Should I get a college degree?

The matter of the college degree is one that every young person asks themselves, as I surely did at the same age. As far as I was concerned, the answer was a definite “no”. I didn’t see myself mixing with the college crowd, and didn’t find anything in the programs that was remotely tempting.

The thought of studying to be a physical therapist for 3 years and then practicing that job for the rest of my time seemed alien to me. “Since when am I interested in being a therapist, a bricklayer or an events planner?”

And I was right: the step from being a high-schooler to a college student was abrupt. I had been on automatic pilot for 6 years, going in and out of the same school and was now somehow supposed to choose a study course that gripped me based on…what exactly? There wasn’t a subject I’d seen in high school that got me bouncing and of which I said “Ooh I’d gladly do more of THAT!”

The glaring absurdity of having spent the last 12 years of my life in a sad cement building, and having to go back into one when all I wished for was freedom was insurmountable. “What was the purpose of all that if a high school degree isn’t worth anything?”, I exclaimed. (I was right there, too)

No one in my family were college graduates. We had an instinctive respect for the academic accomplishments of others without properly knowing what they meant. As Baby-boomers, my parents had the assurance that society was “their own” and that “their” State guaranteed work for everyone. A quick course or apprenticeship and you were rolling.

But to we Gen X’s the matter was more intricate. Before studying for a course, there was a minimal amount of self-inspection which the Baby-boomers had precisely been trained not to do by their own parents. They never thought about what was good for THEM, they just “got on with it” as they used to say. Shrinks? Perish the thought !

Now we had exactly two months to decide what Chris could study come next September. I felt as if my parents were turning towards me in slow motion and for the first time considered with curious eyes what might suit me based on my likes, my abilities and my personality. What does Chris like exactly?

In their defense, they didn’t have the easiest child to accommodate. Nor was a traditional academic high school the ideal place to allow someone like myself to bloom. The qualities I possessed could never come to light and it was rather my weak points that had been magnified during the last 6 years of high school.

After all, I was naturally artistic without having a proper place to develop this quality. I was creative, which was the least a high school needed of a pupil. I was interested in skateboarding, clothes, magazine layouts, music, creative writing, fitness, which were none of the things my traditional school even remotely mentioned. Not even my peers had an idea of the interests I nurtured.

To properly place my school in its context, I remember two events which caused a slight tear in the matrix. The day I showed up at 17 in my “skate jeans”, meaning Levis that hung low on my hips. Girls teased me about having soiled myself and the boys gave me disapproving looks while their own belts stayed firmly tied slightly above their elbows.

Then there was the extra-curricular piece of creative writing I was given for English. For the first time in 6 years I found a way to express myself and produce a skateboard-themed narrative over several pages on which I’d pasted pictures of pro skateboarders with colourful hair and tattoos. At the time I was obsessed with American culture and dreamt of nothing more of a career in a skate company. My poor teacher was out of her depth, but gave me a good mark – more for the volume of work than for its contents.

There was however one victory I experienced and which could have led to much more. In IT class, we were given a basic project to complete in groups of two by using a program similar to Paint. I found that by multiplying my little drawings I could produce a cartoon. The teacher was over the moon and I was having a field day. I could be creative AND get a good mark? Unheard of! Perhaps if the teacher had been more aware about his duties, he could have brought this to the attention of my parents. But alas, he stayed silent.

Ultimately, I did go to a school for a 3-year programme to study “Communication”. I don’t remember ever reading any sort of leaflet nor how we came to the decision that it might be a good idea. I watched old men lecture about topics I could not even have described and within 3 months I had officially dropped out. It seemed like the same thing all over again, sitting down and watching someone speak, memorizing the contents and reproducing it at an exam. Boring !

Almost 15 years after having finished high school, I came to the end of one of Life’s cycles. I had lived a certain way and looked around for something different to do. I realized that my options were limited and blamed it on the absence of any official qualifications. By staying on the same road, I would always be receiving orders and be treated as an ignorant. People far less clever than myself would be telling me how to act, under the pretext that they had completed some “BS” 2-year course in college. I felt smart but had nothing to back it up with. It was more than I could stand!

