I can’t be the only one who found college to be a pretty dark time

Was talking to an acquaintance yesterday about college and about how this person feels nostalgic for college. They’re happy enough now, but they also feel constrained. I joked that nostalgia for college was “the dark side.” Which was a bit facetious. I’m still astonished by how idyllic the setup for college (at least in the upper-middle-classes) tends to be. It’s all the privileges of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I mean, we pay lip service to the idea that you’re there to learn, but if you want to, it’s very possible to get through college with minimal effort.

However, I, personally, do not feel at all nostalgic for college. In fact, when I walked aroiund the old alma mater yesterday, I actually felt a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t overwhelming. I was still able to feel nostalgic. It was nice to reconnect with myself at a younger age, just because I usually feel so disconnected from my past self. I enjoy that sense of continuity. As in, yes, I am the person who once ate hot cookies (and ice cream? Or am I just imagining the ice cream?) every day in the Wilbur dining hall.

But the sense of dread was real. And I was profoundly glad, during my whole walking tour, that I was not in college anymore. Now that I’ve been out for six years, I feel like I can say that my four years in college were unquestionably the darkest time in my life. I had plenty of fun. I made lots of really good friends. I saw and did lots of new things. But I was also acutely miserable much of the time.

It’s no one’s fault. Not even my own. I don’t really know what caused it. I don’t think drinking was entirely the cause of the misery (though it didn’t help). I think I just wasn’t equipped to live in such close quarters with so many people. I remember I just felt really awkward, really shy, and really emotionally stunted. I felt like everyone was making lifelong friends and falling in love, and I was in stasis. I had no idea how to relate to people. No idea how to talk to them. Couldn’t understand how to make friends. And the only way I could face people was by drinking. But the drinking then led to more negative feelings and more fragmentation and confusion. And I really lost my sense of self.

In high school, I was relatively happy (most of the time). And I had my friends and my place in the world. I was elected Student Council President, and I was not unpopular. I kind of knew who I was. But in college, I felt completely helpless. I wanted desperately to feel close to people, but I just didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. All I knew how to do was go to parties and drink. But even there, I felt so shy. I’d walk around in circles in the hopes that the constant movement would obscure the fact that I was there alone. I’d stand silently at the edge of peoples’ conversations until I was finally drunk enough to break in. It’s still amazing to me. Nowadays I am so systematic in how I handle my problems. But back then I didn’t even know that being systematic was a thing. I didn’t even know that I had a problem which I could work on and get better at.

I think I was stunned by the environment. The crush of people was so constant and all-encompassing. There was no room to reflect, and no way to take stock. I’m struggling to articulate what I mean when I say that my sense of self was gone, because it’s a complicated and subtle thing, a sense of self. I guess what I mean is that everything was so immediate. I couldn’t even think about next week. I was in triage mode all the time, because each day and each moment brought such powerful waves of loneliness and anger. Part of me is wondering if I’m being overdramatic. But I don’t think so. It really was that bad. And I really did regress and become less capable of interacting with people and making plans for the future.

In contrast, every year since graduating has been great. Even my first year out, when I was jobless and still drinking, was much better than the year prior. a2ef41a19830e7fc4f1c4e03a0df46cc58And although I’ve had periods of depression in the time since college, I’ve always experienced that depression as something strange, something outside my normal mood, and something that I needed to work to address. I feel like in the last five years I’ve done all the things I didn’t do in college: I’ve learned to make friends and to relate to new people, experienced romantic entanglements; found my vocation; and learned lots of new things. It’s been great. You couldn’t pay me to go back.

The problem with majoring in the humanities is that you’re getting an education that’s fundamentally pre-professional

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI just finished teaching a class where I made students read the first chapter of Made To Stick, which is a phenomenal book on communicating your ideas. After we discussed it, I told them that they really ought to go out and read it on their own, because reading that book made me aware of a way of communicating that I had never recognized as something that I could and should be able to do. But I also felt compelled to add that nothing they learned from the book would really be very useful to them in their college careers.

That’s because Made To Stick is solely concerned with one thing: “How can I make other people remember the things that I say?”

And that is not something that is of value in college, because the mission of college is to train kids to come up with original things to say. College is not really concerned with disseminating ideas, because its methods of communication are already so efficient and so well-established. Academics communicate using conferences and journals, and they communicate using pre-existing forms and types of language that are fairly well-defined. To a certain extent, a compelling presentation is distrusted, because there’s a suspicion that it’s being used to obscure the trueness of the idea.

