The Undergrad With A Thousand Faces

It’s convocation week here at Memorial University and a new crop of graduates are being cast out into the Real World. I myself graduated from MUN two years ago and have since returned to upgrade to an Honors and am currently working on my M.A. I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of post-secondary education lately. There is a post-secondary education bubble developing here and it’s soon going to burst. Moreover, university students are exponentially incurring more dept. (I read somewhere comparing the rising rates of tuition and inflation and the ration was absurd. I can’t remember the specific article, but there’s lots of data out there.) Something’s gotta give.

My two pet peeves are the following: “Do you realize that when you get old, your tattoos are going to be all saggy and wrinkly?!” and, even more, “A degree in Philosophy?! What are you going to do with that?” The former is for another entry, but as to the latter I usually reply, “Whatever I want.” Too many people now see University as a job factory; something that guarantees employment upon completion. In a word, what I’m trying to say is that Universities are being treated like a dungeon key rather than a place to level-up, if I may borrow some video game vernacular. The current attitude is that a University should unlock all these career opportunities for you, and you have to select the appropriate discipline that will reward you the appropriate bourgeois lifestyle. If you pick something like Folklore, well, sorry Kid, but no Ford minivan and Samsung flatscreen for you. But this is obviously bullshit. Aside from Engineering, which is more of a trade than an academic discipline, in my opinion, I can’t think of any undergraduate degree that leads directly to a specific job. Maybe it was like that in the Boomer generation, but certainly not anymore. If you want a professional degree do a trade, not a University degree.

University should be a place where you can be exposed to different challenges so you can raise your game and hone your abilities. Then, when you enter the real world, you’ve got the skills to carve out your own niche in the universe. I read an article about Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, starting a new scholarship that offers students $100, 000 to leave university for two years and develop their own entrepreneurial interests. The scholarship is obviously controversial, but I really like its philosophy. Thiel’s point, as his is mine, is that Universities have become too institutionalized and foster a low-risk mentality that is incongruous with the entrepreneurial spirit. And it’s not that I’m anti-University. Like everything else, there’s the good and the bad. I’m just frustrated by the current discourses that are driving Academia in unsuitable directions.

What is The Journey of the Undergrad? Like all tales of adventure and self-discovery, it too can be understood using Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, and, of course, Star Wars.

First, there is The Call to Adventure. The hero begins  his/her journey in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown. Think of Luke Skywalker, working on his Uncle’s farm in Tatooine, wanting to go to the Toshi Station to pick up some power converters, hoping to one day leave for the “Academy,” when suddenly, R2D2 arrives carrying Princess Leia’s fateful S.O.S. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” This too is like my own days in Mount Pearl, toiling away in mediocrity, uninspired and bored. When suddenly, one day, an acceptance letter from MUN arrives, telling me it’s time to go to University, and leave my High School behind.

However, oftentimes there is a Refusal of the Call, wherein the Hero refuses to heed The Call to Adventure. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances. His/her world then becomes a waste land. I too refused the call initially. I wasn’t ready and dropped out after my first semester, electing to work full-time as a lifeguard at the Aquarena . A waste land indeed.

Fortunately, in times of need a Supernatural Aid arrives to help the Hero in his/her time of need. In Star Wars we have Obi-Wan. He convinces Luke there is something special inside him and it is his destiny to leave Tatooine so he may discover the power of the The Force. In my life, I have my uncle, Patrick O’Flaherty, academic extraordinaire, recipient of the Order of Canada and a recent Honorary Doctorate at MUN. Uncle Pat convinced me I was destined for more than sweaty pool decks and kids spitting water in my face.

However, once the hero has accepted the Call, s/he has his/her first challenge, The Crossing of the Threshold. Here we have the infamous Threshold Guards. Think of the Storm Troopers and the Tavern scene. However, in Academia we have the even more sinister Apparatchiks or Bureaucratic Underlings, known as the Registrar’s Office here at MUN. Unless you’ve successfully navigated the Byzantine mass of forms, contracts, and general red tape, you will be chopped down by the Border Guards. They then bombard you with riddles, and unless answered correctly, you’ll be cut asunder.

Once passed the threshold, and have entered the Belly of the Whale, the Hero now begins perhaps the most exciting part of the Monomyth, The Road of Trials. It is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the Hero must undergo to begin the transformation. Obviously this corresponds to the bombardment of Tests, Essays, Readings, and Exams that the Student must endure. Here we have the darkest moments in the Hero’s journey and temptations to quit and take the easy road. There are numerous examples in Star Wars: the rescue of Leia, the battle of the Death Star, the training with Yoda, the battle with Vader. These are some of the greatest scenes in Star Wards.

Finally, the student conquers all challenges and completes his/her Degree, and the Hero’s Journey is complete. Here we have The Ultimate Boon, which is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the Boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail. In Star Wars it is the knowledge of the Force and the attainment of full Jedi, in Academia it is the Degree.

However, having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man. This is known as The Refusal of the Return, or Grad School, which is where I currently sit. Luke also refused to leave without his Father, Anakin, but he eventually had to let go and return to Rebel Alliance. Eventually, I too will have to rejoin the Real World and get that ever coveted Job, but not yet.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on May 30, 2011.

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