Backtracking to Forge Ahead – Part 1

I’m 36 and I’ve just applied for the undergrad program at St. John’s College. Besides the humor of being categorized “non-traditional”, my age is also symbolic: 36 is twice 18, the age of my soon-to-be fellow students. I will be attending college with kids who were born the year I graduated from high school.

The application process was a bit uncomfortable as the application itself is obviously intended for 18-year-olds. One of the letters of reference is to be from a teacher, and a high school transcript is required. So I dutifully called to request one: “Hello, my name is Joshua Sturgill and I graduated in the previous millennium and I’m finally getting around to applying for college again because I dropped out years ago. Can you search the microfiche for my transcript and mimeograph me a copy…?” Visions of overhead projectors, floppy discs, and giant televisions strapped to carts.

The beauty of St. John’s application process, however, is that they are not as concerned with forms and grades as they are with how well a prospective student will thrive under their unique tutorial style – The Program as they reverently call it. To begin evaluating a student’s compatibility, the bulk of the application is a long essay asking for reflection on personal education history and reading habits.

Reflecting on my education is something I don’t like to do. High school was uncomfortable to the point of trauma, and my brief experience of university left a horrible taste in my soul. But it was a good exercise to think of my education, of my actual experience in school, rather than about “Education” in the abstract, as I’ve been doing off and on for the past several years. Though not exclusively defining, my education has more deeply affected my sense of the world than I would like to believe.

I attended public schools through the twelfth grade and it would be true to say that I am a product of public education. I have a very fragmented view of reality and am constantly surprised at important basic information that I was never taught or was not taught well. Two examples come immediately to mind: gardening and government. In biology we studied cell division and mitochondria, but never once learned how to care for a living plant, let alone grow one for food. It would never have occurred to us that gardening was educational or even that it was necessary for life; the diagram in the textbook had no real connection to the flower in the yard or the tomato at the grocery store.

I remember one semester of American History and one of American Government late in high school, but very little detail was conveyed and even less retained. Phrases like “cruel and unusual” or “checks and balances” linger, but I don’t recall that we ever once actually read the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. To this day I feel that I have no real working knowledge of our government.

After graduation, few of my classmates (if any) knew a skilled trade, could grow food, could discuss American history in detail, or think critically about the economy, technology or culture. None of us could speak a foreign language or explain the causes of the First World War.

Perhaps I am being too cynical when I say that in the years from kindergarten to the fifth grade we learned foundational reading, math, and science (though as separate and unrelated subjects), and during the next 7 years through the end of high school, little, if anything, of importance was added. This is harsh; such a negative statement fails to consider my own laziness and lack of engagement, which increased over time and prejudiced my sense of what education could or should be.

I cannot fault my instructors. Along the way were gifted teachers who, through their personal care and talent, helped us to see education as more than processing information. But they were working against a system that made the virtues of genuine maturity and self-possession irrelevant to the real goal: becoming consumers and techno-adepts.

Post-high school, I attended university because this was assumed and expected, but I had no interest in a “career” and neither of my parents had experience of the university system. I vividly remember the trauma of navigating financial aid and looking for campus jobs, but afterward couldn’t find a major that seemed a good fit for me. So I took whatever classes piqued my sense of wonder: Chinese Military History, Geology, Creative Non-fiction, Interior Architecture. Sadly, the university would not be convinced that these credits should add up to a particular degree (a B.A. in Unapplied Serendipities?).

The freshman year was the most disorienting and difficult. Sophomore year improved substantially because I began to make friends and think more critically about my intellectual and spiritual activities. I found that my friends were as bewildered as myself, though they were committed to the system and determined to finish the degrees they’d started.

I should mention that most of my friends were dissatisfied with their choice of major by the second year, and very few of them actually found (or wanted to find) work in their chosen field after graduation. One friend with a psychology degree now raises bison in West Kansas and another who majored in elementary education works for a theater ticketing agency in New York City. Both feel that college was something of a waste of time, and both are still paying off their student loans.

I left after Junior year because I ran out of money and interest. Of course, my education didn’t stop there. But higher education, which really seemed an extension of high school, was like going out “not with a bang but a whimper.” When I left the university, the university didn’t notice.

At 36, I’m ready to be educated. I don’t care for credentials or a career. I want to be a whole human being. I wonder what I could have done differently to have made myself ready for St. John’s years ago. Was it the fault of American education that I was mis-educated, or was it my own? And, what will be my college experience from a perspective twice as clear (I hope!) as I had at age 18?

More to come.

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