I recently caught up on Messy Mondays, a Youtube series that I enjoy. The last video I watched was Five Reason College Might Be a Waste of Your Time. And I found myself disagreeing with several of the reasons. As a senior creative writing major who is (gasp) looking to add on more school by going to get my masters, I figure I have a little experience to draw from. So, here we go!
1. It’s just an excuse to party. Yes, this is a stupid reason to go to college. As the video says, there are cheaper ways to be an idiot.
2. Gen Eds. Everyone’s favorite thing to complain about! Why do I have to take a math class when I’m an English major? Isn’t that a waste of my time and money?
Anyone who tells you that they learned nothing from their general education classes and that those gen eds were a waste of time is either lying, being stupid or going to a community college where their professors talked only about their pet turtles. I’m not saying some classes haven’t taught me more than others. But, heck, here’s a list of general education classes I had to take and the stuff I learned which I consider vital to me as a writer.
History: I learned about the way wars start, the strategies of battle, my own heritage and some historical trends. Hm, I wonder how this could help a writer who often is dealing with worlds where governments exist…?
Chemistry: I learned some of the controversial issues (global warming and fluoride in water), the science behind both sides, and the studies on effects. The health and environmental part of the class gave me a lot of ideas about how characters might move through a world that is dangerous in ways we can’t see.
Agriculture: I am learning practical things about gardening, raising animals, and growing crops. Is it important that I know fertilizer ought to be tilled into the soil? Yes, if I’m going to have a farming character.
World Issues: Understanding government and the current tensions between governments is vital. Unlike in history, the conflicts here aren’t resolved. The immediacy of this is something I can use in my writing.
Psychology: Without this class, I probably wouldn’t have known that kids literally don’t see the world like adults. I remember sitting in class and realizing I had to revise a scene because my kid character had used adult logic.
First Aid: I know the signs of heatstroke, choking, etc.–all of which is important for scenes involving heat or choking or any number of potential everyday accidents.
Notice I’ve applied all these classes directly to my creative writing and storytelling. But there is a much wider value in these classes as well. World Issues and History taught me about the world I live in, and made me appreciate what we’ve gone through and what is still on the table. Chemistry and agriculture opened my eyes to a part of my world I know nothing about, but that in many ways is part of my existence. Psychology and first aid taught me how humans work on a psychological and physical level, and how I can interact with people to help them. Would I have learned all this if I was only taking literature or writing classes? Probably not.
College isn’t an apprenticeship. It’s not about specializing you in the field you think you want to go into. It’s about opening your mind to new ways to logic through problems. It’s about showing you different parts of the world that effect you so that you can make more informed decisions in your future–whether in writing a short story or casting a vote.
I’m not saying I was thrilled by my chemistry class. But whenever I find myself moaning over these “unnecessary” classes, I slap myself on the face and start looking harder for the connections to my life. Those connections normally are not that hard to find.
3. It Costs Too Much. Depends. College is outrageously expensive, especially if you go to a private school. But there are state colleges that have good programs (and aren’t out the roof expensive if you’re in-state). There are also loads of scholarships you can get as you’re coming in (especially if you make it clear to your admissions counselor that you need scholarships) and after you’re already there. Should you put yourself in debt for the next thirty years of your life? No. But you shouldn’t say that the cost can’t be reduced (at least somewhat) or that it has no return.
4. If You Think College Guarantees You a Job. Guarantees? No. But college does provide a platform for finding a good job (and, in sciences, good luck getting to the operating table without a degree).
Does having a creative writing degree guarantee I’ll be a published author and make millions? No. But it does give me four years to hone my craft–four years in an intellectually stimulating environment, surrounded by professors who want to help me, and (in the case of Berry) work opportunities where I am actively writing for my job. For people who can intern, it’s four empty summers that can be filled with internships at publishing houses and in other areas of the publishing field, learning what it takes to be a successful writer in today’s world.
In my experience (which isn’t all inclusive), people who don’t go to college either stay at home all the time (not much experience there) or are working a low paying job where they aren’t developing their skills. Can they still devote time to their craft? Sure. Is it a lot harder to get constructive feedback, training, and time to do it? I’m betting it is.
5. The Internet. This was the reason that really dug under my skin, especially after reading some of the YouTube comments about writing. Messy Mondays says the internet is a big resource for teaching yourself–plus it’s free. True? A little bit. But there are so, so many pitfalls to the internet.
Time: Say you’re going to educate yourself via the internet. Great! First you’ve got to find an area of interest. Then you need to find valid sources. Then you need to read all these valid sources. Then, to make sure you’ve really got it down, you probably need to make yourself write at least a few pages on all that you’ve learned. You’re essentially making your own lesson plan and then following it through. This is much more complicated for you than it would be to take a syllabus and follow a professor’s instruction, and it’s much harder to know if you’ve actually taught yourself valuable, accurate information. Speaking as a homeschooler and person who loves independent study, it’s really hard to stay motivated and focused long enough to do this. Especially on the internet.
