The education debate rages on — same as the Republican debate, the healthcare debate, the government spending debate, the pizza-as-vegetable debate.
The Atlantic recently published a great article about education in Finland, the country ranking first for student achievement in developed countries. As more and more college-educated Americans in their twenties land in unemployment, doubts rise about their readiness for the job market. Meanwhile, the NYTimes reports that the average debt for US college graduates in 2010 increased to $25,250, up 5% from the previous year.
Typing “undergraduate” into Google suggests search terms like “undergraduate business school rankings.” (Why?!) Adding “degree” then suggests “undergraduate degree definition.” Apparently, no one knows what an undergraduate degree is, what it accomplishes, or who should get one (unless it’s in the wonderfully diffuse “business” subject area). Distressingly, one top-ten search result for “undergraduate unemployment” is a bone-chilling link to “Free Student Grants & Scholarships.”
It’s about money, silly.
I’m coming up on my fifth year college reunion. When I was close to graduating, I ran into the college president at a senior class function, and we had a quick emotional exchange: He asked me what I was doing after graduation, and I told him I was staying in DC to work for a consulting firm. He asked me if that was what I wanted, and I told him that I’d been hoping to move to New York City, or overseas; but that ultimately, I thought staying in DC for a bit longer was a good thing. “It’ll help me to get over this place, to wean myself,” I said.
Five years later, in contrast, I’m feeling very down-and-out about my education. I have a coveted, competitive, expensive degree from one of the top-ranked schools in the US. In the discipline I studied, it’s consistently ranked #1 worldwide. And yet, as I gaze over my career track — from foreign policy to business to creative writing — I can’t help but wonder: What is it, exactly, that I learned at my wonderful Hilltop of an Alma Mater?
How is it that I, graduate of said esteemed institution, was able to obtain a liberal arts degree without reading a single page of Balzac, Chekhov, Roth, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Woolf? If you want to expand that list, just type “Beatnik” into Wikipedia; pretty much any name on that list is another author that I haven’t read. In high school, I read exactly one book by each of Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Good enough? For high school, maybe; but certainly not to place out of English classes for all eternity. Incidentally, I also didn’t know who Andy Warhol was until my junior year. I knew about Salvador Dali thanks only to my mother’s perfume bottle back in the USSR, which was shaped like a nose and a set of lips, and which never failed to fascinate me.
It’s not that I believe all undergraduates must be trained as fledgling writers, just because I’ve chosen to become one myself. Not everyone must read Hemingway’s complete works before the age of twenty-two. Yet I hold a liberal arts degree from a top-ranked university; shouldn’t I be able to count on it for cultural guidance? Didn’t they want me to be well-rounded, at least insofar as the liberal arts themselves were concerned? What did they expect me to talk about at embassy parties, for which I am theoretically so well groomed?
I suppose that I was meant to discover these great works of literature, as well as most of the world’s art, in my free time. It was the air on the Hilltop that was supposed to motivate and stimulate me. But the sad truth is, I was far too busy. Just as I calculated my GPA every day throughout high school, so I was ridden with GPA anxiety in college. I read just enough of those dense, poorly crafted political science treatises assigned in class to draft solid papers. When I went off-campus, I didn’t go to museums or book signings nearly as often as I went to nightclubs, where I could work off some nervous energy and grind against boys I didn’t know.
I won’t say that my undergraduate degree has rendered me unemployable, or that much worse for wear and tear. But another sad truth is that it trained me to be employed in all the wrong places. I wanted to work in policy — to save lives as a lawyer for the UN, perhaps — but found next to no advice about how to do this. I scheduled awkward fifteen-minute chats with my professors, who told me to go try a think-tank (dull) and avoid private-sector political risk analysis (newspaper-clipping). Then I went to our career center, and saw the names of six investment banks fused in gold letters to the wall. I accidentally applied to an internship at Goldman Sachs, and it all went from there. I think I’ve written about this before.
And now, past my odd flirtation with money-making and corporate-laddering, I’m trying to gather the pieces. If I want to be a writer, what should I do? How do I proceed? Whom do I contact? My college offers me nothing in this regard; in fact, it holds me back: I pay several hundred dollars a month for the privilege of having gone there, and will continue to pay for another decade. I had to turn down a Master’s program in London a few years ago, because I simply couldn’t afford additional debt. This was serendipitous, as the economy has since shrunk too much to absorb an international development scholar who owes more than $100,000. However, I am also weary of my limited prospects to get an MFA and not bankrupt myself in the process.
You see, my education taught me to network and to gloss over myself. I didn’t have to know much of anything to get the consulting job. However, the gloss doesn’t fly in writing. I can draft a pithy, perfectly formatted resume, but I can’t carry on a conversation about 70% of the world’s great literary thinkers. And what are literary thinkers if not the top cultural (and hence social, political, historic) heralds of their time? How can I ever hope to be a viable observer of my society if I haven’t studied the craft of those who successfully observed their own?
I’m picking my way through a reading list, which I’ve created in a spreadsheet and which now has over fifty rows. It’s categorized haphazardly: There are the Beatniks. There is Virginia Woolf. There are the authors of today, like David Foster Wallace. There are recommendations from authors I’ve gone to see, like Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, and many others.
But is that enough? Why can’t I sit back and let a professor create this curriculum for me, helping me to get the most out of each masterpiece through witty repartee and creating literary pairings like pairings of food and wine — Chekhov with a complement of Munro, a bit of Shteyngart to play against Bulgakov’s sadder, thicker voice?
All this decade-long debt — was it really worth it?