There is a social phenomenon called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” It’s the tendency for humans to criticize high achievers, hoping to pull them down. The name originates from the farming practice of cutting down poppies that grow too fast, deviating from the norm. They become too tall for their own good. Often, this can be observed by our love of watching the toppling of the rich and famous from their glorious perches.
But this simple definition ignores a key component: the element of threat. While the farmer may cut all poppies that grow too tall, humans don’t. We only tear down those we believe threaten our physical, mental or social stations. Consider the perceived threats to the latter two worlds in regards to the college admissions process in an era of online learning.
Online school has exacerbated a culture of self-consciousness. High school itself is a period of self-doubt and fear for many students; add in the aspect of isolation, and these feelings are only strengthened. I have talked to many classmates recently about their mental health and have been told many times that online learning has increased their anxiety. I believe this is because we are naturally prone to feelings of inadequacy.
In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Harari writes that humankind’s rapid ascent to the top of the food chain prevented us from properly adapting to our new position: “Having so recently been the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position.”
Why has online learning heightened these sensitivities within some of us? Consistent contact with others creates an escape from the constant misleading interrogation of our mind in the manner of Harari’s food chain hypothesis. By engaging with classmates, teachers and friends, we are awakened to a reality where we are loved, valued and affirmed. When we retreat to a corner of our room for most hours of our days and only occasionally see peers, our sense of reality becomes tainted. We do not receive the attention, care and assurance that we usually get, and we begin to fall back into feeling like “underdogs of the savannah.”
With these heightened feelings, our sense of threat to our social and mental world has greatly increased. College, as usual, has become a major player in our lives. Add the forces of isolation and college rumination, and you get a student who almost becomes their favorite college. I understand that this is not a new occurrence; every year there are seniors who begin to lose a sense of self in the college process. But this year it exists to a much greater extent.
This year, it is incredibly hard to escape the notion that you are your favorite college because we lack the quantity and quality of social interactions to awaken us to reality. On many occasions, I’ve seen classmates, and even friends, take out their poppy clippers and rabidly attack each other behind their backs because they are applying to the same school. The perceived threat is heightened this year, as a fellow applicant may no longer merely decrease your chances at a school—in the minds of some seniors, it may endanger who they are.
Now, I’m not accusing the entire senior class of such a mindset; most of the people I know have not exhibited this behavior. In fact, I don’t even want this to be perceived as an attack on any members of our school community. Instead, I simply seek to raise awareness about a phenomenon that I have seen occur relatively frequently so that we can understand it and combat it with empathy.
I would like all of us to remember not to be celebratory at the expense of others. Try to refrain from boasting on social media—asserting your position at the top of the food chain. Let us recognize that for many in our community, this year has been incredibly difficult, and pouring salt on these wounds, even unintentionally, could cause harm to your classmates. And to those of us who are not accepted to our first choice institution, instead of chopping down the tall poppies in our community, let’s water them and encourage their growth.