” is a nearly impossible and unrealistic feat. Those who attempt to achieve it dedicate themselves entirely. Champions like Tom Brady spent long, tedious hours practicing the compulsories of their sport. Concerto pianists spend hours each day in repetition of a single passage in their repertoire. Picasso developed his innovative genius by studying and imitating the technique and craft of former masters such as Rembrandt. When I was younger, I aspired to be an astronaut while simultaneously playing in the NBA and skiing on the Olympic team — the standard expectations of a sixth grader. What I did not understand was that mastery requires both the time and the patience to commit and connect. Dividing time and focus into a multitude of areas reduces the ability to master any goal.
Here is the rub — we do need core knowledge to grasp advanced concepts. We need to know what genes and neurons are; we need grasp the relationship between supply and demand and marginal utility. So our educational rubric is well constructed. But then we need lots of repetition and focused time for that information to develop and mature. This dawned as an epiphany, and I wondered why it took me four years to see what every teacher had been hammering home. Ironically, the answer came to me as I was flipping through my Instagram.
Our culture increasingly suffers a kind of collective ADD. We favor the quick fix — the sound bite, the text message, the tweet — we idealize instant gratification. We understand time within the frame of the short election cycle or the daily fluctuations of the stock market or the season finale of Game of Thrones; time is a commodity to be garnered, saved, lost, or wasted. Even our employment structure is shifting from lifetime career commitments to the “gig” economy — temporary, flexible. It is not obvious that we need to slow down, and there is no shortcut to mastery.
Along with the freedom of college comes the choice of a major and eventually a career. I hope I will discover what suits my aptitudes well, narrow my eclectic interests, and dedicate myself to developing expertise. During this time, I fully expect to be grounded by my experiences in high school — which taught me not only how to acquire and process information, but to patiently hone it through experience and practice.
Tyler Zengo is a senior at Wilton High School. He shares this column with five classmates.