Why I Will Probably Never Earn a College Degree

Photo © 2004 Scott Jungling CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While writing my latest post in the “Computer Folklore” series, I went off on a bit of a tangent. And I had to delete several paragraphs of story in order to get back on track.

The post is going to be all about how important it is for me to find meaning in my work. And how easily the work can completely fall apart if this need is not met.

I’ve recently had to re-wrestle with this story, because I think I’ve failed the Jewish-Christian Relations course I’ve been taking. It was, in part, an experiment. The professor who was originally going to teach the class has never given a talk or written a paper I didn’t appreciate. It turns out, she couldn’t; and I had plenty of time to cancel or to transfer to a different course, but I figured I’d play out the story the way it was shaping up, just to see where it went.

The professors who replaced her have higher degrees coming out of their ears, participated actively in the online discussion, and make me long for the days of Professor Long (who spent an hour each class lecturing in a monotone voice to the blackboard). Because instead of a course on Jewish-Christian Relations, I got a course on the History of Jewish-Christian Relations (from a Jewish perspective). And that’s a fine class to take, but not for me. Firstly, I enjoy exploring the nuances of multi-faceted issues (because my mind thinks in abstracts), and this is something most Jewish thinkers are excellent at, except when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations. But secondly, and more significantly, I do awful at history courses.

I love history, but only for what it tells us about the present. History repeats itself, but not once we understand how to change it. History can teach us about human nature. It can prompt us to reexamine first principles and to question what we believe and why we believe it. It allows us to engage with the narrative. My Freshman year of college, I took a Western-Civ course at Northeastern. Passing it was a feat, made possible only by the professor, a strong but tiny dark-haired, olive-skinned woman, who—looking back I see—engaged us vociferously with the historical narrative. One lecture, she said something controversial about Christianity, and three of us—activist college students!—walked up to challenge her on it after class. If she had taught the class as just another history course—just about the names, dates, events, and (sometimes) the professor’s favored reinterpretation of them—I would have tuned out, zoned out, and probably failed.

So by the time I got to my final essay in “Jewish-Christian Relations,” I had forgotten almost everything I might have heard in the lectures—because they were just long lists of names and dates and events, and occasionally the professors’ favored interpretation of those events, which in my opinion was probably wrong, or at least debatable, or at least incomplete and out of focus. And the worst part is, I did learn something during this class, and I know now exactly what I want to write about Jewish-Christian relations, and it may even knock your socks off. But it does not fulfill the coursework requirements, because it does not re-describe the names, dates, events, and favored interpretations the professors lectured on.

Yes, the final essay exam instructions actually say: “This is the time to show what you learned in this class. You may use all assigned readings, lectures, attachments, notes, blog postings, and comments. You may not use other sources, internet or otherwise, when answering the questions” (emphasis added).

I read that as: Feel free to parrot back anything we said about the historical narrative. But please do not think for yourself.

Maybe I occasionally need an experience like this to remind me that I’ll never get a graduate degree—or probably an undergraduate degree, either. Because I’ll never understand why even a dedicated student would subject themselves to so much boring data, just to get a passing grade, just to see their name on a piece of paper, just for the sense of status that might provide. Because a true sense of status comes from others recognizing your accomplishments, and this to me is no true accomplishment.

It’s like doing a job just for the money. That only gets you so far for so long, and then you burn out. (Of course, more money for less effort will get me farther and longer, but it still only gets you so far for so long.) I need to find meaning in what I do and what I learn, and want to be recognized for that accomplishment.