A Frost poem would be cliché, wouldn’t it?

December 10, 2008

This is a selfish post. It exists more for myself than anybody else. However, if you bother reading it your opinion would be appreciated.

Currently, I’m debating whether or not I ought to go back to college. I’m 21 and I haven’t gathered enough credits to account for two semesters; I’ve tried my hand at four. My entire family and most of my friends seem to know what the correct decision is, as if it were obvious. Maybe it is. I should, by all accounts, continue my “education proper”. The problem is, as much as I love to learn, I have always hated school.

I’d much rather follow my own thoughts wherever they lead me then swallow something down that a professor deems important. All my favorite teachers have been the ones who favored discussions over lectures, and allowed us to write long meandering papers about whatever inspired or angered us. I liked school best when it looked nothing like school.

I can understand the need for a well balanced education. If it was left up to me I’d probably never get far beyond basic math. But to be honest, basic math is all I need (for now), and if I should ever need more I think I’d be entirely capable of discovering it on my own. What I do know about more complicated math I haven’t learned in class, which I tended to skip or spend napping in the back row. No, I picked up what I know while wrestling with economic models and climate change predictions. What I know has come from experience, although that experience is fairly abstract.

I’m a smart fellow, if I.Q. tests and SAT scores are to be trusted (I don’t think they are. To be honest, I don’t even have a working understanding of what intelligence is supposed to be. It seems like there are different skills for different tasks and most people are excellent in at least one area. I’ve never met anyone I could honestly label stupid, though I throw the insult around as much as anybody.). At the very least I know that I concern myself with topics most people my age don’t; I’ve always been that way. So despite that propensity for intellectual exercise, I’ve gotten fairly middling grades, with a few As and some Ds and Fs thrown into the mix. As my structured schooling went on, I’ve witnessed a polarizing effect in the academic results. The classes I loved I spent huge amounts of time reading and writing for. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like life. The classes I hated I could rarely be bothered to get out of bed for, or just as likely, put down a book for. Subsequently, I failed. The disparity resulted in slow progress,  slow by traditional academia’s standards, at least. I earned not even a year’s results for two years time, if you give a shit about course credits and class hours.

Do I give a shit about course credits and class hours? Should I? Am I going to be an absolute failure if I don’t get a degree?

Ah, that is what it comes down to for me. Fear. The only reason I am considering returning to school is because I’m afraid that I won’t live up to a certain standard of success. I suppose I’ll have to define that for myself before I decide whether to go back. I just wish it didn’t feel like the situation was a ticking bomb. I’m 21. How many years do I have, realistically, before I have missed the opportunity to chase down a diploma? Before I get caught in a routine I hate just to survive at a level that the middle class approves of?

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10 Responses to “A Frost poem would be cliché, wouldn’t it?”

  1. Justin said

    I was just In the same position, and I realized that while it is a socially acceptable measure of success, college was actually keeping me from my goals. I’ve found that following my various passions and finding a way to share those passions with the world is a sure way for me to be successful. It was a tough thing to talk to my family about, but they were actually very supportive.

  2. spgreenlaw said

    Justin,

    Thanks for the information. I’m really glad your family was understanding. My family would be devastated, as they’ve told me before, but it’s my life and I suppose I have to value my own opinion in such a personal choice over theirs. I just wish I knew what my goals were; I think this whole thing would be easier then. As I said, I haven’t figured out what success means for me, so I have no way of knowing if school would help or hinder my achievements or if it matters at all.

  3. I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned a weird sense that reading you is like reading me at your age (and that is a case of worry for you, possibly ;-) ).

    Read this “edu-autobiography” about my own chequered college past if you want some commiseration. And consider Steve Jobs’ “drop-IN” approach to college (see his Stanford commencement speech on YouTube).

    Good luck on your decision.

  4. I’ll add that John, in that story, took the path more traveled by. Went to grad school, got his doctorate in philosophy, and is now a prof in an East Coast college. He did gain some benefits from that that I don’t have, of mostly a material sort.

    But I’m not sure I’d trade places with him. His pen is owned by the publish-or-perish mandate, which means he has to sacrifice it to some pretty dry and obscure stuff that only other academics (pretend to?) read, and cite in their footnotes that nobody else reads.

    At the same time, he’s been able to do some adventurous stuff for semesters at a time in Buddhist countries, which is more colorful than what many Americans experience professionally.

    If teaching interests you, I can’t recommend the international school teaching profession highly enough. You’d have to put in a couple of years teaching stateside before anybody hired you, but it’s been a great way for me to travel the world and live in it, as opposed to zooming through it as a camera-mad tourist. You’ve got to be good at handling anomie, though.

  5. Oh: and those summers off are paid, and possibly ideal for writers.

  6. Laura Bowers said

    I am a new subscriber to your blog and have devoured every post. Your writing voice bespeaks a soul that carries wisdom on a deep level. My first inclination on reading your post is to congratulate you for recognizing that one’s personal definition of success is the one definition to take the most care in considering.

    I’m 32 and on my second go-round with college. So, it’s never too late to go back if you really want to. The first time around I completed a BA degree in English Literature…all I really knew about myself at the age of 21 was that I loved to read (a lot) and write (even more), but I didn’t know what to do with that love. I spent nearly seven years meandering through jobs and life, and the short of it is that I wound up back in school to pursue my teaching certification. This, so that I could get into the classroom and teach students ways to make meaning of their lives on their own terms—something I wish someone had taken the time to tell me about years ago.

    The reason I’m commenting on your post is to add my encouragement to the pot. Taking time to carve out your own place on your own terms is a courageous thing to do, and I sincerely hope that you find success. You have inspired me today.

  7. spgreenlaw said

    Clay,

    That post of yours was insightful. Thanks for your perspective; as usual, it’s given me a lot to think over. I’d seen Jobs’ drop-in talk before, it was reassuring that one can have a… unusual approach to education and still go far.

  8. spgreenlaw said

    Laura,

    Thanks. I have to say I feel rather indecisive. It seems that I knew more about what sort of life I wanted two years ago than I know now. I suppose that sort of shift in perspective will happen to most people. I’m glad that I have time to make this decision, as your story points out. Again, thank you.

  9. I’m still in high school, so definitely take this with an ocean of salt.

    From what I see, there definitely is value in college – as you said, the best classes can be great. You get to be around some amazing people and actually think.

    That being said, I don’t see the point in taking classes simply to pursue a degree: the most important think is whether the classes feel valuable to you. If they don’t, drop them.

    It comes down to this: will you get greater value from more college classes or real-world learning?

  10. Yvette said

    I understand why many don’t want to: you shouldn’t if it’s such a problem for you. Though, learning is always a good thing, no matter how worthless the degree itself may be. You could always just take what classes interest you, to hell with degrees.

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