Years ago I filled out one of those sociology surveys you occasionally get in lectures. One question asked me, “Why are you in university?” to which I replied, “It beats working.”
I still feel this way. Reading textbooks is at least one step above my last job: working in a kitchen. Sometimes I felt nauseous working there — partly because I was cutting up kidney meat while hungover.
Schoolwork is tedious but ultimately leaves you feeling that you have somehow bettered yourself. Even the most brutal study session doesn’t usually result in the Post Traumatic Work Syndrome you feel at shitty jobs. That is, jobs where you make minimum wage for tolerating verbal abuse and doing hard manual labor.
Still, I shouldn’t pretend to have a clue how shitty the work force gets. My friend knew someone who cleaned up accidents on the highway. Surely going to university beats hosing human remains off the pavement every day.
I sincerely appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, university life is a pretty sweet deal.
But after four years on campus, I’ve realized the following: university is largely a big business, where education is commodified and sold to the student body. University is not exactly a place to nurture and network gifted intellectuals, as it’s often idealized to be.
Instead universities act like any business looking to stay competitive. They seek to attract more customers every year and ideally keep those customers returning for a very long time.
Today, universities pursue this self-serving model in two ways. Firstly: universities (especially ones like the University of Saskatchewan) will essentially admit anyone who wasn’t educated by a pack of wolves — so long as someone foots the bill.
Secondly: by passing every half-wit they enroll, universities diminish the prestige of their degrees. As a result, serious students now often need a masters or sometimes even a doctorate just to turn a profit on their education. All these extra years of study then translate to job security for university faculty, but do not necessarily bode so well for undergraduates.
As a philosophy major, I’ve long since accepted that if I stay in university it must be exclusively about the learning, because pursuing a philosophy degree is about as beneficial to your personal finances as a gambling addiction.
But herein lies the problem for students pursuing unprofitable degrees: if we’re only here for the learning, what exactly are we being taught that we can’t figure out on our own? Sometimes I think Will Hunting was right, that I will one day realize: “You dropped a hundred-and-fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”
Many scholars will say this attitude is an oversimplification. They claim university is about so much more than landing a job; rather it’s about being part of an “academic community.” And it’s about having a “professional” give feedback on your work.
Professional feedback, eh? Oh, like all those exams we write on Opscan sheets. Yep, the computer grading them sures gives us real heartfelt feedback.
Calling the university an inspired learning community is hardly true. You may find more people excited about debating the merits of existentialism on campus — at least, more than you would working at McDonald’s — but when you set foot in a lecture theatre, do the words “learning community” really come to mind? My classes tend to look more like a funeral service than the scene of some great intellectual debate.
For students already disillusioned with university life, their last line of defence is usually this: “University gives me the structure and discipline I need to stick to my studies.”
Seriously? I refuse to believe we’re so unmotivated that we need pats on the back and slaps on the wrist from some “professional” just to continue bothering with education.
Last fall I wrote a 100-page book. Every night I locked myself in my room and wrote for hours. And go figure, after months of doing that I was way more fluent at writing. Now I wonder where I’d be if I had invested all that time and soul not in my book but in writing 10-page papers on “A comparative analysis of the pre-Socratic…blah, blah, blah.”
At first my story may sound inapplicable to your field of study. You may have me pegged as just another wannabe artist saying, “I’m too special to participate in your crummy system.”
But in countless fields — commerce, computer science, music and so forth — the real talent isn’t sitting in a classroom with a bunch of self-entitled, upper-middle-class kids who show no outstanding gifts or visions.
More likely, the great entrepreneur is on the phone in her home office, trying to get her independent business off the ground. The great computer scientist is drinking Redbull at 4 a.m. in his living room, developing the next Facebook or Google. The great musician is sleeping in his car, en route to his next show.
So if real success happens off-campus, then what exactly are we doing here?
Though professors will repeatedly tell you otherwise, a lot of what we do here is, without a doubt, ivory tower bullshit. It’s hard to accept this when you’ve spent your whole life cooped-up in learning institutions. Usually by the time you reach university, you’re already so “institutionalized” to this mock-world of exams, grades and credits that you don’t believe you could ever succeed without it.
But once you take a leap of faith, to learn and create things in a DIY environment, you’ll start to see how questionable the high-flown ideals of university really are.
I imagine you more gracious students have been itching to say something to me regarding all this. Something like, “Well why don’t you stop bitching and just drop out?”
That is a very good question. Partly it’s cowardice, and a bit of laziness. For me, university is like a long-lived but emotionally dead relationship: I stay in it because it’s safe. But mostly I’m here for the same reason I gave in the sociology survey: it beats working.
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf