Why Go to College?

Go to college because you don't know what to do next. Take classes that terrify you in philosophy, art and political science. Take classes that are named things you don't understand, like Radical Social Analysis and Media Aesthetics. Sign up for classes in departments with mystifying names, like Information Systems and Decisions Sciences. You had no idea how little you knew back in high school when you could still impress your overworked A.P. English teacher by turning in heartfelt, long-winded essays that you cranked out at 4 a.m. Over the next few years, change your major repeatedly. Wait in long lines to buy and return books, test in and out of classes, add and drop. Make a joke with your parents when they ask what you have finally decided to major in that you are majoring in patience, in the finer aspects of bureaucracy, in endurance. The lag time between your joke and their response is the exact, familiar length of the worm of parental disapproval. No, really, tell them, I've decided to major in creative writing. The truth is you didn't know you had decided anything until the moment the words came out of your mouth, but all at once, you have never felt more certain about anything in your entire life. Switch over to this new major and sign up for classes that fit your suddenly much more cramped schedule now that your parents have suggested that you get a job to support your most recent impractical plans. Find a low-paying job in a vaguely exotic motorcycle bar/coffeehouse, as well as a like-minded roommate, and get an apartment in a neighborhood where the girls jumping rope in the alley outside your window remind you of the girls in House on Mango Street, a book so lyrical and baffling that your very life might be transformed once you have finished reading it. Decide that the swirls of mold that you cannot for the life of you scrub off your shower walls add character to your otherwise box-like apartment. Go home occasionally to eat a decent meal and lecture your middle-class parents with their middle-class values about the real world in which you now live, a world you are determined in your writing to look at unflinchingly. While you are lecturing them, try not to stare out the kitchen window too longingly at the suburban cul-de-sac around which you learned to ride your two-wheeler. Think about the books you're reading in Contemporary American Literature. Think, this is John Cheever country. Think about John Updike's Rabbit Run. Think about A.M. Homes' postmodern Music for Torching, in which a suburban couple's ennui is so overwhelming they are compelled to set their own house on fire. Think about the words "postmodern" and "ennui": new, tough college words. Go to college to get smart, to get alienated, to sit in your childhood home with your own parents and feel like an exchange student from Prague.

If you go to college and get yourself a good, scattered, all-over-the-map liberal-arts education, you may still wake up one day and find yourself middle-aged and middle-class and full of ennui, but at least you'll have the education to talk yourself out of going into serious debt buying a Lexus when you still have a perfectly respectable Ford Escort with a fresh oil change and only 85,000 miles on it. You'll recognize your own existential doubt for what it is when you see it, and instead of hitting the car lots, you'll search your book shelves—the ones full of all the library books you finally decided to try and stop returning since you always missed the deadline anyway—for an uplifting read of Camus and Sartre. Your life may feel like No Exit, but at least you're in excellent intellectual company, at least you're not alone.

Don't go to college to major in something practical because the rest of your life will be practical anyway. As a certified, post-college adult, you'll have to entertain questions so dull and pragmatic, you'll think the word ennui was created especially for you. The once-sparkling synapses in your brain will be dulled flat by such weighty questions as whether to float or lock in the interest rate on your mortgage, whether it's really a savings to buy store-brand laundry detergent. You will have unwittingly memorized the names and dates and exact hours of eight different summer camps to which you are considering sending your six-year-old next July. Even if you don't pursue anything specifically résumé-worthy in college, if you major in the liberal arts, after writing all of those essays and poems and stories, you'll still graduate with one of the most sought-after of job competencies: excellent typing accuracy and speed. So you'll get an entry-level job in publishing. Or, God, you'll go to graduate school. Or you'll teach English to businessmen in China. Or you'll pass the CBEST and introduce a moody class of ninth graders to Raymond Carver's short story characters, each one leading a life of quiet desperation, depicted with such poignant accuracy you'll still be stunned by the beauty of it all. And, finally, this is what college will have given you years from now: an interior life much more nuanced and varied and alive than your job or your car or your bank balance could ever begin to indicate.

 
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