Sunday, June 19, 2011

Useless reflections: Why I went to college

After finishing a Louis Menard piece in the New Yorker about why we go to college, where it posed that question, covered the history of college and its purpose (as a way of empirically determining the most intelligent, or to impart actual knowledge to anyone who seeks it, or preparation for professional careers), I found myself ruminating on why I went to college.

(Yes, I did ruminate on what I learned in college in this previous post, but this will be about the motivation to go before I knew what I'd learn.)

The first thought that sprung to mind was that where I went to high school, if one got decent grades, going to college after graduation was merely a given; it's what one did.

Realistically, I didn't have much in the way of need of college, as at the time I aspired to be a writer, and obviously one doesn't have to go to college to do that—not that there aren't fine MFA programs out there, but I didn't choose a university based on that; truth be told, I went to the campus closest to where I lived. My grades were more than sufficient to get me accepted there, and I didn't have any overwhelming motivation to drive me to strive for anything more challenging. Besides, as I'd be paying for my own education, I would be best served by a modestly priced one.

I was not a particularly impressive student. It's not that I didn't get decent grades—I did—but that was in large part because (in my humble estimation, in retrospect) I was trying just a bit more than most of the other people in my classes, and on that curve I scored in the upper percentages. I was never the smartest one, but I was always closer to that than to the other end of the spectrum.

In case it has not already become clear: This is not an inspirational story; it's merely an honest one.

Given how many hours a week I was working to pay for said education (and then also my rent and other bills), it's probably best to say my education was the hobby that took up the greatest percentage of my free time (during the semester, at least). Given that to this day I've never had a job that specifically required a degree, it's undoubtedly best to classify that time at the university that eventually resulted in my graduating as the longest-running hobby I've had (although in a few years the blahg here will overtake that record).

Given all that, how I didn't drop out can best be attributed to the fact that... uh, let's go with... I didn't want to let down my parents. Uh, I didn't want all that money I spent to have been a waste. Okay: Temporary insanity.

I do take some personal satisfaction from being able to say I am a college graduate, and certainly it holds some benefit to be able to list that on a resume, but what I gained from the experience—some explanation in retrospect for why I went—was avoiding the regret of not having gone (and then the reason I finished, even after I had realized I would not make a living as a creative writer, was avoiding the regret of being a dropout); even if I accomplish nothing else for the rest of my life, I will know I did that.

If I could go back in time and re-live that time, knowing what I know about how the choices I made the first time turned out, might I make some changes? The answer is no. Not only would any different circumstances almost certainly have not resulted in meeting my wife (who is a greater source of happiness than any career could be), but I'd know from the "Treehouse of Horror V" episode of The Simpsons (which aired while I was still going to college), in the "Time and Punishment" segment, where Homer finds himself back in the time and remembers the advice from his father on his wedding day: "If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything. Because even the slightest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine." But realistically, if I were re-living the past with foreknowledge from the future, I doubt I could do it exactly the same even if I were actively trying.

Thus, I am supremely grateful that time travel is not possible.

Not that anything I learned in college taught me that.

Of course, it's only by having gone and completed getting my degree that I know now that such information would not be part of that experience.


Perhaps if I'd been more motivated back then, the endings to these bits wouldn't be so predictable. Oh well.

Eh, I guess I could always go back for post-grad...


  1. Great Question. I went to college also because that is the path everyone in India takes after high school. A high school graduate does not get many or may be any jobs.

  2. I honestly don't know why I went to college. Neither of my parents went, but because I did so well in school it was just expected that I would/should/could go. Too bad there was no thought as to how to pay for it. I sure am paying for it now.

  3. For the most part college was a waste for me. In fact I was told one time to leave my BA degree off job applications because it made me look overqualified.

    I asked someone who worked at a newspaper how much of their college journalism courses helped with the job. The answer: 0. They could have done the job after graduating high school with some training and practical experience.

    I went to college to get a decent job. I got screwed.

    And the alumni foundation wonders why I don't give them one penny. Simple: college wasted my time and I never got a job that paid well enough to donate. I'm glad I defaulted on my student loan. College can be a rip off.


So, what do you think?