Was Going to College a Mistake?
college graduating college higher education philosophy rationality reason student university
One of the problems I encountered at the University of Chicago was the problem of modes of thinking. Pirsig talks about the difference between rational/classical and artistic/romantic thought as if it were something most people miss, but it bugged me from the very beginning that everyone assumed the only kind of thought was rational. The university system blatantly subscribes to the idea that the only real way to get to truth is through rational, analytical thinking. I read the passage in the book and I thought, "Hey, I thought I was the only one." I thought that because so far I have been the only one who shares that view. Everyone I talk to about it either agrees carelessly, like they don't' really care one way or the other how truth is achieved, or they violently disagree. I don't really consider myself on either side of the fence, but it seems that rationalists are the only ones who think about thinking very much.
Our entire society is based on the belief, begun in the Enlightenment, that rationality is the end-all-be-all of knowledge acquisition. I see this mentality in nutrition all the time: people have known for thousands of years how to eat, and what to eat, and yet, modern man refuses to trust that intuition, preferring instead fabricated food designed by scientists rather than cooks. Just look where that has gotten us.
The thing is, people didn't always think this way. A lot of societies accepted the idea that some extremely significant modes of understanding were not based on rationality and logic. Logic and reason had their place, and intuition, emotion, romantic artistic understanding had its place. Spirituality had its place, and was as valid a mode of understanding as logic. As the author of the book says, the inventors of logic, the ancient Greeks, themselves didn't try to apply it to every area of life. I was, before college, quite convinced that logic was the way to go, that I was the most rational person in the room, and I was proud of it. It was of course untrue, since I was actually a very emotionally volatile person (something I learned from my girlfriends), but I was only beginning to toy with the idea that I could find fulfillment in emotional, social, physical, or spiritual realms.
The problem: logic and reason does very little for emotional fulfillment. It does even less for spiritual fulfillment. The question, "what is the purpose of living?" is not one that can be easily answered by that body of knowledge that claims logic as its midwife: science. Science would tell you the purpose of life is to reproduce before dying. But one wonders why scientists even bothered to formulate that conclusion, since it doesn't help them achieve it. And here is my problem: the school I went to did not prepare me for anything other than logical, rational thought. In fact, it discouraged any other method of approaching truth. That was why I chose it.
Now, however, I am questioning the choice to go to such a rigorous, traditional-education school. Maybe it's because I am reading more now, find myself more passionate about learning outside of school, than I ever did in school. Maybe it's because my last year of college was good because it had much less to do with learning. The thing is, I'm disillusioned that I didn't care about my education but still got all As. Maybe I'm idealistic, but that shouldn't even be possible. The University of Chicago, an institution that celebrated "The Life of the Mind" killed my love of learning. Or perhaps I killed it myself out of guilt and a sense of obligation to my parents.
Which brings me back to my original point, that I wasn't ever sure I wanted to go to college in the first place. Pirsig toys with the idea of a gradeless university, in which students who were only there for the diploma would eventually be discouraged and leave on their own, while those who genuinely had something to learn would push themselves to learn it. I remember a part of me wanting wait to have something to pursue in college, rather than hope to find it when I got there. Going into college, I had no idea what I wanted to learn. I had no basis on which to form any passion for learning at all, since I had spent no time in the real world. The things I loved to do in high school had nothing to do with learning. I must admit I was attention-starved, and getting good grades was my way of getting attention. I lived to be the envy of my peers, to be loved by my teachers. I can't really honestly say that I cared much for anything I learned in high school, other than maybe English and Biology. One thing I did enjoy about knowledge was the acquisition. I liked figuring out how things functioned, not in order to put it to any use but simply to demystify it. Calculus, geometry, LEGOs. In fact, I can say calculus was one of my favorite subjects in high school. In college, I couldn't have cared less about calculus.
And that scared me. I went to college expecting to blossom. Everybody said I would, based on my academic performance in high school, and while a part of me wanted to wait until I had something to apply $50,000 a year to learn, another part believed that it would help me find myself. Four of the most obnoxious, disappointing, frustrating years of my life, $200,000+, and I have even less an idea of what I want to do with my life. When it became obvious I wasn't enjoying myself (and yes that did take me some time to figure out) the only thing that kept me going was a combination of my parents hopes and dreams and that stupid diploma, a tool I knew I could use, if only I could figure out what to use it for.
The problem is that, I eventually succumbed to that lust for grades that kills the "Life of the Mind." I had nothing I wanted especially to learn about. The things I wanted to learn were all things not taught in college, and especially not in the college I went to, which at first seemed like the perfect reason for me specifically to go to that college but proved to be the worst possible choice. I guess I could blame my college counselors, my advisor, my parents, teachers, etc. even maybe my friends for being impressed by my grades and for creating this image of me as the "best student." But really, I can only blame myself for jumping into that mold so willingly. My best friends have always been those who have tried to break me free of that mold, tearing me out while I flailed and desperately clung to my old identity. To you, and you know who you are, I cannot thank you enough. Every day, I realize more and more just how much caring that took, and how you saved me from the spiritless-thinker I was so determined to become.
So now I'm done with college (not learning, hopefully, but college and 'education') and I know how to read, write, and think very sharply. I am learning to get along with people better, and stand up for my ideas, which I've learned are actually pretty decent. I want to be in the world and contribute to it and get my hands dirty. The things I love, oddly, have very little to do with purely intellectual endeavors. From the weakling overthinker I was I have strove to become an intuitive mover. I feel most fulfilled engaging in sport-fitness and martial arts, rock climbing, camping, very physical pursuits. I'm obsessed with food and eating and nutrition. I love interacting with people, learning about them and trying to find ways to help them enrich their lives. That's very social. I have largely abandoned my self-concept as a hyper-rational creature, though my family won't let me escape it, constantly reminding me how I overanalyze things. Academia is not for me, despite the hopes of my teachers.
So the question that has been torturing me since graduation is, were all those years at college wasted? What about high school? What was the point of getting perfect grades if I didn't really learn anything I cared about, if I didn't care about learning? I was proud of my grades, not my knowledge. Now I see that written and I am horrified. I came out of college with fewer friends than I went in with, fewer hobbies and interests, a weaker connection to my family, and an unbalanced spirituality. College did not help me find myself at all. Quite the opposite. I got hopelessly lost in there. All significant growth has occurred in the six months since graduation. How ironic. And I've lost a lot of my ability to perceive the world other than rationally, though I now know better than ever that reason is not the only, or even the best, lens.
I guess I can't really come to a conclusion about all this, though I've learned a lot just in writing it down. Maybe some of my friends have similar feelings, or alternative experiences to share. For those of you still in college, I guess I can say this: if something interests you, even if it's so trivial you feel guilty for 'wasting' your parents' money or your scholarships or your student loans, follow it with all your heart. Because other people will more easily forgive you for their money (which will turn out to be well spent anyway) than you will ever forgive yourself for your life squandered.