Remember your ABCs: airway, breathing, and circulation. In EMT training, you’re told to always check the patient’s ABCs when arriving at a call to ensure that there are no life-threatening issues at hand. As a new member, I was running one of my first calls on Columbia University EMS and I arrived to a patient in distress. Airway: patent. Breathing: labored. My first thought was to administer oxygen. I grabbed a plastic-wrapped non-rebreather mask and began to offer it, but couldn’t when the patient rapidly reached for it themself. I withdrew as my crew chief interjected: Oxygen does not help with panic attacks. Instead, we lead the patient in breathing exercises: inhale (one, two, three) and exhale (one, two, three).
The presence of our stretcher and navy blue shirts has practically come to symbolize the palpable stress that riddles campus throughout finals. And this season weathers all students; it’s not uncommon to hear of at least one panic attack during finals. It seems normalized and contagious. Even when feeling prepared to enter an exam despite spending all night studying, the cacophony of nervous utterances—“I’m going to fail” interrogates my confidence: Did I learn anything at all? This void in my mind, begging for some missing knowledge or something else, compels my arm to make a worried reach to my notes for one last glance or that damned oxygen mask, neither of which will help at all.
In this semester without grades, we find ourselves in the doldrums of productivity. Without a destination, our tailwind fatigues—“why learn if there are no grades?”— reveals the flaws of a teleological education. However, we may use the doldrums to shift our attention from production-based evaluations to holistic ones, which may also help us consider our origin and cumulative path.
Isn’t learning supposed to be a process of growth, not one that makes us feel empty? Tests and other systematic measurements of knowledge seem to frame education as a teleological process: We learn to do the work that proves what we learned. As learning becomes a resource, achievement becomes the product. With our focus on production, we may easily appraise education as a process of expenditure. The more we do it, the more empty we feel, and the more we panic.
But what are we even measuring with tests? Test results may suggest learning and care, but they cannot capture the whole person. One’s advantages and disadvantages, cultural background, and other factors inevitably shape the results and are perhaps their primary contributors. Therefore, standardized measurements may signify little more than one’s distance from the mean, not the personal and academic movement that education denotes. Our focus on production may make us feel empty, but the measurements of that product may tell us we actually are.
Only through some uncontrollable factor that drains our productivity may we see that where we are and what’s happening around us impacts our thoughts. Systematic measurements force us to place mind over matter, almost like diamonds in the rough who must create their own destiny. Stress impacts our abilities to learn and produce. Only by considering these factors may we begin to test the diamond and not the rough.
Now, in a panic of too many of some tests and not enough of others, we may find ourselves reaching for whatever’s nearest, whether liquid or otherwise, in the hopes of alleviating the panic. However, both students and educators might use this time to reappraise our relationship with learning and its measurements. Education does not have to leave students feeling empty and in panic if we turn our focus from external to internal measurements.
We may take stock of our own ABC’s and consider them within the context of our lives, not just through the flowcharts of systematic measurements. If educators do the same, they will only cultivate compassion for their students. Our ABCs show us how matter impacts mind, and only by focusing on them can we shape this mind-matter relationship. We can begin by practicing breathing exercises: inhale (one, two, three) and exhale (one, two, three).
Theodore Michaels is a junior in Columbia College. He wishes all health and safety throughout this precarious time. His column, Minded Moment, runs on alternating Thursdays.
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