Thursday, January 18, 2007

Thoughts on My Education


I just passed through my yearly revision of my financial aid payments. Still paying on that debt after all these years started me wondering just what I got out of my degrees. Yes, I have the pieces of paper that say I went to college, earned an undergraduate and a graduate degree, but what else? Did I get an education? And isn't that why we go to college?

Well, the answer to that last question is NO, that isn't why we go to college. Sometime in the last 50 to 75 years, colleges quit being about education and started being about producing workers, white collar workers with often limited skills, but workers nonetheless. This has most obviously been the case in producing doctors and lawyers, accountants and computer engineers.

When I finally got my head cleared of all the drug-induced cobwebs and other messiness clouding my mind (from my lost years as a teenager), I didn't have a goal with my education. I first listed my major as business administration because that seemed like what people might expect. Then I took some business classes, and damn, that shit was boring. So I switched my major to psychology because I remembered that one of the few classes I actually attended and liked in high school (other than home economics -- making cookies was always good for the inevitable afternoon munchies, if you know what I mean), was psychology.

So that was my major for the better part of 3.5 years. All the while I was taking as many literature and writing classes as I could -- for no other reason than I enjoyed them. I also took sociology, criminology (a professor almost had me talked into switching majors, then I saw the Stanford Prison Experiments in one of my psych classes and that put an end to that), anthropology, and whatever else seemed interesting.

Midway through my fourth year, I switched majors again, this time to English. I had no vision of how I would make a living with an English degree, I just knew that I enjoyed those classes and that there was more psychology in Dostoevsky than there was in Skinner. Some people even paid for my fifth year in exchange for a thesis on a topic I had submitted, so it seemed I might be good at this stuff. By this time, I was also publishing some poetry and literary criticism, but I knew that no one really gets paid to write that stuff.

All along the way, the point of declaring a major seemed to be so that someone could tell me how I might be gainfully employed with my chosen degree. But that never happened -- I blew off all the appointments to see job counselors. I really didn't care to think much beyond the next paper I had due (this has always proven to be a problem, especially in relationships when my girlfriends would ask me where I saw us in five years and I had no answer -- that didn't go over well).

The problem with my education was that I didn't do the career path. I took all the classes I needed to graduate, but I took a lot that I didn't need just because I wanted to know that subject. My small, liberal arts college was designed to turn out teachers of various sorts, in addition to actors and musicians (Ashland, OR, is home to the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival), some science folks, and a few MBAs. It was designed to create workers.

One thing was clear about me -- I didn't want to be a worker. So I stayed after graduation (for a variety of bad reasons which seemed very good at the time -- which means, yes, you guessed it, a girl, but not just any girl, THE girl, or so I thought) and started the master's program, this time in humanities.

This is where my education gets all wonky. I chose a thesis topic that no one faculty member was qualified to supervise (the poet's role as shaman in contemporary culture, taking a Jungian approach). I put together an outstanding committee of people who never saw each other or talked to each other (most in different departments: one in English, one in psych, the director of the humanities program, and the Dean of Academic affairs, who just so happened to have studied with Mircea Eliade, one of the dominant figures in shamanic studies).

In addition, I helped edit the school lit mag, wrote for the newspaper, worked in the bookstore, read poetry around town, and drank my weight in red wine as often as possible -- oh yeah, and I wore a lot of black to make my many earrings seem more shiny. Life was good. But I wasn't doing anything that would eventually earn me a living.

In many respects, my school failed me. It did not prepare me for a job -- unless somebody was hiring for professional drunken poet/philosopher and I missed the ad. It did not give me a good, classically rounded education (as much as I unconsciously tried to create that on my own). And it didn't seem to notice that I was running my own renegade form of education to which they were only accessories. It's fair to say that I am essentially self-educated -- an accomplishment for which I will be paying a considerable amount of money for many years into the future.

If I could design my own program, it would probably look like the Basic Program that Matthew Dallman has been taking (and blogging about). It would essentially be a great books approach that might offer a grounding in the major works of Western civilization, with enough grounding in others cultures and disciplines to make me an educated person. It would emphasize the ability to read and comprehend a text, any text, and to write intelligently and coherently about it. It would include the trivium approach to education as the foundation upon which everything else was built.

It would not be about producing a worker -- it would be about producing a human being. But at least I would have known that was what I was signing up for -- I wouldn't have had expectations about being employable. And yet, with that well-rounded education, I would be very employable in a variety of fields.

There are some flaws with this classical approach. It may have fallen out of favor because the world became more specialized and needed specialized people. The classical approach mostly produced artists, aristocrats, and leaders of various sorts. With the Enlightenment, things became more specialized and education began a slow shift to keep pace, culminating in the 20th century version of university. Still, I am drawn to the arts in various ways, so it would have been the right education for me.

As I look back, what I generally see is that I got very little from my college degrees. In almost every way, during school and after, I educated myself -- and I continue to do so. Maybe, if nothing else, what I learned in college is that my education is up to me.


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