The Last Man to go to College

Almost four years ago, I went to my sister’s college graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design. Though I was very happy for her, especially after the difficulties she had experienced early on, I often remember this time – June 2011 – as a low point. I had just finished my first ever job as an adjunct professor at Truman College in Chicago, teaching two courses in general humanities. When my courses ended, there weren’t any other openings for me and so it was right back to the long slog of looking for work again.

It was the end of spring and the start of summer – by the time I got back to Chicago, it was hot enough that my dad said that it was the most massive massive heat wave he’d ever experienced. A car caught on fire right in front of my dusty apartment overlooking Pulaski Road and the CTA Blue Line. In Rhode Island, at the graduation, it wasn’t quite as hot, but still warm enough so that a hoodie or jacket of any sort was inadvisable.

Accordingly, I couldn’t hide the weight I had put on. I was probably at my heaviest during this time, having gained 30-40 lbs in the two years since my own graduation. I was unhealthy all around; my blood pressure was always high and my hair, once long, was being lost (although it has seemingly recovered some in recent years now that stress has gone away and I have used saw palmetto supplements)

Walking around downtown Providence, aimless and for the moment unemployed (I wouldn’t find my next job until October of that year, and then I got my breakthrough that December) I kept thinking back to the very different world it had been for me only 3 years prior, when I had graduated from Brown. 2008 had been the culmination of a long journey back, but this 2011 episode was pulling me back into the swamp.

I had overcome a terrible 2005 in which deep depression resulted in me taking only 6 classes during the calendar year and going through a whole regimen of medications that I don’t think did much for my condition. 2006 and 2007 had been much better, but 2008 – when I graduated with honors after finishing a thesis, won several translation prizes, and planned my pivotal move to Chicago – was special. It felt like I had a lot in front of me, and I did. My time in Chicago was life-changing, even if I struggled from 2009 to 2011 to find my footing.

But the RISD graduation, wherein I looked at so many people being happy while I had seemingly nothing going on, made me doubt if any of my college journey, with all of its turmoil and ecstasy, had even been worth it. What did I have to show for college?

Every generation wants to feel like it’s special and that it lives in The Most Important Epoch Ever or something. For Baby Boomers and everyone younger today, cliché language about technology, the Internet, and the ubiquitous “global marketplace” are all signs of people trying to position their times in the limelight of history. The RISD keynote that year was full of this jargon and I made fun of to someone else at the time – what about the people who saw the invention of electricity or fire? But what did I know – I was being left out of this brave new world.

While I sat in the chair in the Rhode Island Convention Center, I began to think if college, far from turning into some increasingly egalitarian, embedded institution, would instead turn out, ultimately, to have been a generational quirk – an oddity that ended up becoming a monster that consumed the time and fortunes of young adults. College didn’t use to be for everyone; virtually anyone with money who wasn’t Jewish could go to an Ivy League school before World War 2 ended. Competitive admissions, extracurriculars, big-ticket sports – none of that was on the table till at least mid century, when the Greatest Generation and the Lost Generation began going to college for literally pennies on the dollar of today’s tuition.

College was good while it lasted, from the postwar boom until about the 1980s or possibly a bit later. It was affordable, plus getting a degree was a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else. If nothing else, an employer would take you more seriously, as someone who could dedicate herself to a task and think critically, based on your degree.

But now a bachelor’s degree is table stakes. Tuition is insane, being equal to an American middle class family’s yearly income – for each of four years required to get that B.A. For professional school, the total, too, is almost inevitably 6-figures USD. College, one an institution reserved for classicists, historians, and the “free” rich who had the privilege to access campus at all, and then for veterans and middle-income families, is now as much a millstone as it as a torch of knowledge.

I’m talking to some degree about the cost of student loans in the U.S., but I’m also talking about the broader transformation of college into means of social control and punishment, wherein exorbitant cost also works alongside unbelievable political correctness on subjects like Islam  – I say this in criticism of the left, and as a lifelong liberal at that! -, a homogenization of studies into mostly vocational fields, the destruction of the humanities, the hypocrisy of paying lip service to work-from-anywhere technology while insisting on a (pricey) in-person “experience,” and the dreaded, humorless question that seems to really demonstrate how college long ago has crossed a rubicon – “So what are you going to do with that?”

