The romanticization of school is a double-edged sword

“Who cares if I’m pretty if I fail my finals?”

It’s likely you may have seen this quote attached to vision boards, scribbled in daily affirmations, or referenced like the Bible by online study blogs, but the quip originates from a “Gilmore Girls” episode. Rory Gilmore utters the now-famous line after her mother recommends she get some sleep instead of exhausting herself with schoolwork. To the audience that knows better than to accept Rory’s intense dedication to her grades as harmless, this comment simply functions as a joke in the show. To others who view academics and grades as a reflection of self-worth, though, it becomes more of a mantra.

In modern media and culture, Rory has become something of an icon—an academic bookworm with a cute preppy style in a small, sleepy town. She’s an image of academic capability that many aspire to emulate, dressing in chunky sweaters, sliding on headbands and toting around a backpack full of books. The problem with this image, though, lies in the unrealistic academic expectations an audience may begin to project onto themselves as a result. Whether aware of it or not, they may come to believe that channeling the essence of a TV show character will help them to become an academic weapon—and Rory certainly isn’t the only source of inspiration for this ideal.

In recent years, there has been a steady growth of study-focused content creators. This phenomenon gained early popularity on the blogging website Tumblr with “studyblr,” a subsect of the platform filled with aesthetic studying content. As the pandemic hit, more video content began to pop up on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. People found themselves watching real-time “study with me” videos, and sometimes even 12-hour-straight study streams, some of which continue to garner hundreds of thousands of views.

I found myself turning to study-focused YouTubers such as Breanna Quan, chelseaa and typicallyychloe at the time. I was inspired not only by their dedication to doing work but also by the way they seemed to romanticize getting said work done. Their desks were filled with colorful notes and pictures, like a cozy haven. They used different colored pens for all their reports and drank delicious-looking coffees and teas. I was impressed by how long they seemed to be able to work on completing their schoolwork without growing visibly tired, and as a result, I pushed myself even more in my academic life. I’d come home from school and start to work, staying up late to get everything done and rarely participating in anything outside of what I believed could help me academically.

Eventually, I found myself growing more and more anxious while locked inside. My stomach began to twist up into knots more than normal around upcoming exams and quizzes. It felt like a lot was riding on my academic success, and I was neglecting to put my own health and well-being before that of my grades. In order to distract myself from this feeling, I’d continue to watch this content, hoping that it would help me find the spark I needed to keep putting in hard work; for the most part, I found the videos helpful.

Without the ability to go out and be surrounded by other people, studying could get lonely. Many times, learning material is a group effort—and even if it’s not, it can just be more fun to work while surrounded by friends. During the pandemic, many students found comfort in live “study with me” videos. My friends would play them in the background of their own studying to hold themselves accountable for their work.

Another benefit of consuming this content is that prioritizing the aesthetics of mundane events can make them feel like less of a chore. I’ve found that for studying in particular, the environment I’m in has a huge effect on how optimistic I feel about the tasks I set out to accomplish. Bright lights are usually too distracting and dull colors make me feel less motivated. If adding colorful pens and notebooks to my daily routine would make life feel a little more cinematic, though, who’s to say I wouldn’t be able to succeed more, too?

While I believe that the romanticization of student life can have some merit in terms of productivity and enjoyability, I also think it toes a thin line between the realms of harmful and beneficial studying practices. The creation of recent aesthetic study content has created a strange influx of consumerism for stationary materials—just look at the Muji and Daiso hauls on Instagram and TikTok. There are pages dedicated to showcasing certain materials that will, supposedly, help you become a better student. You’ll see notepads, pens, highlighters, whiteouts, erasers: There’s an entire culture built around people swearing by Muji pens, and I’m not going to deny that the products are visually appealing.

The problem with the promotion of a vast assortment of aesthetic materials for studying, though, encourages the idea that once you have these products, studying will become easier for you. In fact, studying will even be fun. So much of this content refuses to address the struggles of not knowing how to study for something, or the possibility that studying is not even necessary to be successful at learning something. It cuts human contact out of learning and frames studying as a solitary effort that mimics relaxation. While I believe that studying could be calming for some people, I don’t necessarily think that it should be normalized as an excessive-hour endeavor that will always result in higher grades and a smarter individual.

This content, while motivating in many ways, also pushes the narrative that America so often exemplifies through hustle culture: Hard work always pays off. In this way, people who tune in for inspiration may find themselves experiencing the euphoria of high grades—or the expectation that anything other than that is impossible—and the crash of low ones. Students may allow studying to take the place of actual hobbies meant to separate work from personal development.

Tangentially, I’m interested in the drink culture surrounding study content. In the wide world of academic romanticization, a study session always warrants a sweet treat, more specifically a drink. When I sit down to study, I usually find myself craving a coffee or a matcha, whether I wanted it before or not. While it is likely that this craving could be caused by many different factors—being on a college campus surrounded by coffee shops and American culture, for instance—I think this desire and even dependence on some form of caffeine during studying is alarming. Study culture implicitly reinforces the idea that caffeine can act as a substitute for sleep. Many highly caffeinated drinks are made to taste good, and to many students across America, drinks like coffee are simply a part of a routine. A routine that could entail three or four cups a day for some people, particularly when paired with long study routines.

All in all, I think content that romanticizes school can be used in a way that is more motivating than harmful. It can be a tool for accountability. It can even be a way to make a task that does not seem that appealing halfway enjoyable. The responsibility of being able to disentangle the harmful from the helpful, though, falls on us, the students.

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