Monday, August 31, 2015

Should I Drop Out of College?

We're taking a break today from our usual reflections on books, films, and my own little life to offer help to a troubled new college freshperson of the first-year-type student, previously known as a freshman. 

Avid StarkNotes reader Secky Nipfast of Dubuque, Iowa, writes, "Dear Starknotes, The first week of college flew right by. But it's just not for me. Is it okay if I drop out now?"

My first-draft, gut-level answer is a definite yes. Probably, you can get even a Ph.D., slightly used, from Amazon for next to nothing, and it'll probably be made in America, relieving you of the lingering guilt that comes from buying high-tech products assembled by tiny trembling fingers in countries you've scarcely heard of. So just save yourself the four years of stress and go on to the next phase of life.

After some thought, however, I must revise that response. Before dropping out, see if it's okay with your parents, especially if they're paying your tuition. Also, many employers think degrees are important. Also, think about these factors: 

Unless you've AP'd yourself through your junior year of college, you'll have to take several courses traditionally labeled "Gen. Ed" or "distribution requirements." Everybody hates these, esp. art, English, history, religion, psychology, philosophy, foreign-language, music, creative-writing, and physical-education majors who have to take math. 

But as it turns out, many of us were snagged by one of those annoying courses and couldn't detach ourselves. As a 24-year-old junior fresh from bravely serving this great nation of ours, for example, I took a required English course and found what I pretentiously refer to as my Life's Calling. Had that course not been required, I'm pretty sure I would've wound up in Madison, FL, throwing watermelons onto the back of a truck or tearing tickets and sweeping up popcorn at the Woodard Theater.
Where I would've been working . . . 

That happens to lots of us. So go into those required courses with an open mind. After a couple of weeks, you'll know if it's time to close it.

Often, you're uncomfortable at college because you don't think you're as smart or as well prepared as the other students. I felt the same way, chiefly because I did next to nothing in high school and I assumed that everyone else in college had worked their butts off and were way ahead of me. That was an illusion spawned by my naive belief that college was a community of serious searchers, inquirers, scholars and learners. 

When I arrived at FSU as a 24-year-old "grownup," I saw all these guys with beards and glasses, and women daringly wearing their hair just any old way and no bras, and these traits struck me as, I dunno, so university-like, denoting people who were bearing down, shedding the restraints of a narrow-minded society and exploring the life of the mind. Well, I was wrong again. By then it was the early Seventies, and the guys were mostly stoners without a cause and the women, in the age of ERA, were just trying to make a point.

A rural goober, I wound up making mostly A's, while the dressed-for-university sophisticates asked me such pre-exam questions as "Quick! Was Iago in Hamlet or Macbeth?"

Especially for more creative students, college can feel suffocating, restrictive, can make them feel like they're just being prepped to "work for the man." They are justifiably eager to create their own literature, rather than reading Alexander Pope or E.L. James or whatever authors they read in college now. They aspire to write their own music, design their own clothes, learn how to "brand themselves" in a productive but painless manner. 

Some of them certainly have a good argument here. There's a long list of artists of all types who did not benefit from a traditional college education. My man William Blake himself was a little short of advanced degrees and once boldly stated, "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare. My business is to create."

I like that! And what fourth-grader hasn't reminded his teacher that Edison couldn't spell (or whatever), "so why should I?" Yeah!

Yes, but . . . until you've read 50 or 60 other poets, how can you be sure you're William Blake or Wilhelmina Blake or Emily Dickinson? Did Edison and Einstein achieve their many wonders ex nihilo  or were even they in some sense on the shoulders of their predecessors? 

I can tell you from personal experience that it is truly embarrassing to work long and hard on something, thinking you're creating a work so fresh and new that it will overwhelm its genre only to have some nimrod point out that "David Foster Wallace has already written a book just like that and it's called Infinite Jest! Idiot!" Sure wish I had those eight years back!
Who kniew it'd already been written?

So touch base with the works in your field so you won't wind up creating an old new world.

In some way, that I can't quite fathom, this brings us directly to our next topic. College is supposed to be the place where you Enter the Dialogue. The big one. It's where we go, ideally, to engage in intelligent, enlightened, tolerant, open discourse. To cheesify it, it's like entering an Idea Expo or Showroom. We're somewhat familiar with the ones in our head, our received "wisdom," but there are so many others to sample, to inspect, to analyze, to rent, maybe ultimately -- who knows? -- to buy.

You won't find many opportunities for this after college, so if you're going to stay in, please familiarize yourself with new ideas and the civil ways of sharing them. Even if you've never watched the news or read an opinion piece, if you're on Facebook, you know we live barricaded in our own respective worlds. We advertise it with daily posts designed for people like ourselves so we can all believe more firmly what we already believe. The other side is comprised of idiots, some of them evil. (I have been guilty of this, but I differ in that my ideas actually are indisputably right.)

This mentality is shrinking our minds -- making us mental midgets, as it were (and here I'm using the word "midgets" in the sense of . . . oh, never mind!) -- and polluting our community (of humans). So college must be the place where we open our minds and do what may be the most important thing: listen. Your position may be the right one, absolutely; your opponent may be completely, utterly wrong, But as a famous man said, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken" (my emphasis; also, the first person to identify the speaker will receive free admission to through January).

Word on the street has it, however, that college campuses no longer find such conversations safe for everyone, but, new freshmen, go in there and fix that. Quote the old journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann who said "we must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say. . . . If we truly wish to understand why freedom is necessary in a civilized society, we must begin by realizing that, because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions, the liberties of other [people] are our own vital necessity" (my emphasis). Speak your opinions with civility. If you offend someone, apologize genuinely. It'll be fine.

So Secky, dear friend, ponder all of this in your heart before abandoning the sacred ivy-clad halls of academe. You're apt to encounter some lousy teaching and some razor-thin theories that threaten to forever warp your view of, for example, literature, but keep your heart open for something that feeds it. Don't get swept up in the groupthink, if it exists at your school of choice. College changed my life. Maybe it'll change yours.

And remember the words of Larry Bird (he played basketball): "My vision and my height are God-given. Everything else I worked my ass off for." But don't work your ass completely off. Save your health so you can share those freshly honed gifts once you've entered the world. 

And you have gifts, Secky. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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