College has become both something that everyone “knows” she needs but no one really knows is for. Fields like computer science, which dominate the academic programs at institutions like Stanford, can be realistically broken into without academic training. Meanwhile, having all the academic training in the world in a field like English wouldn’t guarantee someone even an entry-level position rewriting InformationWeek stories for some godforsaken blog.

This isn’t to deny that college is an important stepping stone for many people. Some fields have hard and fast credentials, and then there is the constant prospect of networking through the people that one meets during the undergraduate years. But at what cost? Like secondary schools, tertiary ones have become business-like entities in which the agenda is to raise money and raise “competitiveness” against some ill-defined adversary – there’s your “global economy” again. Students are along for the ride.

That 2011 summer, I cursed myself at every step for not having majored in something more “practical,” because, after all, what WAS I going to do with my Classics degree? But now, years later, I curse myself for having cursed myself so.

I realize that didn’t care about other subjects, and had come to college to study languages and literature as a way of fulfilling the incredible experience I had learning from books during my middle school and high school years (the books I read, from “Moby-Dick” to “The Brothers Karamazov” had been more formative than any class, I would argue in retrospect). My fear now is that, with all the pressures I’ve felt as an adult, I would be less independent-minded were I do it all over again, and instead cave and major in pre-med or some such.

Here I am, almost four years later, probably making much less than I would have had I made a few different academic decisions, but my situation is ideal. I’m married, I can work from home, I can take long walks in the middle of the day, I get to write.  And I realize that though college may have chewed me up and spit me out, spiting me for following my interests, that everyone is in the college game together, that all subjects are related, and that even if the knives are out for the humanities now and not for physics and calculus, some day they will be. Scott Samuelson once commented in The Atlantic:

“The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? .. we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

“Slaves” – keep that in mind.

I am lucky, in a selfish way, to have gone to college when I did. The year I began (2004) was the year Facebook was founded, and the year I graduated (2008) was the year that iPhone 3G launched and the year that Lehman Brothers went under. When I arrived to a crisp Rhode Island day on the first of September, 2004, most of the world had never heard of “social media,” wasn’t under pressure from smartphones, apps, and robots that could take their livelihoods, and didn’t know what a subprime mortgage was.

I feel like if I had started even a year later, knowing my own peculiar temperament and how I obsess over everything that could go wrong, that I would have been dispirited by the crushing recession that made anything but nebulous “technical skills” apparently useless to hiring managers, that bailed out banks at the expense of taxpayers, that sucked up the household wealth that would have, in another time, gone toward a liberal education, and that, really, turned so many in America into captives (like Thoreau’s “slaves”), unable to live the lives that they had thought about and instead yoked to corporations doling out stagnant wages. I know I felt that way in 2011, unhealthy, part-time job-hopping, and hot – what a reversal from my humanistic optimism of 2004!

In the end, though, I’m happy I survived and that, in a way, I had all that unemployment (and support from family) to sort out what I had gone right and wrong and decompress. I remember going to an alumni networking lunch in 2009 and telling a Chicago attorney there that I was looking for a job after having finished school, and she said – “I bet it’s a relief not to work for a while.” It startled me; I wanted nothing more than a job at that time, but it seemed like she wanted nothing more than to be free of hers. How could anyone feel that way (thought a different version of me that had never held a full-time job before)? Maybe I already won a small victory by just having time and perspective to think back about what college had done to me and what was next.

Some day, I think, the entire college experience, as it now conceived in the U.S., will seem odd. Facebook, after all, was originally designed to move the whole college experience online, and that seems like an unstoppable process by now, albeit one done in tandem with increasing corporatization and control – these subjects are “safe” (read: good for businesses) and these subjects are not (who really needs to learn about Marx or Lenin, eh?).

Sometimes I feel like I – like the other people in my batch – was the last man to go to college. The last man there before college evolved into some Frankenstein of business, technology, and ever-rising tuition, when moments like that 2011 graduation – where I looked on, as both a “free” man with nothing to do and everything to study and a captive who couldn’t even survive on his own – at others graduating and entering an entirely different world, where the notion of “free” individuals was dying – seemed impossible.

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