Wednesday, November 23, 2011

College: Why Bother If You Don’t Know Who You Are Or What You Want?

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The Basics: If you don’t know what you want to do in life, college can be a huge waste of time, money and life.

Since I wrote about my alma matter, Binghamton University (reviewed here!), I’ve thought about the advice I’ve given in the past, and I think it’s time I tried another Education article here. That’s my way of ramping up to write what has lost me more teaching jobs in my past than anything else:

Don’t go to college.

Yes, you, the smart one, sitting there reading this. I’m writing to you. I’m writing to you because you’ve probably been told your whole life that you’ll succeed in high school, you’ll go to college and then you’ll go out into the working world where opportunities will be laid at your feet and you will succeed admirably and impress family, loved ones and the world at large. I’m sorry to say, but you’ve been lied to your entire life and it’s about time someone set you straight. Ironically, that will be me today, an unemployed writer who spends their days writing novels, screenplays and reviews read by a very limited audience.

Before I continue this, I want to be sure I have the right reader, because so many people can pick this review to read. You, there, the kid who bought their first chemistry set at age nine and has had to have the thing refilled every year for birthdays and Christmas presents because all you do is chemical experiments, this isn’t for you; you applied to the top schools to be an industrial chemist when you were a Freshman, if not while you were still in junior high. And you, free-spirited photographer who spends their days taking pictures and their nights working in a digital darkroom, this probably isn’t for you, either (unless you’re still waffling on not going to college). If you know what you want and there is a clear career path to what you want through college or if you do not have the skills necessary to advance in your chosen field (i.e. you are said photographer, but you don’t actually know what an f-stop is) then college may be a great choice for you.

But the rest of you, listen up!

College is not for you. If you’re part of the great, sweaty mass of young people who spent your childhood being a kid, doing kid things and just having fun without developing much in the way of interests, goals or a personality, college is not for you. Indeed, college is a waste for you and your professors and the people you might meet. It’s why cults love colleges as recruiting grounds; if you’re an unpainted canvass, it makes it all the more likely that others will paint what they want onto you. If you go in knowing even the general idea of what you want your painting to look like, you have a much better chance of ending up where you want to be.

College is not a place to find yourself. This is a huge myth and one I would love to dispel for every reader out there. College is an extension of high school for those who do not know what they want to do in life. Did you find yourself in high school? If not, then college will probably not be the place you find yourself either. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, if you’re paying for college yourself, you shall quickly discover that you are overwhelmed with paying for it. One of the most severe consequences of paying for college yourself is that it usually requires multiple jobs just to make it happen. When you’re working two jobs, you’re not likely to look at the roster of electives and say “I wonder if photography is for me, I should take photography 1010!” You’re vastly more likely to say “I’ve never done photography, and if I want to pay next month’s rent, I need to pick up three more hours worth of work, which means I’m not going to take anything but the essentials.” And then you’re studying.

Second, if your parents, grandparents, the state, or some strange neighbor is paying your way, the opposite is more likely to be true. Because you are not invested in paying for college, you’re more likely to try anything and going to college on a “general education” (read: undeclared or “liberal arts”) package is more likely to simply reinforce the idea that you’re still in high school, trundling along playing the game. It’s also more likely you’ll fall in with similar people whose greatest ambitions are drinking a lot of beer as a minor and loafing.

Either way, college is not for the undecides.

Beyond that, college is not a great place for networking, at least until you decide exactly what you want. Here is where, sadly, experience comes into play in many of the more unfortunate ways. Most of the people you go to school with are your competition. And the ones who aren’t are of almost no use to you in networking. To wit, I went to college (A- student in high school, 3.81 GPA in college, getting a B.A. in English in 2 ½ years while I paid my way) for an absolutely worthless degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I took classes and discovered I had already written vastly more than my peers. I learned scriptwriting by . . . getting ahold of scripts for the types of projects I wanted to write. I didn’t need to learn how to write novels because I had read a lot and I wasn’t looking to write someone else’s voice. Writing is about finding YOUR voice and putting it on the page. I knew that going into college. But, back to the point. My peers are now teachers – which I quickly discovered is not what I want to be, as I cannot stand administrators – or are writers themselves. The teachers cannot get me a jobs in writing and the writers aren’t about to help me because they are competing for the attentions of the same agents, publishers, and studios, so the smaller the field, the better chance they have. This goes for virtually every other field, from hospital work to big business. Sure, you can graduate with your best friend and go out into the business world together, but unless you’re starting a business together, when you go back to them to see if they can get you a job, you can pretty much expect that you’re either going to be vastly below them or in a field that’s not quite right for you and doesn’t use your college-granted talents (i.e. cleaning the floors in your friend’s business). It sounds cold, but it’s true; as the job market becomes tighter and opportunities are fewer, the peers who were supposed to be a great source of aid after college will either ignore you or use you.

Which takes us to the flip side. It’s a cold world and it’s tough to get a job without a degree. However, it’s tougher to live a life miserable as a slave to capitalism without knowing who you are and what you want. To that end, not going to college can allow you to develop your talents and find what truly speaks to your heart, minds and abilities. For example, my partner slaves away currently at a crappy minimum wage job. She has very little time for herself and since moving in with me, she has been unhappy with her work and where we’re forced by the economy to live. But, on the days off she has, she has discovered she loves (and has an amazing talent for) photography. She has taught herself to use both digital cameras and digital editing equipment and next week after we pay off our car, she’s setting aside money for a new camera. Right now, she doesn’t need a college degree to pursue what makes her happy and what will make her money. She would not have had months to develop as a photographer, though, had she been stuck in college – in fact, she went to college for a time and left and only then did her photography explode.

It sounds New Agey and crazy, but the truth is, college is not for everyone and it is much easier to go to a potential employer with talent and say, “I’ve not had an opportunity to go to college, but if that’s what’s required to work here, perhaps we can work something out” than to go through endless job listings for which one has the wrong degree or to waste a life trapped in a job that uses a degree to make only enough money to get by with. Life is, truly, too short for that.

Should you apply for college? Unless you know how you want to spend your life afterward and what your goal is beyond that, no. Find who you are and go with a goal, don’t let college be the place where you define your ambitions and abilities. There will always be a place that will take you when you are ready and there will always be an employer who respects that you didn’t want to waste years of your life without a direction by going in the wrong direction. College is most valuable to those who have a dream, vision and a realistic goal they wish to pursue.

For other reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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