Why the fuck do people who don’t want to go to university persist on going to university? It’s completely counter-intuitive. I mean, were I one of those strange career advisor people that schools employ, and a pupil sitting in front of me said that they didn’t want to go to university, I imagine my reply would probably be something along the lines of “well, you probably shouldn’t go to university then.”
Furthermore, if I was doing my job properly, and the kid stated that they did plan on continuing in education, I’d like to think that I might follow up with an inquisitive “you do realise what that means, yes? Studying, lectures, engaging with your chosen subject, and so forth?” and if they then proceeded to tell me that what they in fact wanted to do was spend as much time as possible sitting in a flat making spaceships out of 7-Up bottles, gently warn them that a life in academia might not exactly be their one true calling.
(It is entirely possible that my confusion here originates from a failure to understand the true purpose of the school careers advisor. I’ve naively assumed that they have something to do with helping you choose a path in life which suits you, but maybe this is all a front for some more shadowy position. Certainly this would explain my personal experience of the one from Forfar Academy. He looked at my academic record, asked me if I’d considered Cambridge, and then when I informed him that my predicted grades were actually just below the Oxbridge universities’ entrance requirements, he gravely nodded as though listening and proceeded to discuss other options. Five minutes later, I was outside his office, with nothing to show for the experience except a piece of paper on which he’d written the word “Cambridge”– followed, to his eternal credit, with a question mark.)
The brilliance or otherwise of the Forfar Academy guidance system aside, allow me to explain just why this topic has come to mind.
Last Wednesday, at the somewhat bizarre time of 7PM, I had a modernist literature tutorial. The tutorial was to serve two basic purposes; first to allow our tutor to give us some feedback on our recently marked assignment on Joyce’s Ulysses, and secondly to discuss that week’s book, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. After the first section had been completed, the tutor announced that if anyone really wanted to get away early, everybody had been marked as present, and there would be no negative consequences for leaving.
One sudden flurry of chairs later, there were four of us left. This from a room that had moments earlier been packed so full that the large table in the middle wasn’t big enough, and a second ring of students had had to form, on chairs against the wall.
My question here is, exactly what were all those people doing at the tutorial in the first place? Oh, I know why they were there – they were there because tutorial attendance is a compulsory part of the course, and they’d get failed if they didn’t turn up. But why would anyone with no interest in modernist literature have signed up to a modernist literature course at all?
Three possible explanations spring instantly to mind. Either they had been forced to take the course, they had seen it as an easy option towards getting a degree, or they wanted not to do the course but to have done it – to be able to write “I studied modernist literature” on their CV.
To all that, I say: rubbish, rubbish and rubbish. First, the Australian university system is built on an elective system, where you get to pick your courses from a vast range of options. I think there are a few core courses, but ENGL2035 Modernist Literature certainly isn’t one of those. Second, you’d have to be an idiot to see modernism as an easy option. It’s not like studying Shakespeare or contemporary American fiction or something, where the difficulty lies largely with what you say about the books. With modernism, simply reading the books in themselves is a challenge, you need to be fully engaged with notions of narrative, perspective, subjectivity, context and innovation to even understand what it is that you’re reading. And thirdly, the only cases in which modernist literature would be an admirable thing to have on your CV would be when applying for courses or positions where this active engagement with difficult texts and concepts was a necessity – which is clearly not something that people who flee a tutorial on one of the more conventional books on the course at the first opportunity have any interest in doing.
This is not, incidentally, a University of Queensland thing. It’s completely endemic in Edinburgh as well – I guess all that I’ve discovered here is that this academic apathy isn‘t restricted to the UK. All the time, people complain about their courses, or choose courses deliberately to maximise their days off, or come up with elaborate reasons to miss tutorials as though they were some kind of punishment. But they chose to do this. Out of a whole plethora of options available to them — college, apprenticeships, entry-level jobs, benefit fraud — these people decided that the life for them was university. And then they chose particular courses and institutions out of a yet broader array, to select the ones which held absolutely the most interest and value in their lives. And then, they act as though the whole thing is a drag. Are these people really so vacuous that they can’t find any interest in anything?
And don’t give me any of that “doing it for the student lifestyle” crap, either. Fair enough, many people might enjoy intense socialising, binge-drinking and clubbing far more than they enjoy studying for exams. But if that’s actually what you look for in life, and you’re smart enough to go to university as a roundabout way of doing so, then you’re also smart enough to realise that you’re going about things all wrong. You would be much better off getting a full-time job doing something easy, avoiding all the stress of having to turn up to tutorials and write essays and pass exams, and then go along to the same bars and clubs anyway. Students are friendly people, you’d soon find yourself invited to all the parties that you want, and your 40-hour-a-week earnings would more than make up for missing out on student discounts.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with feeling bored in lectures, with skipping class here and there, or with finding out that you aren’t really as into your subject as you thought that you were – I’ve certainly found that my own attachment to the linguistics side of my degree has waned (although only in inverse proportion to my ever-increasing fascination with the literature aspects), especially since coming to Australia where there’s no emphasis on historical aspects. But this isn’t what I see going on all around me. This isn’t a case of people who’ve found that university or their subject isn’t for them – if it was, they’d drop out, and do something better suited to them. It’s a case of people carrying, from the very first day, an attitude which is going to completely annihilate their chances of loving university, of finding the joy of immersing themselves in something because it’s extraordinary and interesting and cool. It’s like the Fug (see previous entry), but deliberate.
I’m not one of those people who thinks that university is automatically better than other life choices. To me, a carpenter or electrician or shopkeeper, butcher or baker or candlestick maker who really enjoys their craft is a far more interesting — and probably far happier — person than a dissatisfied student grumbling their way through an ivory tower that they don’t get on with. And if none of that interests you, and you’d much rather spend your time fishing or playing World of Warcraft, or creating beautiful but non-commercial works of art, cool. Do that; it’s what you love. But for heaven’s sake, if higher education is just going to make you miserable, don’t do it. You’ll only waste the time of tutors and lecturers and university staff who could be tending the buds of enthusiasm in students who genuinely possess it — and waste your own time, too.