Being a good communicator is never useless, but it is much less useful in academic environments than it is in other contexts.

And it made me pretty depressed to think that students are being trained in skills that they won’t need when they leave college, and that they’re not learning the skills that they will need.

When academics talk about the value of an education in the humanities, there’s always an essential falseness to their argument. They argue that the humanities help you lead a good life and understand your place in the universe and become more empathetic and be a better citizen and all that stuff. And maybe those things are true, but the academic has a fundamentally different relationship to the humanities than his student does. As one of my MFA classmates once remarked to me, “I’m expected to be an advocate for the humanities, but, for me, all my humanities education has been in preparation to becoming a professor: my college education in the humanities was, fundamentally, pre-professional.”

For the student, the humanities are an interesting body of knowledge. But for the academic, they’re a job skill.

The academic makes his living doing the things that he is training his students to do. And the education he gives is a pre-professional one: it obviously makes tons of sense to write that fifteen page paper on the treatment of Islam in Moby Dick if you hope to someday make a living by writing fifteen-page papers on X element of Y text.

Almost none of the academic’s students, though, are going to be paid to conduct original thinking in the humanities. And the crisis of the humanities is that the system doesn’t take that into account.

Historically, there were only three kinds of higher education–priestly, technical, and managerial–and they were all pre-professional. For example, if you were a middle-class person  in 19th century Britain, you could’ve gone to Oxford to become a priest, or to some medical college to become a doctor, or to Sandhurst to become a soldier.

To a large extent, these divisions have carried over into the modern day. When you’re in college, you can major in an applied science (engineering or pre-med), or something ‘practical’ (communications, business, economics, etc), or in something more abstract and intellectual (physics, math, history, cultural studies, etc.)

Generally speaking, the applied sciences and the practical majors seem to have pretty clear missions: they try to teach you the actual job skills that you will someday use in your the job that you hope to get once you graduate from college.

Math and the natural sciences have a slightly fuzzier mission in that their aim is to educate you to be a scientist or a mathematician. However, most people who major in Physics are not going to do original work in physics. Most people who major in Math are not going to discover new mathematical theorems. But much of this existential confusion can be ignored because the natural sciences also give you some fairly practical skills. If you majored in math, you can work on Wall Street. If you majored in biology, you can go to med school. And so on.

The real problem comes in with the humanities. There too, the aim is clear: to give their students the tools to extract original interpretations from texts (with the definition of ‘text’ changing depending on the given discipline). The problem is that very few jobs utilize these tools. Being able to draw meaning out of an ambiguous text is really helpful if you’re a scholar or a priest, but it’s not so helpful when you’re trying to make a career in human resources. In most jobs, the texts are just not that ambiguous (or if they are, they should be ignored, because they’re purposefully written in a way that’s vacuous). That’s why so many English majors end up in law school: it’s one of the only profession that requires textual analysis.

So people in the humanities are reduced to arguing that the ability to conduct textual analysis will result in positive side-effects: humanities majors will be more articulate, more empathetic, more aware of their place in the universe.

The problem, though, is that these claims ring false, because the way in which the humanities are taught makes it clear that none of the above are part of its primary aims. If we cared about making our students more articulate, we wouldn’t have them write jargon-filled papers about the tortured interpretation that they’ve coaxed out of Hamlet–instead, we’d make them read Made To Stick, and then we’d force them to find a way to convey (in a clear and engaging and ‘sticky’ fashion) some of the current thinking on Hamlet. If we wanted them to be more aware of their place in the universe, then instead of asking them to figure out, in the abstract, what Plato might’ve meant, we’d ask them to write personal essays on what Plato makes them think about with regards to how they live their own lives. If we wanted to teach them to read and enjoy literature, then we wouldn’t focus (as English classes so often do) on lesser-known or less-traveled parts of the canon (works that it’s easier to write about because fewer academics have picked them over). Instead, we’d make them read Middlemarch and Moby Dick and we’d try to teach them to experience those books as things that are vivid and alive (rather than as corpses that we must dissect using our superior intellects).

It’s not that I don’t think that the humanities are worthwhile. I definitely do. It’s just that I don’t think literary analysis is the only way (or even the best way) for a non-academic to experience the humanities. I’m not one of those people who has any problem with literary analysis. I’ve read plenty of academic writing in the humanities (well, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Delany, mostly) and have found it to be worthwhile. I just don’t think it’s a particularly worthwhile skill for a person who is not going to be writing academic papers about literature.