Here you are, looking on the stone steps leading to a large and imposing building, your hair a little windswept from the autumn breeze. Fresh out of school, maybe with a few trips to exotically sounding places under your belt. This is supposed to be your next adventure: University. You’re thinking of musty-smelling libraries, the animated chatter of fellow students over coffee and a book. Professors, engagingly demonstrating complex schemes, students taking notes, a glint in their eyes. Curiosity. Secrets, hidden between pages. Teeth marks on pencils.
This is supposed to be everything that school never was, you think. And really, it’s a surprise you’re even here, after going through that. But you still haven’t got enough of learning. You’re a Philomath.
There are mostly two reasons for why people choose to enroll at University.
Reason 1: They love learning.
Reason 2: They think it might get them a job.
If people enroll in the Humanities for reason 2, there’s bad news. But trust me, these people exist. They’re the ones who keep asking about the test. But the test. When are we going to write it? What will be on the test? Is this going to be on the test? Are we allowed to use a dictionary? You alternately look at the twenty hands raised, then at your watch. What will the grade consist of?
Frankly, you don’t care. You want to know why the Peloponnesian war broke out between the Spartans and the Athenians if the Spartans were the ones to defend the Greeks against the Persians. You doodle a Satyr in the corner of your notebook. Yes, that’s right, a naked dude with goat’s feet and a little pair of panties spouting a giant wooden cock. You muse how it’s not possible to make a subject with so much inherent sex appeal and scandalousness appear dull. But your professor achieves the impossible.
Chances are you’re a lot like me. I enrolled in University because I love accumulating knowledge, even twelve years of school hasn’t been able to kill dead my love of learning, and damn, did they try.
I’ve recently spent a lot of time with Aaron Swartz, computer genius, hacker, activist, and one of the four men responsible for all the weird decisions I’ve made and the transformative adventures I’ve embarked on this year. Aaron took his life in 2013, a fact that still depresses the hell out of me, but I’ve found the traces of himself he’s left behind on the Internet and in his writing to be of immeasurable value. Sometimes, faced with a difficult decision or a situation that leads me to question whether I’m spending my time right, I imagine him sitting across from me.
“I don’t know, Aaron. What would you do?” And it’s easy. He’d tell me to pick up a book. To go after the things that grip my curiosity. To put my body where my mouth is.
Aaron Swartz was an unschooler. He rejected institutionalised education as an instrument of oppression by a capitalist society. The very obsession with testing you’re going to encounter even in university classrooms he describes as stemming from the fact that schools aren’t about learning at all.
“So what is it schools are really doing if not educating the next generation? Well, just look at what’s left over: schools are places where kinds must show up every day at 8 a.m. for years on end, sit at uncomfortable desks under fluorescent lighting with a group of relative strangers, and obey arbitrary instructions from their superiors about the appropriate way to carry out repetitive intellectual assignments. Even a casual glance at a modern office will show you that these are skills very much in demand.”
So, what about universities? Attendance being voluntary, weren’t they places of learning once? Places for debate, discussion, discourse (what a fancy word, right?).
Maybe at some point, they used to grant you more freedom in picking the subjects that were sexy to you. Maybe they allowed you to ignore the self-important lecturers in favour of covering their work at home or with friends in half the time and double the depth. Maybe the grass was greener in the past. This is the way my Dad tells it: The good old times before the BA/MA system. Ah, the fun we had. Whether this is the truth or some post-pregnancy amnesia that had him forget all the pain once he had an actual degree (that he couldn’t get a job with), the fact remains that the BA/MA has rendered universities a mere extension of the school system.
Now, in the Humanities, this confuses me. Every sensible student you ask pretty much agrees that a degree in the Humanities won’t get you further than setting you up for a career as a cabbie (well, you still need to get the license yourself, but at least you can entertain you clients by analysing some poems for them). But the atmosphere tends at times to be the similar to a crop of law students fretting over the grades that will determine the rest of their career. Humanities students pick courses for credit, and no, not any course, but specific ones according to the examination regulations that tell them what to do when and how and most importantly, how they will be graded. This way, I found myself in a seminar on memory and trauma that sounded like a promising addition to the reading I had done on veterans. It turned out to be one of the most terrible seminars I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in. Not only did the teacher have no idea what she was doing, she was completely averse to any input her students had to offer, quickly dismissing diverging opinions and doing her best to stomp out every glimmer of curiosity we had left. This seminar was, forgive the pun, traumatising. And I sat through it ’til the very end, just because it was the next thing to do on my never ending list of exam regulations. I needed those credits. By the time I realised the extent of this teacher’s incompetence, it was too late to sign up for a different class. And this hasn’t just happened once.
