One of the problems with decisions is we sometimes make them before we’re ready. Sometimes we’ve forced ourselves into a box. Sometimes we entered that box with a skip and a smile. Sometimes it’s been a full-court press to please the iconic self. But as the saying goes: Decide in haste, repent in leisure. Quite possibly, a few years down the line, we’ll look over our shoulders, second guess ourselves, and wished we’d opted for Door Number One, wondering what for the love of God were we thinking.
I bring this up not because of that Hefty bag full of extremely unfortunate clothing I donated to the Good Will this weekend — but because of the renewed debate about the value of college.
Education or occupation?
Yes, I agree: Tuition is rising out of control, even in public universities. Then there’s the economy, which results in a number of graduates of high priced universities spending the equivalent of a “gap year” brewing lattes and living back in their high school bedrooms because they can’t find a full time job. And then there’s the campaign chat from presidential candidate Rick Santorum who suggested that President Obama’s talk about giving everyone the opportunity to pursue higher education was elitist.
All of which has led into an unfortunate conversation about economics: the cost-benefit ratio of tuition versus paycheck. And the point that many folks are suggesting is that, maybe the best plan before you go to school — or decide not to — is to figure out right quick what you want to do with your life and head off in that direction. Choose your path, put on your blinders, and then steamroll ahead.
Think about that. Did you know what you wanted out of life when you were 18? 20? Even 30? When I was that age, my life plan was to have seven kids and write the great American novel. Marrying into a family of, well, seven kids — where my mother-in-law once told me that for ten years of her life she remembered nothing but driving car pools and doing laundry — quickly disabused me of that notion. And the great American novel? To this day, I have yet to come up with a plot.
But that’s behind the point. Seems to me that this rush to adulthood, to forge ahead with the five-year plan before you’re even legal to order a martini or sign a lease on your own apartment is a recipe for a lot of indecision down the line, especially for women who are new to this game of figuring out what to do with their lives. For men, maybe it’s different. For generations, they’ve known that their purpose is to provide. To go, seek and conquer. And maybe that makes the decision making a little bit easier. But for us? Suddenly all the doors have flown open: we can be anything, we can do everything, we can have it all. Or so we’ve been told. And based on that, what we’ve found is that those choices are incredibly hard. Especially without the generational role models men have had for years.
So what I wonder is, why the rush?
But back to school: Is higher education just an expensive form of job preparation? Or is it about learning about the world and about yourself: figuring out who you are, how to make your way in life, and edging your way through what has been dubbed “emerging adulthood“? And so my question is this: how can you choose what you want to be in life when you’re barely out of your teens, don’t have the role models to forge the trail, and, given good health, you’ve probably got 60 years of adulthood waiting at your doorstep?
And then there’s this: while you’ve been diligently following the five-year plan, what might have you missed out on along the way?
I’ve been teaching at the college level for 15 years, and I see the effects of choosing too soon all the time among my women students. The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a young graduate we called Jane – a rockstar by any definition – who entered college with a firm plan in mind, yet shortly after graduation was so overwhelmed by the choices that lay in front of her and her dismay that she might not have chosen the proper one, that she confessed that she sometimes wished she had been born into a culture where everything — from what she did with her life to where she lived to whom she married — was chosen for her.
And what we wondered, again, was why the rush?
And so, I was so heartened when I ran into an interview with Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco over on salon.com the other day. His book, “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” is a defense of liberal arts education, and when he was asked why college is necessary, what he had to say was this:
… I understand the reasons students feel compelled to specialize early, but I think there is something valuable lost when we give in to these pressures — namely, what college has traditionally provided: the opportunity for young people to make a pause between adolescence and adulthood, to reflect on life, on their choices, on who they are or want to be. We don’t want to lose that precious chance — what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls “the gift of interval.” In my mind, that gift is the essence of the American college and what has made it an important institution in the world.
Bingo. The point is not necessarily that everyone needs to go to college, though it would be great if everyone could. But what I think is that, one way or the other, all of us need to allow ourselves the space to embark upon some trial and error. To expand. Grow. Find our gifts. Get to know who we are and what we want. After all, we’ve got plenty of years ahead of us.