Lately, especially after reading Messud's book and Jennifer's blog, I've been thinking about the value of higher education, or rather, the value of ever-higher education. When have I had enough? And what then, after I've finished? The problem for me is that I never expected to have to answer either of these questions; as a high-school student, then a college student, then a grad student, the answers were meant to unfold without my having to seek them. But no longer. Now, even after six months of being out of school, I still feel confused sometimes that these questions are here staring me in the face, waiting to be answered.
When I left school, I did so to pursue other paths, mostly writing and art. People have asked me why I didn't just transfer to art school. That, I can answer. First, I've had enough school for the time being. Second, I don't like art students en masse. Third and most crucial, I've spent too many years of my life already letting school be a crutch. As long as I stayed in school, doing pretty well, I never needed to ask the big self questions: Am I doing what's best for me? Is this what I want? (And of course:) How much school is enough? What will I do after I've finished? Going to art school would have been a step in answering these questions, true, but it would also have allowed me to delay really answering them for a few more years. No matter what I do, as long as it's not academia (and I do know I don't want that), there will come a time when I must answer these questions. So what's the point in putting off the task?
In leaving grad school but refusing to begin yet another academic education, I made my first and most scary step toward facing these questions and finding their answers. But answers have been slow in coming! So slow, that I've begun to wonder whether solid black-or-white answers exist at all. I am happy out of grad school; this is for certain. But with contentment comes apathy, and that's no good either. If I'm happy right now, my entropic self asks, why push myself to strive harder and seek more? My answer to that is yet another question: My current life is enjoyable, yes, but is it fulfilling? And the answer to that is not, or at least is not 100%, affirmative.
Leaving grad school, alone, was not sufficient for me to find fulfillment. That then begs the question (not really asked, but always tacit) of possibly going back to school. Again, though I'm happier not being a grad student, I can't say 100% that I'm better off without it. There are things I miss: the intellectual stimulus of seminars and colloquiums, the obvious sense of purpose, the feeling of belonging that came from being part of a cohort...
Now wait just a second! That sounds fabulous, but it never happened. I didn't like seminars and colloquiums, and I never felt a sense of purpose. Even though I loved my cohort, I always felt like the dumb/quiet/wrong one (in spite of their reassurances). I doodled my way through classes, and in everything, I felt like an impostor probably 95% of the time. But when I could understand the discussions in colloquium, I found them stimulating; when I actually participated, I found it exciting. I enjoyed writing papers about topics that interested me. That feeling of intellectual involvement helped me feel purposeful, as did my belonging in the cohort. We had all gone through the same things, we all wanted to help each other, and we all expected to come out together on the other side. In a very real sense, we were all living the same life, and that kind of camaraderie is hard to find in the "real world." That doesn't mean I should go back to grad school -- my days are ever so much more delightful without that miserable 95% hanging over me! -- but I have to admit, that remaining 5% is an empty place in my present life. And I have absolutely no idea where to look for substitutes.
The truth is -- at risk of sounding like a sad little playground outcast -- I just don't feel like I belong anywhere. And I can't help but wonder whether that will always be true. I'm not a grad student anymore, and I'm glad not to be. But having once been one, I don't feel like I can be a "civilian" either! The things I want in my life just don't seem to line up with anybody else's life that I've seen, and that makes me feel weird and alone. What does an intelligent, creative, independent person do with herself when she doesn't go into an academic/professional discipline? I don't know! Sometimes I wish I had some role models, but then I think they'd just be another crutch, like school; they'd just create more illusions that I don't need to forge my own path. And of course, I know that that is the true answer, that I need to find my own path, but I do wish I felt more confident about how to do that. But I suppose that uncertainty is all part of the path-making.
At any rate, one thing I have realized, after all this pondering on higher education and my non-desire to pursue it, is that I do have some sense of how I want my life to be. I have no clue how to achieve it, but its character at least is beginning to take shape. Behold my truths:
1. I have to use my brain, otherwise I stagnate.
2. If I use only my brain, I am miserable.
3. I need to express myself.
4. If I feel that I am being forced to play by others' rules, I stress constantly and become rebellious.
5. If I don't feel joy and heart in what I do, I lose all motivation.
6. If I don't take care of my body, I loathe myself.
7. I can be outgoing sometimes, but I need to have some space to be reserved and introspective, otherwise I feel lost.
8. If I don't remind myself of all these things, all the time and with strenuous effort, I will spend all my time eating, socializing, buying things, and playing computer games. Because that's easier than trying to remake the path all over again.