Life, at times, is completely overwhelming, especially during the years defined by undergraduate education. It’s not necessarily the busywork, but rather to what it’s made to amount: this idea that the purpose of education is to enable you to navigate the thralls of the real world, to secure a job that pays well, to start saving for retirement, etc. It’s the pressure to realize predefined notions of success that catalyze anxiety.
This anxiety is what has come to define higher education in the United States.
The expectations I place on myself are ever-changing, multifaceted and confusing as a result. The amount of pressure I feel at any given time usually ranges from nominal to near implosion on my internal barometer. I often wonder if the University, American culture in general or my waxing and waning apathy to formal education is to blame.
The trouble with this interplay can be summed up by an overarching analogy.
The University is akin to a drug dealer. The high is so intense and euphoric from just a first sample of his product that you’re instantly hooked.
When an 18-year-old opens that acceptance letter into the exclusive club of “Leaders and Best,” the initial feeling is the inevitable high of being deemed special. It’s the start of an indoctrination of arrogance; an education of privilege instead of right. A fast track to the apex of achievement. Once on campus, it’s all the freshmen can do to chase after that elusive feeling of significance. He or she follows a formula of success outlined by the University, searches for every possible affirmation and engages in competition with themselves and others in order to be deemed the best.
The dealer peddles us what we think we need. We use despite the incurred monetary and mental cost. Thousands are spent in search of that which was felt when that letter was first opened. This quest stomps out creativity, produces paranoia, self-loathing and depression.
If the University is the dealer, American culture is the supplier. It is the creator of the drug while being, at the same time, the entity that fosters the dealer’s wealth. Culture creates a market within which the dealer’s product will be valued; our socialization leads us to believe that consumption of the drug — partaking in this perverted form of higher education — regardless of the side effects, leads to greatness.
Think of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Those occupying the highest echelons of society — the Alphas and Betas, those who have been indoctrinated to the hyper-consumerist values of the ever-peaceable World State since conception — are encouraged by the State to engage recreationally and religiously to the point of dependence in the use of the drug soma, which has hallucinogenic qualities that transport the user into a state of blind optimism.
Similarly, American society makes available its form of higher education to the masses under the same guise of happiness through material success. It pushes us to conform, to fit the mold of a university student. It ignites within us the need surpass our peers and justifies the equation of monetary gain with personal satisfaction. Rest and mental health aren’t options and being overworked to the point of needing performance enhancers is considered the norm. Production and further proliferation of this ideology are key to the supplier’s success; we engage with the system because it’s viewed as the only viable life option.
Finally, all analogous factors considered, the student plays the role of the addict, the one who ultimately becomes dependent on both dealer and supplier. Once that first bump has been had, it’s hard to imagine a world without. The fear of running out governs all action. No matter the detrimental costs, the addict continues to subsist within preset confines.
University students often choose the most lucrative educational path. Thinking deeply about problems plays second fiddle to vocational politics. There’s a lack of critique on the system because students are hard-pressed to conceptualize an education not defined by resume-building summer internships and a promenade before potential employers at job fairs. We have become addicted to high marks and affirmations, to the prospect of the yearly bonus and the company car. It seems as if there’s no longer a belief of higher education as a means for individual growth.
We don’t study to learn; we study to succeed.
And if success doesn’t come, the student is left jaded and broke, an addict without a fix, profiteered by a dealer and supplier whose only focus was a continued influx of money. The withdrawal — the understanding of how the system truly functioned — is bitterly painful.
The saddest part is that victim and perpetrator are one and the same.
As students, we have a choice. We can demand to be nourished by our bodies of higher education, rather than to be influenced by them. We can accustom ourselves to challenge our socialization, to redefine what it means to be educated. We can democratize the process by affording education to all individuals who value knowledge as a tool with which to overturn systems of subjugation, including those to which we pay increasingly expensive tuition. Getting sober is an onerous, confusing task, but one necessary for individual and societal health; to remain under the influence is to feed the drug to the next generation.
Perhaps that’s why, at the end of my undergraduate career, I find myself at odds with the true value of my education. I ask myself: have the last four years of my life amounted to a process of self-realization, or rather, to an appeasement of the status quo?
Austin Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.