By sticking to the exam regulations, we’re giving teachers a whole lot of power over our precious time. It doesn’t matter whether they’re any good at all. They have what we need, so we need to put up with them.
In the end, this put me in a very uncomfortable spot. Did I want to pursue what I needed to get a degree? Or did I want to pursue what I had wanted in the first place, when my romantic image of universities had included a never ebbing source of knowledge and discovery?
When I look at the what university has given me, I count among them two or three friends who have opened my eyes to areas I had no prior knowledge of. A teacher who, like me, is struggling hard not to let the system break him. In total, I’d say the very real connections I’ve made with people over literary or visual works, theories and politics by far outdo whatever university was trying to teach me by having me sit in stuffy rooms for hours on end, learning the exam regulations by heart, and filling out a dozen requests for whatever went wrong with the online system. All this took away from time I could’ve spent on learning real things, by reading, watching documentaries or engaging in discussion with like-minded people. So I’ve made a decision.
That lecture that managed to make classical Greece sound dull? I walked out of that lecture today, and underneath all that anger and disappointment, it was a damn good feeling. I’m not going to attend classes for credit anymore. There, I’ve said it. Because you know what?
“The world around us is an enormous classroom and we merely need the time to explore it, and the drive to ask questions and to answer them.”
And frankly, I just don’t have time for sitting around anymore.
But how are you going to get a job, I can hear you shouting. Are you going to quit university altogether? Are you just not going to get a degree?
Okay, you want to talk about degrees. Let’s talk about degrees. Degrees are stamped pieces of paper that are supposed to certify to some employer that you have qualifications in whatever field they’re trying to hire in. With a degree in English Literature, I would probably be able to get some sort of office job. I’d probably be able to get some sort of office job if I didn’t have a degree, but let’s assume we’re talking about an employer who requires me to have one.
But look. I don’t want to work in an office. Whether or not I need a degree to work in one has no effect whatsoever on my enjoying offices. So everyone walks away happily. Except for, you know, the people who have to work in offices.
Am I still going to get an education? Hell, yeah. It’ll just look differently. And maybe, just maybe, someone will hire me because I’m doing it differently. Or, you know, I’m just going to hire myself.
As per Aaron’s advice, I’m going to have a look at a book that inspired him to drop out of school and become and unschooler: The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn.
Without further ado, here’s my game plan on what you can do as a student if, like me, you’re in need of some liberation. These are the ways I’ve found of educating myself outside of the classroom, but if you’ve got something to add, please tell me in the comments.
1. Read. This goes without saying. Ask people to recommend books to you. Get a library card. Read non-fiction. Read widely.
2. Sample classes. Yes. You don’t have to drop out, but not pushing for a degree grants you the freedom to walk into and out of whatever classes you please. Isn’t that exciting? Think about it. You could take a seminar on Western films, or gender studies, or a bongo class.
3. Listen to lectures online. There is a vast repository of lectures by even renowned professors you never got or would never get the chance to meet in person, like Noam Chomsky, just sitting on sites like Youtube, or iTunes U. There are even series of lectures on audible.
4. Join an e-learning platform. My teacher-buddy just sent me a link to moodle.org Thanks.
5. Watch documentaries. They might not always be super-scientific, but for me they’re often the first step in opening up curiosity for a new field. Most importantly: they work visually. Not everyone is an auditive person.
6. Visit museums. Seeing and hearing! If you’re lucky you might even get to touch, taste and smell things.
7. Keep an open mind. Especially when confronted with people who are excited about something. Try to understand their excitement. See whether it can rub off on you.
 304, The Boy Who Could Change the World
 324, The Boy Who Could Change the World