I’m graduating this spring, having obtained my second bachelor’s degree. I’ve done well, and I can essentially fail this last class, and still graduate magna cum laude. Lest you label me as boastful, and move on to other writings, allow me to say that I cringe as I type. However, the reason for that mortification may not be what you expect. This is not a glee-worthy achievement in my eyes, and it all boils down to some strange iteration of inferiority complex. It is simply the completion of something I feel that I should have long ago surpassed.
There are those among us who pursue a given field with dogged determination and laser focus. These singular creatures are the object of my undying admiration. (I’ve always had a bit of a hero-worship tendency when it comes to professors, analyze that as you will.) They ascend to the lofty heights that represent highest achievement in their arena, and are responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring feats of humanity. Of course these individuals deserve appreciation and accolades.
And then there are those of us milling about in the foothills, dabbling and toying with subject matter as it strikes our fancy. Never quite committed enough to a single subject to pursue advanced degrees. Or perhaps due to circumstance, are unable to commit the time or funds to do so. This, of course, impacts career choices and has fiscal considerations. But it also affects how we perceive ourselves. Now, I’ve been engaged in some form of post-secondary education for the bulk of my adult life. Over a decade in total. What do I have to show for that? Not a PhD, suffice it to say. This is where the cringing starts. Because all that study has granted me the ability to think critically. To write passably. To speak intelligently about a variety of subjects. But without that calligraphed parchment seal of approval, these capabilities feel illegitimate somehow.
It’s almost the opposite of imposter syndrome. First noted among women who have achieved high-level academic or career success, it is the feeling that one is not qualified to occupy a given role, despite all evidence to the contrary. The reverse scenario is the idea that one is not being taken seriously due to lack of external accomplishment… the tenured professorship. The chart-topping record. The best-selling book. The Nobel Prize. Or even something as simple as a degree.
I have been privileged to come across many extraordinary examples of humanity, who have offered me stunning insight, and taught me things I have never experienced in a traditional classroom setting. Articulate, intelligent, perceptive, and autodidacts, one and all. Driven and naturally curious, these individuals learn for the sake of learning. Their breadth of knowledge and ability to manipulate and extrapolate information never ceases to amaze me. Now, far be it from me to discount the efforts of those who have fought tooth and nail to pursue their passion and wrap their combat-scarred hands triumphantly around a diploma.
I’m mulling over the alternate angle.
There is great merit to the education gained for the sake of it alone. After all, there is no shiny external incentive to spending your evenings soaking up information about topics that spark your interest. It is simply and squarely in the interest of self-improvement. Whereas, seeking out formal education constitutes an adherence to curriculum. Many of us, myself included, drag ourselves through classes that offer no benefit to our worldview, suffered because an institution has deemed them essential. This latest degree was not a hard-won battle for me, I freely admit. A tedious slog, to be sure, but not especially intellectually rigorous. I work in the field, for crying out loud. Which is perhaps the reason I am lacking pride in the completion of this program. I don’t feel that I’m better for it. I fear that this is a case with many classically-trained academics. Yes. They have checked all the boxes and written all the term papers. But at the end, have they really engaged in learning?
Because it’s not automatically the same thing.
I won’t be walking and smiling for pictures this graduation. Nope. I’m going to receive that very pricey piece of parchment in the mail, and stuff it into a drawer. And probably fret that I haven’t progressed further in the world of academia, because I’m tired of being written off as “just a nurse.” I would venture to guess that many of my autodidact friends feel the same, discounted and dismissed. So, the diploma-envy looms, not because of inherent educational value, but because of the validity it lends to opinions.
The moral of the story is this. Academic prowess is not a reliable indicator of intelligence or ability to reason. In the absence of a simple way to assess human brainpower, we tend to cast about for methods of measure, as my fellow blogger and treasured associate Mike so fluently discussed here, regarding religious belief. By using these tactics alone to separate the wheat from the chaff, we inadvertently discard a substantial amount of nutrition, so to speak, in the form of quiet genius.
Passionate learners, I bow down to you. For seeking knowledge when it would be infinitely easier to drift away in front of the TV, you have my undying respect and und understanding. I see you… in your ecstatic, frustrated pursuit of pure thought. Sitting alone, pretzel-twisted over some concept, or excitedly ranting to unsuspecting family members, your synapses on fire, you gleam in a world of ignorance. You, not an array of disengaged academic drones, are the force that will buoy humanity into the future.