I spent last Thursday and Friday helping run the MOKA BUG conference at our university, and it was in this context that my struggle with academia resurfaced. The subject of job qualifications, pay rates, and years needed to complete a degree all came up, and I mentioned that I was sorely tempted to just not bother anymore. One of my student workers was incredulous.
“Do you not have any ambition?” she asked. “Is this really all you want to do with your life? You don’t want to do anything more?”
The questions were painful, despite their being asked out of ignorance. I’d rather just brush them off–she doesn’t know anything about me or my life, so her critiques aren’t particularly weighty–but they resonate with questions I ask myself. The problem is, my education is no longer a vehicle to get me where I want to go.
Yes, of course I want to be doing other, better, higher things. I think my current job is important, and though I’m not overly fond of where I’m at professionally, I find fulfillment in the work I am doing. It is good work that benefits people, and my efforts are yielding positive results.
Her assumption, however, frustrated me as it does when voice by anyone. This idea that a college degree is greater, more important, and better than any alternative is overly constricting to me. And it’s not just that I know people who are working jobs that don’t require degrees and are happy (such as friends who are construction workers), but it’s that I know people who are very intelligent and who do mentally challenging work, and who enjoy their lives, where their work is not dependent upon a degree.
I feel like our society has hyper-inflated the value of a degree, and we have done this largely through marketing. University was once a place to go and learn to think, to be exposed to a wider range of ideas, and to critically study subjects with resources (such as professors) that were unavailable elsewhere. Too often now, University is viewed as a trade school. It is an investment to assist one in reaching a higher income bracket. It is no longer a place one goes to learn, but a place one goes to get the job one wants.
“I want to do X, so I need degree Y. Therefore, I will get degree Y.” This is in comparison to, “I want to learn about X, so I shall go to University to learn X.”
This last weekend I found myself really wanting to study apocryphal books from Judeo-Christian history. If I were to pursue this, I would need to finish up my bachelors in Religious Studies, learn Ethiopian, Greek, German, probably French and Spanish, and brush up on my Hebrew. I would also need to move out of state to study elsewhere, incur probably $60,000+ in debt, and not have any way to pay that back. I couldn’t pay it back because I’m not doing this to get job X. I want to learn it just to learn. On a certain level, I understand that universities have bills and salaries to pay so we need to pay tuition, but at the same time I feel like we’re paying a certain amount so we can get a higher paying job. If a job isn’t your goal–say, if you won’t be studying something to leads to a high paying job, but just because you want to learn–then you’ll sink under a pile of debt.
I can study this on my own, to some extent, but I am limited by my day job as well as the mostly meaningless classes (in which I am not interested) to get my own piece of paper.
Yes, I do want to do more. And as I sat reading and thinking at the end of last week, I thought, “Just as soon as I finish my degree, I can start doing some things…”
I’m going to start doing them now.
I do have ambitions, things I want to do, and things I want to learn. A degree will not give me those things. Taking more classes will not give me those things. What does a degree do? It opens doors, helps us get better jobs. But what if what I want to do doesn’t involve submitting a resume, attending an interview, and being awarded a job? What if what I want to do is to actually do something?
Those things aren’t going to magically happen as I attend class and get a piece of paper. They’re not going to magically begin happening after I graduate. They will only happen if I start acting, start doing, and the only thing holding me back is me. Not having my degree doesn’t keep me from doing what I want. Making excuses and procrastinating on my dreams is holding me back.
I’m not going to start studying apocryphal texts hardcore, though I’m going to keep reading and discussing and learning. I am finding a cause I want to promote, and I’m going to start promoting it. I’m going to start doing things. We don’t need a degree to have ambitions, to live productive lives, or to change the world. What we need is a will and a drive to act.