In the United States — where all post-secondary education is called “college”, while in Britain, Canada and elsewhere it’s “university” — it’s anathema to suggest the very possibility of not attending college.
By this I mean a four-year degree — (Americans don’t confer three-year bachelor’s degrees) — from a private or public institution whose annual costs can be up to $60,000 a year.
This in an era when many blue-collar/manual labor jobs are begging for employees and, once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, (and usually gained union membership, which protects your wage-earning power), can make up to $100,000 a year — far more than many jobs that require multiple degrees.
In 2014 and 2015, I was an adjunct writing professor at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn best known for the arts.
I taught freshman students in their four-year-writing program, amused and appalled by their parents’ willingness to cough up more per year — $60,000 — than 99.9% of the students will ever earn in a year of actually selling their words to anyone outside of Hollywood.
My husband attended New Mexico State University at no cost because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe and he was given scholarships. I attended the University of Toronto (Canada’s best) and paid full freight — a fat $660 (yes) per year, also graduating debt-free.
What did I learn at university that has stayed with me?
—– Intellectual confidence
Having to argue my ideas in front of smart fellow students has helped me in a business where I have to do it every day.
— Social confidence
I led a student event in my junior year and that reminded me I do have leadership skills.
— Professional confidence
I wrote so much for the college weekly newspaper in freshman year I was writing for national media before I turned 20, still an undergrad.
— Language skills
I studied French for three years (fluent, thanks to a year spent in Paris) and four years of Spanish, both of which I’ve reported in.
— Dislike of authority
I got virtually no support from my professors or administrators beyond a (much appreciated) shout-out in a freshman English lit class. A year later, when I dared to ask for college credit for being nationally published, the chair of the English department sneered in reply without a word of congratulations or praise.
I’ve never given my alma mater a penny since.
Almost none of these was my course material — not Conrad or Chaucer or Locke or Plato.
The best thing university did for me was to force me to work hard for demanding professors who basically didn’t care if I succeeded or not, competing with smart and determined people around me.
Sounds like the “real world” to me!
Unless you’ve mastered specific technical skills — engineering, architecture, dentistry, law, medicine, business, computer science — I often wonder if college/university is truly the best preparation and the wisest investment of time and money.
What do you think?
What did you study and how has it helped you succeed professionally?
If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:
The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”
African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…
In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.
This one hit me hard.
I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.
None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.
I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.
At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.
If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.
I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.
I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.
I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.
None of which, of course, was ever discussed.
My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.
Instead, I talked back to teachers.
My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.
I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.
I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.
It was nuts.
I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.
I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.
But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.
They might be being bullied.
They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.
They might be being abused.
You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.
You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.
In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.
I was sick to death of being ignored.
Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.
My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.
I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.
As a result, I pretty much hate school.
Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.
Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.
But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential— can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.
The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.
It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.
The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.
I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.
I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.
I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)
I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.
My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.
I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.
It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.
By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.
I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.
Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.
Neither of us ever had children.
But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.
Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.
Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.
Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:
I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.
If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.
Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:
Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.
Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.
I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.
I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.
What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?
To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions
To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.
To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.
To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.
To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.
To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.
I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.
I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.
I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.
What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?
I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.
I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.
We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.
I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.
Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.
I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.
Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.
So, too, can teaching.
Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.
Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.
I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?
What’s left to learn?
Lots. If you’re open to it.
I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.
I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.
I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!
This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.
Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.
I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.
Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.
In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!
“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!
I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.
I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.
One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.
Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?
I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.
So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:
ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.
“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.
The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.
ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.
I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.
One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.
Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.
Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.
“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.
I could, and did.
Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.
If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.
In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.
An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.
It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!
No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”
There’s no app for compassion.
There’s no app for sensitivity.
Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?
Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?
Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:
In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.
So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.
I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.
What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?
As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”
Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.
But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.
That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.
It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life — or someone fervently atheist.
I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.
We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.
As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.
And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.
I also found this Times story — about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:
Vassar, the once all-female college in the Hudson River Valley, tops our index, with Grinnell placing second. About 23 percent of Vassar’s freshmen in recent years have received federal Pell grants (which mean they come from roughly the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution), up from 12 percent in 2007. After taking scholarships into account, the average annual cost of attending Vassar for lower-income students is about $6,000. Students cover much of that cost through campus jobs and loans.
The biggest theme to emerge from our analysis is that otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity. In this area, endowment is not destiny, and prestige is not destiny.
After Vassar, the top of the list includes some of the wealthiest colleges in the country, measured by endowment per student: Grinnell; Amherst College, in Massachusetts; Harvard; and Pomona, in Southern California. But other resource-rich colleges, including Swarthmore and the California Institute of Technology, have done substantially less.
