College for the aimless

Millenial Meltdown

At 3, I wanted to be a king. Unaware as I was of the definitively scarce demand for kings in the modern workplace and otherwise unconcerned by such obstacles, I told anyone who stood still long enough about my grand machinations.

“You mean president? You want to be president when you grow up?” they’d ask, often smiling at me in a way that would have patronized a 3 month old, let alone a kindergartner-elect.

Did I stutter? King. Crown, scepter, robe, divine authority — the whole schmear.

Obviously oblivious — say that five times fast — to the budding despot they were raising, my parents encouraged the big dreaming. Lots of hard work, they promised, and perseverance, and I could become anything I wanted. Anything in the world.

Naturally, as a God-appointed king, I would be commanding several worlds, but explaining such concepts to them seemed fruitless at the time.

At 7 or 8, maybe 9, I set my sights higher. Sure, kings were powerful and rich, but have you seen what dentists make?

A lot. More than any king I’d ever heard of. So that’s what I told people when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up — and sometimes when they didn’t ask. I was going to rummage around in people’s mouths for a living, and I was going to be paid handsomely for it.

Then I read “The Firm” by John Grisham, and knew that, as it turned out, I was meant to be a lawyer, not a dentist. Life in dentistry would be terribly unful-filling. I needed to take a different root(canal). My brush with Grisham’s potboiling crime mystery showed me I was ready to em-brace a legal career. Law school would be a real grind, but to tell you the tooth, if it all became too un-nerve-ing, I could always switch to flossophy, or take a gap year.

I’ll be here all week.

Truly though, I did want to be a lawyer, and I was genuinely inspired by John Grisham’s book, and I came to UC Berkeley with a mission. Get a degree in political science, get good grades, get involved in a couple clubs and in effect, organize a respectable resume of accomplishments and commitments that would get me into a good law school.

Then I changed my mind again — except this time, the jig was up. There was no more time to change my mind, no more time to figure things out and land on something new or better.

I was a rising sophomore in college and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. The big plans I had spent essentially the last eight years of my life fantasizing about and working toward were voided in utter anticlimax. So I decided I wasn’t going to make any grand plans or have any career goals for my undergraduate. I was going to leave here with whatever degree I landed on, whichever interested me the most, and worry about the job stuff later.

And many people, even close friends and family, told me to consider dropping out and saving my money. With higher education becoming so expensive, competitive and career centered, many do believe, and reasonably so, that college should be the realm for those who know what they want out of a career. Those who don’t can go to vocational schools or come back when they do know.

But here is what I think.

College has become a means to an end. It’s an investment of time and money, and it’s a meal ticket. Americans go to college because a college degree is now an essential prerequisite, a de facto requirement even, for a financially and professionally successful life. Without one, it’s almost impossible to be competitive in the job market.

Many, too, are saying that in less than a generation, it will be the masters degree that punches the meal ticket, not the bachelors, and I don’t find that hard to believe.

And I don’t find that particularly troubling, either. It means, in many ways, that more and more people, more than ever, in fact, are getting educated, and that’s something to celebrate. But the byproduct of this change is that the original, and in my opinion far more important, function of the college experience has been hijacked, and the paths of students slightly less certain about their future has become undervalued.

College used to be a destination for people who wanted to be educated. There were certainly career trajectories, and the university was a training ground for those careers, but more than that, it was an investment in one’s own enlightenment. You took classes that interested you, and some that didn’t, learned about the world and about yourself, and used the four years as an opportunity to broaden and augment yourself, not your earning potential.

College could be so much more meaningful, so much less stressful, and so much more transformative for the students of today and tomorrow if the emphasis while here wasn’t on getting a degree or a good job or into a graduate school. That motivated me for only so long.

A nationwide paradigm shift back to the days when college was an end in itself, would, in the longer run, serve us better. I’m not sure what that would look like just yet — but I’m sure some will figure it out.

Better sooner rather than later, though, because when I’m king, you won’t have a choice in the matter.

Jacob Leonard writes the Thursday column on the plight of the young. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @leonardjp.