University is not for everyone (and that’s perfectly okay)

Oh, my bright shiny graduating face.

June 2009 – oh, my bright shiny graduating face.

I realized this week that come September, I will have been involved in higher education for nine years. As in, I have been going to a university nearly every weekday for nine years, sometimes to study, sometimes to work. Nine years of higher education is enough to put most people well into a PhD, but all I have to show for it is one BFA degree (achieved four years ago), a whole lot of books, and an amazingly generous student bus pass. My job is pretty good, as desk jobs go, but the job I have has nothing to do with the bachelors degree I completed in 2009, or the one I’m haphazardly declared in now.

And you know what? I’m okay with that. I have long known what many unfortunate undergrads and their parents are still not not grasping: a university education ≠ a job. And we need to be okay with this.

Over the course of my nine years immersed in post-secondary education, I have encountered many angry students and parents who feel cheated because their (or their child’s) university degree is not yielding the immediate economic benefits they had hoped for (I’m not sure why everyone is so surprised; a university, after all, is not a vocational college). Despite this, many students and parents erroneously believe future success and happiness depends solely on university performance, placing absurd amounts of pressure on themselves and/or their children for high grades, a pressure that borders on hysteria even at the high school level (i.e. “You have to get an A in English 12 because if you don’t get an A you won’t get into a good university and if you don’t get into a good university you won’t get a good job and if you don’t get a good job you’ll end up homeless and a prostitute and addicted to crack cocaine!”, etc.) To cite a personal example of this kind of pressure in action, in first year, a student I lived with in residence who flunked out of his second semester had to be put on suicide watch because he was so afraid of his parents’ disappointment and anger–it’s obvious to me this young man wasn’t ready for university and was only there to please his parents, so why had he been pushed into it in the first place?

The harmful effects of this misguided emphasis on university performance include, but are not limited to: an explosion in incidences of student cheating and plagiarism (they’d rather cheat to get the grade than learn anything from the course they’re paying for), students pursuing degrees they hate because their parents insist (usually incorrectly) that this particular degree will lead to job success, parents of high school children paying independent “credit mills” to boost grades in core subjects and improve university applications (which of course leads to incredible anxiety down the road when the student can’t be successful in university courses because they weren’t academically prepared for them in the first place), students “negotiating” their grades with their professors (as in “I know I don’t understand any of the required concepts but I worked really hard!“), and countless lecture halls and tutorial rooms stuffed with students who aren’t interested and couldn’t care less and whose contribution to the learning environment is the bare minimum required to obtain their “participation grade”. I keep encountering university students who are miserable being here, and their shitty attitude is making learning miserable for poor souls like me who actually consider three-hour seminars with an expert in their field a privilege.

When I went back to school a few summers ago to study writing and English literature, it was with the understanding that I would be older (and dare I say more mature?) than many of my classmates, and I expected to encounter the issues listed above at the 100 and 200-level. When you’re in your first couple of years of university, you’re still feeling your way through academia, taking your breadth requirements, figuring out what your strengths and interests are, etc., so I can’t hold it against you if you’re not on your A-game in Introduction to Early Modern Literature. What I had not expected was to be participating in seminars or online discussions for upper division courses where nearly a third of the students were admitting they hadn’t actually read the book we were studying (with one student bragging he hadn’t read a single book we’d been assigned all term), or reading online discussion posts for a 400-level course written at a high school level of literacy and comprehension and an even lower level of interest.

You know what? If you’re going to be routinely hungover or stoned in lecture, and you aren’t going to do the readings, and you aren’t going to attempt to think and communicate at a university level, and you aren’t interested in the material, and you don’t like scholarship, and you consider every class you take to be just another hoop you have to jump through on your way to a job that doesn’t suck, you shouldn’t be in university.

Let’s be honest: university is not for everyone. This isn’t an elitist statement–this has nothing to do with intellect or class. This is simply an acknowledgement that not everyone has the temperament or the drive or the interest to make good use of a university education. So there’s no need for people to be pushed or pressured into getting one, okay?

I have very intelligent peers who did not go to university–some of them took apprenticeships or completed vocational training, and some went right into the workplace. Virtually all of them now have jobs that allow them to live enjoyable lives. Unburdened by the bitterness and gargantuan student debt that usually follow the completion of a “useless” university degree, these peers of mine have been free to move ahead with their lives: advancing their careers, buying their first homes, and starting families. I also have very intelligent peers who went back to complete vocational training after completing a university degree. They are less debt-free and less far ahead, but hey, at least one of their qualifications got them a job. :S

This is not to say that people shouldn’t give university a try. My (nearly nine) years in university education broadened my horizons, honed my writing and critical thinking skills, and fostered rewarding friendships. Universities are places of ideas and possibilities (though nothing kills this potential faster than an emphasis on results), and some people love academia so much they stick around for masters and doctoral degrees (though some people stick around because they, again mistakenly, think it will get them a job…sigh). If you aren’t sure what you want to do with yourself in life I absolutely recommend signing up for a variety of university courses and seeing if something sticks. Just don’t expect what you learn in university to be a direct link to the job market, and be prepared to have lost out on some money if you don’t like it.

There are a few careers for which it is absolutely vital to have a university degree (teaching, law, scientific research, and medicine for example), but for the rest of us, university studies are just that–study. Study for the sake of learning. Scholarship is a wonderful thing and I feel I’ve benefited immensely from it, but spending that kind of money and time just to rub shoulders with great thinkers and new ideas isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s just fine.

So if you hate what you’re studying–switch majors or take a break to figure out what you really want. If your kid doesn’t appear to be university-bound, let them be (if they really want a university education they can always go back to school when they’re ready). Stop cheating and half-assing your way through your courses (ever wonder if you’re the reason bachelors degrees don’t mean anything nowadays?) and free up your seat for someone who really wants to learn. There’s a whole wide world just waiting for you to encounter it, and university is only a part of it. Before you sign up for a university education, make sure it’s a part you’re actually interested in.

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