With September right around the corner, the Targets of the world are packed with cherubic co-eds stocking up on backpacks and beanbag chairs and other sundries they think will help them start college off on the right foot. Or left foot. Or both.
As someone who has 14 years of university education—a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate—and ten solid years of university teaching under her proverbial belt, I have been tasked with writing a letter to my freshman self, as if I were entering college now, in 2015, instead of Sep. 1998, when I literally stumbled into Harvard Yard. This is either a brilliant or a terrible idea.
To begin with, dear freshman Marcie, you are entering school at a time when sentimentality and optimism are overrated. “Hope and change”? This isn’t 2008, kiddo. It’s not even 1998, when the “digital age” was just a nascent “Y2K” problem, and Brandy and Monica dominated the charts with their sassy-girl hit, “The Boy is Mine.” Heck, Seinfeld had yet to end (the final episode aired that November), and president Clinton had yet to be impeached because hypocritical conservative politicians took issue with his internal affairs with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Academia and, more importantly, its promise, meant so much more back then. Today, however, it’s simply not worth it. STOP! Drop out. Apply to college in Berlin, where college is free and people actually value literature and literary culture.
Student debt in America is crippling—it’s crippling students’ capacity to learn and to have the academic freedom to develop their critical mind. While the economy is in recovery, the workplace is a perilously caustic place for those who have majored in the humanities and who care about things like writing and thinking.
Meanwhile, the digital age has created a media boom that relies on freelancers and non-unionized “staff writers” who work for peanuts and beer. Now America’s predominantly corporatized universities are eradicating the professoriate in one swoop, hiring their own hordes of similarly non-unionized, part-time labor known as adjuncts.
And, because I’ve no shame (certainly I’ve no time for it), let me present to you your 35-year-old self as an example: four degrees from the finest universities, and a life goal of writing books and essays, with the ideal civic-function of being a “public intellectual” (more Melissa Harris-Perry than Cornell West). Well, guess, what, little one: it hasn’t been an easy ride. I am currently unemployed with a not too terrible $25,000 in student debt. On the other hand, one of your brothers—the dastardly middle child—did not go to college and is now earning close to six figures pushing pharmaceuticals along a conveyer belt at a plant in South Jersey. You know what he has in lieu of student debt? A house. Two cars. A boat. And endless trips to Disney World (no, really, he has a weird Disney World fetish; he even got married there last year).
And yet, you will never have such freedom—mental, physical, or emotional—than you will have these next few blissful academia-infused years. Take advantage of this freedom, because universities provide the luxury of having time. You have time to take courses on subjects that pique your interest; you have time to have discussions about philosophical texts over meals in the dining hall; you have time to join a sports team or even a club or two.
You will never have such an inordinate amount of time dedicated to your intellectual, spiritual and emotional development again in your life. You will never be living both among and in such close proximity to such a diverse group of people again. Fuck off with your New York City dreams because rich foreign oligarchs own all the apartments and people don’t even look at each other on the subway. Talk with your classmates. Network with them. And, when I say network to you “digital native” types, I mean actually network in person. (Think about it: there’s a reason why voters are asked about whether they’d have a beer with such-and-such candidate.) If people know you exist, then you exist. Otherwise you’ll spend your 30’s hunched over your tiny laptop, cursing at the screen whilst sending your resume out into the internet ether, over and over and over again.
And, finally, the professor in me wants to give this last piece of advice: PUT DOWN THE DAMN PHONE. Add some emojis to this line for emphasis. Seriously—don’t you dare take it out of your backpack in class. Give yourself that time instead to encounter—to learn, to discuss texts, to listen and communicate with others about important ideas through your own body, rather than through a screen.
The greatest ruse of the 21st century is the notion (thanks, demon Steve Jobs) that technology liberates us. If that were the case, then why is your phone permanently affixed to your hand? Why do you need to swipe right to get laid? You remember what happens to all the battleships and the colonies in Battlestar Galactica that are permanently connected on a network? (Rhetorical question, you have no idea what Battlestar Galactica is, you sad, sad millennial?) KA-BOOM!
Be a human. Read a book. Other than those in the Harry Potter series. And then talk about that book with a fellow classmate or roommate while sitting under a verdant oak tree on the well-manicured yard of your college. Think about language, about meaning; surprise yourself by recognizing the limitations of your mind and figuring out how to come to new knowledge.
And then, if you have time, apply to college in Germany—or Sweden, or France, or Norway—for the fall semester of 2016.