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Campus of your dreams

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-08-15


When I got to college for my freshman year, I was startled by how quick many of my fellow students were to ridicule my choice of study I was an English major, focused on Creative Writing, and I was proud of it, I thought it was a worthy and honorable pursuit of a noble discipline that everyone was certain to champion. But I was dead wrong. On my floor all the students were business or pre-med or math and they would smile at me in a condescending and patronizing way when I told them what I was there for. They all hated English, they hated writing in high school, and they saw my choice as stupid, impractical, as a waste of time. "What are you going to do with THAT?" they'd say, laughing, posing that eight-word question that all English (and liberal-arts) majors learn to despise. And then they'd usually answer their own question: "So, you're probably going to teach, right?," thinking that that's the only thing an English degree is good for.

Well! I would sputter. Well indeed! Anything I want, that's what I'm going to do! And I'd get righteous and launch into that English major spiel, that bit about learning how to read and write and think is vitally, crucially important in this world, that it's the best preparation anyone could ask for in any career, ever, in the history of anything, that it's the ultimate foundation for any serious-thinking person making his serious way into a serious world. And of course that would only re-inforce their argument the more, and they'd laugh even harder, in that insulting, infuriating way that only 18-year old know-it-alls can really master. And I'd curse under my breath and stalk away, eager to find my fellow artsy guys in my department who'd reassure me of the finer things we were all seeking.

If I had been granted a little bit of foresight then, I would have realized that, actually, this was the way things were going to go for the next couple of decades for me I was always going to run into that brick wall erected by the practical guys. I couldn't know that then, of course, for I was a true believer, blinded by passion, convinced that my study wasn't just exciting and fascinating but indeed, necessary, and one day that would be apparent to everyone, even the dismissive frat boys and finance majors. And through the years, I'd continue to believe that, even as I was gallingly, stereotypically, waiting on tables and cooking in restaurants.

I still don't think I'm wrong, necessarily, (and that's probably a hoot to the practical guys), but I will say, that if an English major asked me for advice today about that "What are you going to do with THAT?" question, I'd probably tell them to come up with something concrete, instead of general philosophizing. It's no fun to beat your head against a wall, after all, I'd tell them, and you'll never change anybody's mind, so tell them something that sounds good. Tell them you'll be an editor. Tell them you'll be a copywriter. Tell them you're going to be a forensic linguist. Tell them you're going to teach! Or, better than that, just tell them you're going to be pre-law: that would guarantee an approving nod, a welcoming handshake.

I know I'm making everything black-and-white here, which is obviously dishonest, for I don't make a very convincing class warrior. I have dozens of friends who are decent, honorable business-grads from college who are, of course, fully three-dimensional, open-minded, curious people, just like you'd expect. But I still bristle at that "What are you going to do with THAT?" question from my memory. Decades later, it still pisses me off. I hate the thinking that goes on behind it; I hate the almost hostile dismissal of any knowledge that isn't directly related to a career. As if the pursuit of knowledge as an end to itself is, like, you know, stupid. And I'm betting today's incoming English majors are going to get greeted with the very derision that I did.

I met a 6-year old girl recently at a party, and when one of the adults asked her what she was going to be when she grew up, she announced, "I'm going to be a thoracic surgeon!" Jesus Christ, I almost spit out my drink. And it wasn't just because I didn't know what a thoracic surgeon was (I didn't, but I've looked it up), it was more the weird reaction the girl got from the various adults assembled: they were like, Oh, good choice. And I know, kids parrot things from their parents all the time, they say oddball things, I shouldn't read too much into that, and besides, I'm sure Mom or Dad was a doctor/surgeon of some kind and she heard the language but still: she wants to be a thoracic surgeon? And the parents were nodding their heads? I felt I was staring at some alien race. When I was six, I wanted to be. . . hell, I didn't want to be anything. I probably would have answered the same question with "fireman, policeman" but mainly I think I just wanted to be six.

But of course I was a slacker six-year old then, a mushhead with no vision, and that's what probably led to my foolhardy choice to declare English as my major 12 years later. Today's parents wouldn't allow for that kind of laziness; kids need to be taught pretty quickly that they'll never get into Princeton and achieve their goals with that kind of loser mentality. They got to get on that treadmill immediately if they want to amount to anything, so it's advanced pre-schools and tutors and organized activities and virtually no unstructured time whatsoever. For nobody wants to get to be, oh, I don't know, 9 and not know what they're going to be in life. Without this strict guidance, kids might start studying anything they want, even something that doesn't have any immediate practical benefits, and for God's sake, what are they going to do with that?

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