At the beginning of February, Carson Jerema, former Editor-in-Chief of the Manitoban, wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press criticizing students who choose to stay in school longer in order to “delay adulthood.” Although Jerema is ultimately criticizing the usefulness of master’s degrees, particularly in the arts and sciences, he raises an interesting question: is it wrong to stay in school longer in order to avoid “real life?”
David Foster Wallace, in a convocation speech at Kenyon College in 2005 said:
“Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happens to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.”
Despite this dismal portrayal of modern adult life in the West, post-secondary students are being dragged, kicking and screaming, towards adulthood. We are told to choose a major that will lead to a well-paying career, and criticized when we choose to major in the social sciences, or heaven forbid, the humanities. According to some, unless you’ve got a career plan to go along with your major, your degree is essentially useless.
There are two important problems with this type of thinking. First, university is not synonymous with college. It used to be that going to university meant learning more. Unlike colleges, which were intended to train students for future careers, universities were intended simply to foster learning and discussion. To reduce a university education to its ability to lead to a well-paying career is to do disservice to the historical notion of universities “encouraging productive thinking.”
Another potentially more worrisome problem is the idea that there is something essentially wrong about spending more than four or five years on post-secondary education. Certainly, it’s true that a university education is largely funded by taxpayers, and in that way, maybe university students do owe something to the millions of Canadian taxpayers that help fund their education. But how does getting a job and contributing to the Western notion of “real life” really give back to anyone? What exactly will I be contributing with my career, besides supporting a system so completely fucked up that it allows 16,000 children die from hunger every day, despite an abundance of food resources in the world.
At least as students we have neither the motivation nor the affluence to plague the world with giant houses, giant cars, and mortgage so heavy that if we ever lost our job we’d be crushed by it. Adult life can easily overwhelm you with long hours and societal expectations of starting a family and doing well for yourself, so that instead of demanding change, you sit idly by and hope someone else will take up the fight.
There are a whole lot of really shitty things about the world we live in. Corporate dominance of both the media and political processes takes power away from citizens and places it in the hands of profit-driven enterprises. Job insecurity and falling real wages mean that employees today can no longer expect to have the same standard of living their parents had. As boring and routine as David Foster Wallace make adult life sound, it’s getting a lot worse for a large number of people.
So what can current university students do to help? Well, something tells me joining the race to the bottom certainly isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, maybe students should be encouraged to discover new ways of being that don’t lead to exploitation and inequality. Maybe universities are exactly the right place for young people frustrated with the petty and often hopeless nature of Western adult life.
And if not, well, at least we put off joining the millions of Canadians experiencing the soul-crushing existence known as adult life.
Shawna Finnegan has been leeching off of taxpayers for seven years, and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.