I spent several months processing my academic shortcomings and was weighing the benefits of becoming a qualified electrician when a random cashier at a supermarket caught my attention. The symbol of the cashier jumped out to me as “a person who had not tried”. I felt like that cashier in that instant and understood that no matter where we end up in life, it matters that we at least try.

Weighing on my conscience was the knowledge that I had failed academically as far back as I could remember. There was especially the fact of dropping out of college and never really giving it a proper shot. I wanted to lace up the old gloves once more and see if I could get through a round. Who knows, perhaps I would even survive two rounds? Whatever might happen, I was determined to give it my best.

By chance, there was a shortage of qualified professionals in the exact branch I wanted to study. They needed English teachers for their State schools, and I quite liked the thought of becoming an Anthony Hopkins-like professor of English, his time spent in dusty old poetry books.

There were many mental barriers to get over and I would be lying if I said I approached the challenge with any speck of self-confidence. There I was, impudently walking onto a college campus, me the high school failure. Who was I fooling? I decided to approach the matter in a “wait and see” sort of way. It was now September and I would see how I would fare at the January exams. Perhaps I could pass ONE university exam? It would at least be something to be proud of. Much better than anything I’d done thus far, at any rate !

By sheer hard work, tears, exhaustion and bravery in the face of despair, I passed the first year of my 3-year Bachelors degree. Did I mention I passed with Distinction? Indeed I did.

The ex-musician and artist had walked into a college with no method, no understanding of how it even worked, and had passed his exams with honorable marks too. Another tear in the matrix, but a more meaningful one this time.

The image of a thunder-fearing tribesman dropped in the Moma for a retrospective exhibition on the works of Jackson Pollock befitted me well. May the reader fully measure my level of alienness: I had even forgotten how to structure a sheet of paper or distinguish a title from a sub-title. When the teacher once asked me to read out loud for the class, it did not occur to me to start from the top of the page. I had to re-learn how to sit on a chair for hours, take notes… everything pertaining to the academic life had to be learned.

Putting aside all common sense, I had not only decided to do a degree in Linguistics and Literature but to major in German too. Quite innocently, I had based my choice on “liking the sound of German”. The pain was about to hit hard…

Within weeks, the workload that was thrust upon us was beyond any sort of reasonable measure. On top of our usual courses on philosophy, anthropology, history of civilizations, history of art, linguistics or literature, we also had to read 13 novels. Not only read them but know them back to front and able to comment on any passage. There were quantities of poems from different time periods and countries. One of our English exams what to “know” a certain book on the English language. At the oral, the professor would open a page and ask us to say exactly what the author though of the BBC or how the different pidgins had started. He wanted to hear word-for-word what the book said.

There was a very similar exam for the French language called “Criticism of Normative Grammar” which was a critical reflection on the inconsistencies of the French grammar. The teacher might ask us to write two pages on why the description of a certain tense was imperfect. He made us buy his own book in which each of the 100 pages contained a criticism of a certain type of word. He might ask us “tell me all you know on the use of the Subject of a sentence” or “tell me all you know on prepositions”.

No coordination between the programs existed, and the professors were quite free to fill up the wheelbarrow and pour it onto the mountain of knowledge we were to memorize. They made it up as they went along, sometimes deciding in front of us and within a split second if they should add yet another novel to the exam. They might as well have rolled a dice.

German was a degree of pain of its own, sitting somewhere between malignant torture and senseless brutality. We later learned that it was the first year they opened up the faculty to the students who had no prior knowledge of German. The decision had been made quickly by the Faculty, yet the Professors did not have the time nor the inclination to change their long-established programs. I hold it from professor L. in person who told me that while the university may have changed its mind she sure wasn’t going to re-write her whole syllabus to make it easier for a handful of new students.