There is a huge difference between browsing the internet to learn about a hobby and using the internet as a learning resource. I browse the internet when I need to know how to make a fox snare for my huntress protagonist. But I’d go to my medieval lit or history professors when I need to know how to research medieval hunting.
Subject: In college, you’re given a list of subjects you’ll basically have to cover to get your diploma, and this includes general education classes. On your own, it’s all up to you. “Fantastic!” you say. “I will go read up on writing, and then I will write about a female protagonist doing stuff!” But because you’ve never taken a college class or been exposed to intense feminist critique, you have no idea how to write a female character while being sensitive to female topics. So when your female character gets knocked around a bit and is always apologizing to the males around her, you don’t realize you’ve written a story in which your protagonist is trapped in a rape culture. Because you don’t realize this, the story is actually saying something drastically different than you intended, and your protagonist is left weak and dependent instead of a kick-butt heroine. This is largely due to the fact that you were never taught how to think or read with women’s issues in mind. (I’m speaking from my own experience and the experience of other writers.)
The internet can be a great place to flesh out interests. But it’s not a good place to make sure you have your bases covered. And it’s really hard to expose yourself to things you might not like (politics) or things you find really dull (agriculture) when your study rests entirely on your own shoulders.
Free?: Messy Mondays claims the internet is free. Well… yes. Sort of. But scholarly articles, journals, and other valid resources are not free unless you have a college subscription. There’s also interlibrary loan. Without a college library, it becomes a lot harder to get a hold of college research material.
Reliability: Without scholarly articles or easy access to research books, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to research using valid sources. Actually, without a college class, there’s a huge chance that you won’t even be able to identify what a valid source is. I remember getting into a debate in high school wherein I pulled whatever quotes from whatever websites I could find without realizing that half the time the quotes I’d grabbed weren’t from valid sources. I didn’t learn what a source was until my second semester of college. I know this isn’t just my problem. People throw out all sorts of invalid claims when they get on the internet. I once witnessed an online debate that claimed the Knights of the Round Table were all black because that’s where the word “knight” came from. The person linked to a site that was completely unvalidated. Needless to say, their argument was far from bullet proof.
So let’s assume that you know how to tell if a source is valid and can be trusted online. Now you want to look at the role of African Americans in the American Revolution. They played a pretty big part in the war, you found out when you visited Williamsburg (because you haven’t taken a history class or done African American studies so you wouldn’t have learned it there). So you’re researching, thinking you might want to write a short story or something. But the only valid source on the free web you can find is the article on the Williamsburg website–the majority of which you already learned during your visit. Tough luck, my friend, because the majority of research for that topic is in academic books and scholarly articles. Now it’s up to you to get a hold of those resources on your own.
Is it impossible? No. Is it complicated? Is it easy to be deceived by faulty information? Yes.
Writing: A lot of people in the comments were saying they’d just skip out on college and read writing blogs. I sort of wanted to tear out my hair when I saw this. Again, can you teach yourself to write well? Probably. People certainly have in the past.
But let me tell you something. I have been writing since I was 12. I am serious about my craft. I read books about it, follow blogs and twitter accounts, have multiple critique partners, and have completed four manuscripts (75,000+ words each, plus another about 3/4 done).
And guess what? In the past six weeks, I have learned more about creative writing than I have learned in the past year.
I’m taking a Writer’s Tutorial class, where I work one-on-one with a professor. We began the class by identifying my weaknesses–like passive voice, description, etc.–and we are working through my current manuscript attacking the weaknesses one by one. My writing is already improving enormously. I’m spotting errors I didn’t even know I was making. I’m thinking about writing in new and challenging ways. I’m exploring worlds far deeper than I have in the past. My professor has brought up issues that I didn’t know existed in my book.
Could I have read enough blog entries, critiqued enough, studied enough to have found these weaknesses and worked through them on my own? Yes. But it would have taken me months, years even. Take it from someone who knows–it’s really, really hard to get good, constructive, intelligent feedback from the internet. This class–and my other writing classes, too–have completely changed how I approach and think about writing. Because I don’t have to worry that my bases aren’t covered, that there’s some gap in my self-education, I have more time to really tackle my problems. I have more time to write, and write well, and know I’m writing well because I can discuss it with professors and classmates.
College is what you make of it, it’s true. But so is self-education. And the real waste of time, to me, is to not take advantage of an opportunity to be challenged, trained and grown not just as a writer or whatever else you want to be–but as a person.
Will you grow without college? I hope so. But I’m betting that the challenges and victories you face on this campus will be so much more than the ones you’ll face at a low paying job, in your parents’ house or on your computer.