Many of your closest peers are coming to the end of their undergraduate experience, entering grad school, or moving into the workforce. So what better time to wonder if it was all worth it? What interests us here is the current state of the education system, and the societal forces that support it. The issue, at least for me, is that education isn’t being undertaken for it’s own sake, but as a rung on the ladder toward the modern conception of success. Not only is the system dysfunctional, the end goal is an illusion. Success is no longer defined by financial security and familial well-being, but the acquisition of excess and status. To use the analogy of a marathon, education is an inauthentic race to an illusory finish line – not providing a means or an end.
Young adults are at a critical juncture, and the decisions they make now have lifelong implications, so they outsource the decision-making and effectively let their parents and peers shape their future. The external pressures that spur the anxiety and torment of students across North America are best exemplified in something as simple as a conversation at a dinner party. It usually starts like this:
“Where do you go to school?”
The questioner is explicitly aware of the prestige of certain schools, and the stigma that accompanies others. In some neighbourhoods an education at a technical college will be weighted differently than a university. As a result they will begin forming their opinion alongside their personal conception of success, status, contributions to society (hopefully), etc. If you mention you have decided to pass on post-secondary education their response will be different. By foregoing an important section of the North American paradigm of success, you have shown disregard for a system that most (including myself) have followed, and likely assume to be necessary. We continue:
“What are you studying there?”
Here is a second turning point in the conversation. Just as universities carry a certain cache, so too does your academic discipline. The humanities are generally regarded with disdain, while the money-making degrees are met with approval for their “real world” practicality. Now if you are like me, you mention that you study philosophy, which is met with some mix of confusion/contempt/good acting on behalf of the questioner.
“Well, what are you going to do with that?”
So to appease others and protect our pride in these types of social situations, which might conveniently be a microcosm of the larger issue, we go to school and do the work and get the A so that when we show up at these little events we can feel good about what we tell other people. The problem is that along the way we forget the point of attending university, namely, to get an education. As a result we don’t bother understanding the material but focus our energy on memorizing it before the test. If you ask a kid whether they would rather know the material or get an A on their transcripts, they would insist on the A because it will yield more opportunities in the future. The appearance of excellence will get you to the next level, and knowledge for the sake of knowledge doesn’t show up on a resume.
The law school application process is particularly vexing. Law schools applications at most universities involve two things: LSAT score and GPA. Now I understand why they do this, namely, because they get such an influx of applications that it’s easier to have a measurable standard for admittance. Otherwise committees would be sifting through applications for hours on end trying to compare the value of volunteering in Africa to playing the classical flute. So they understandably look at statistics that are objectively measurable, but in doing so reduce human beings to something that is objectively measurable.
I’ll preface my argument by saying that I am someone who stands to immediately benefit form the current selection format. Law schools consider weigh your LSAT score and GPA roughly 50/50. But law school admission offices should be selecting the candidates that will eventually make the best lawyer. That is the whole point, right? Not just taking $40,000 a year and pushing us out the door. Now you might respond by saying that grades represent qualities like work ethic, commitment, intelligence, which would all be favourable in an employee in any discipline. But what else are those numbers not telling us? Was this person in arts or sciences? The latter being notoriously more difficult to get higher grades in. Did this person play a sport, overcome a disability, experience family hardship at a critical time? What about the kids who had to work a part-time job, while the others got LSAT tutoring and the summer to study?
The North American conception of success is synonymous with the ability to make money. There is nothing wrong with making money, but what worries me is that young adults sacrifice the opportunity to do meaningful work in favour of careers that offer immediate financial security. This type of thinking fosters an aversion to risk taking, and discourages the type of self-exploration essential to becoming an adult. There is such a social stigma that surrounds taking a year off, or becoming a musician, a writer, or a painter that we shy away from these vocations because of what other people might say about us. Like in the conversation depicted above, our day-job gives people a way to immediately quantify the value of our work, and as such we have a way to measure a person’s value. We aren’t concerned with what that person actually does when they get to work, or the boredom they experience at their desk, we are more focused on their pay-check. So to appease others we go to school and do the work and get the A so when we… you get the point.
If you asked my father why he worked so hard his answer would be something to the effect of, “To give my family a better life.” So the ultimate irony is that despite our parent’s intentions, their desire for us to get higher education ends up limiting our options. Instead of having unlimited opportunities we are shepherded to moneymaking degrees. And they aren’t being selfish, but they go to these parties too, and they talk to your friends, and they fall prey to the same basic social influences that everyone else does. Maybe there is something more Darwinian to all of this? Survival of the fittest has become survival of the richest. After all, if you are rich you can afford the time and leisure it takes to have a sound body, mind, and soul. But when I imagine someone who has achieved this type of balance in their life I see a 65-year old man on the golf course – I don’t consider the gruelling 45 years it took to get there. The expression “retire young” has a tacit dependence on your job being unenjoyable, because if you really love your job, then why the hell would you want to stop doing it?
Anyway, hopefully this article finds you at a place in your life when you can reflect on the meaning of your day-to-day work, and exercise some control over the narrative of your future.
- Matt Silver