In my first-ever year of German, the teachers decided it would be in our best interest to translate word for word an ENTIRE German novel into French. If you’ve ever translated the page of a book from a language you know nothing, you will know that it takes over two hours of work. By following these teachers’ plan we would be translating every day for two hours on top of our other lectures. And for what? No one knew. Not being languages teachers, the two professors had improvised a method based on an 19th century approach to languages that they had seen work in their precious novels.

To add to the pleasure, there were native speakers of German in our class who had the unfortunate effect of raising the bar for everyone. They became the level by which everyone else was judged, and the non-natives quickly became a burden to the teachers. We were the “weak ones” who slowed down the class and complained a lot. At the orals also, we we marked in comparison with the natives.

My once-in-a-lifetime shot at college was in jeopardy because of German. There was no way I would be able to speak German for the June exam 8 months down the line. There wasn’t the time to learn, the method or even the resources. The teacher had been quite clear that she would tolerate no word of French at the literature exam. It all had to be done in German. Not her problem if there wasn’t actually a course to learn German in our curriculum.

In the end, I decided to strategize. I ignored German, quit going to the lectures (which I found depressing) and instead focused on what I could. After all, I still had to teach myself how to study and “become” a student.

When June came around, I had passed all my exams except for German for which I had a resit in late August. I contacted my professor who politely refused to help me and tried one last Hail Mary by asking two students with whom I had exchanged a few “Hellos”. They shared with me their course notes for the Literature exam and for the Grammar one. During those two Summer months, I can say that I taught myself German all alone and without help. I passed one exam with 16/20 and the other with 14/20. All my marks together added up to a Distinction for my first year back to university after a 15-year interruption.

I sometimes hear the saying “work smart, don’t work hard” which seemingly relates to finding the right shortcuts and alleviate the workload. During my 6 years at university I certainly worked hard, as did my peers.

Avoiding a college degree carries with it the promise of working smart and achieving the same result as those who worked hard. Some say that college degrees are now obsolete due to the amount of information we can find on the internet, and perhaps they are right: you can indeed look up all you want about Shakespeare without sitting an exam with one of my old professors.

Wherever the truth is to be found, such questions bring me back to my supermarket cashier all those years ago. I might have chosen a different path and brushed aside the necessity of a college degree and yet by doing so I would never have measured myself against Academia. It is easy perhaps to say that a college degree is unimportant but not completing one also means never confronting ourselves to the academic criteria. I too can be the best ice skater in the world in the absence of a panel of judges…

My friend Pierre shared with me that in his opinion University is much more than the degree or even the contents of the courses. It’s also about dealing with crazy schedules, managing inhuman workloads, narrowing down voluminous quantities of information, developing grit and determination, and forging your character in such a way that you do not give up.

Viewed in this way, accessing Shakespeare on the internet can be seen as taking a taxi to the finishing line of the ultra marathon. It may indeed be “smarter” but who of the two will have gained more fitness: the one who ran the marathon or the one who took the taxi?

With our time on Earth, each person has their priorities to follow and decisions to make. College is not “necessary” for everyone or even suited for them. But those who shun college will never know of the tremendous mental workout it necessitates. The “hard” we went through leads to a “smart” that others will never measure.

I will soon write a blog post on the benefits of college, but until I do please receive in confidence the existence of a Superpower that I possess. I can spot a person who has not been to college within the first minute of hearing them speak. And I can equally spot any charlatan, be they a leader in politics or one of those people who “make the world go round” that I see on television. To the trained eye, lies and ignorance are hard to hide.

I can spot the inconsistencies in a reasoning and perhaps even the limitations of a thought process. I pick up on patterns and weigh the validity of opinions. Can you guess why? Because I’ve had to meet the standards of people much smarter than myself every day for 6 years. That, my friend, is college.

The non-college types may be much smarter than myself in that they have worked out some of Life’s shortcuts. They may have all of life’s luxuries, be generous, popular and kind even. They may be all kinds of success in their own right.

But between me and them the question remains: Did you run the marathon or did you take a Uber?

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