Maybe the starkest example is Washington University in St. Louis, one of the hot colleges of recent years, having climbed to No. 14 in the U.S. News rankings last year. Only about 6 percent of the freshman class in recent years at Wash. U., as it’s known, have received Pell grants, even though it is one of the country’s 25 richest colleges on a per-student basis.
I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.
I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.
Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.
I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.
My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.
In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.
Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.
One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.
(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)
If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?
If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?
Interesting piece inThe New York Times about young men, especially, skipping college to head to the oil and gas boom in Montana:
Here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.
It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.
“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”
One of the greatest beliefs in the United States is that everyone must go to college. This, despite the fact many students drop out, are graduating saddled with enormous debt and many can’t find paid work.
So, why not take $40,000 and sock away as much of it as possible? It could fund college later (or not), or travel, or a home you choose to own (or rent out for income.)
I have a lot of difficulty with this persistent insistence that college is the only viable place for people who have graduated high school to grow up, learn about the world, acquire skills, mix with people their age of very different backgrounds and work to high standards independently.
For some, it’s joining the military. Or going overseas on a student visa, to work as a nanny or au pair or volunteer. Or staying home and working a variety of less-prestigious jobs until you actually know what truly interests you, and what you are good at and who is hiring and what they pay, entry-level or beyond. Then, if you choose higher education, you know exactly what you’re getting into!
For all its benefits and pleasures, college very rarely teaches the skills you really need in the “real world”, whether running your own business, freelancing or working most effectively within a team or office. (Invoicing 101? Sucking Up 302? Backstabbing 205?)
A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worth knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.
Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.
I graduated from the University of Toronto, Canada’s top school, then as now. People I studied with now run think tanks and museums and private schools and have accomplished some great things. I liked having tough professors and smart people around me.
As an English major, my courses were very narrowly restricted, even as an undergrad, to 75 percent English literature. The only other things I studied were political science and philosophy (freshman year), French (three years) and Spanish (four years). I knew I wanted to become a foreign correspondent, so I needed to be able to work in other languages, write well and quickly and have the intellectual confidence to make my arguments persuasively.
Those are the skills I’ve used ever since. My ability to read Chaucer in Middle English or parse Volpone or Victorian poetry? Nope. Never.
If you’re in college, or heading there, why? What do you expect to get out of it?
If you’ve long since graduated, do you regret your choice of school or major?
We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game — Joni Mitchell
Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?
Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.
The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.
Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.
Like, back where I started.
I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.
So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.
As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!
On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.
I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.
It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)
On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.
It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.
As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.
I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.
Have you ever written to an author whose work leaves you a little gobsmacked?
I did — first when I was 12 and at summer camp for eight weeks in the wilds of northern Ontario. I was deeply into American science fiction author Ray Bradbury, loving his The Illustrated Man and other collected stories. I needed to tell him how great he was! So I wrote him a letter, care of his New York City publisher, Ballantine.
Imagine my shock and delight when, within a week or two, I received a pale blue personalized card (which I still treasure!) from Los Angeles, hand-signed by one of the nation’s greatest writers, author of Fahrenheit 451, among many other classics. I had begged him to “please keep writing!” and he assured me that he would.
The card had his return home address. He was real!
It is hard to over-state the effect this speedy and generous gesture had on a young girl who lived to read and, even then, was winning prizes for her writing. That someone so famous and well-respected would even bother to read mail, let alone answer it personally…
So, at 20, I did it again, writing this time to John Cheever, another national legend (much more popular in the 1980s), praising his odd but moving novel, Falconer. I loved it. (The New York Times called it “one of the most important novels of our time.”) My enthusiasm, then, was hardly unique to me, some random young woman in Toronto.
He, too, wrote back promptly on personal stationery — he lived in Ossining, New York, a suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan.
Traveling alone through Europe, reading his collected short stories, I kept encountering a phrase I did not understand: “to shoot one’s cuffs.”
So I wrote him back to ask what it meant. (Let me explain I was: a) on the road b) alone c) in Portugal where no one spoke English d) Google had not been invented!)
He answered again.
The world is a small and odd place for writers. His daughter, Susan Cheever, another writer, praised my first book — and I met his son, Ben, another author, last fall at a local library event while promoting my second book.
I now live a 15-minute drive south of Ossining.
Last week, a 12-year-old girl living in a midwestern city wrote me a letter — first introduced by her father (both of them total strangers to me) — asking if she might interview me by email for a class project on bullying; she’d found my USA Today essay on it.
Of course, I said, replying immediately. I gave her a long, detailed and personal answer to her thoughtful questions.
Classmates now see her “as rock star”, her Dad told me, for having gotten a twice-published author to help her out.
I was 12 when I first reached out — and felt the firm hand of a fellow writer, far, far away from me in age, accomplishment and geography meet me in return.
How could I not?
Have you ever written to someone whose creative work you admire?