Why Should Anybody Go to University?

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Why should anybody go to university?

That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question I have been asking myself for the last two years of my degree. Recently, I have begun to wonder whether I’ve made the right choice in spending years in post-secondary education.

Years of mathematics courses have taught me that, when faced with a large, complicated problem — was it all worth it? — it is often helpful to start by looking at a smaller, simpler problem; namely, why did I choose to go to university?

In retrospect, I believe my primary reason was that I had just gotten out of high school, I had good grades and I loved learning, so continuing my education seemed like the socially acceptable thing to do. It’s what everyone else does, right?

But this isn’t what I believed at the time. Suppose you were to travel back to 2009. You would find Ben Buckley, recent high school graduate in small-town British Columbia. He’s planning to spend two years studying at a local community college, then finish his degree at a university. If you ask him why he’s doing this, he’ll give you a series of inoffensive, people-pleasing responses: “I love learning”, “I want to make sure I get a good job”, “I want to be a more culturally sophisticated person” — and he’ll mean it sincerely.

I began with these optimistic hopes, but towards the end of my degree, I was just going through the motions and trying to get my coursework over with — a classic case of what is sometimes called “senioritis”, the tendency for university students to lose motivation in their final year of study. What happened between 2009 and 2015 to make me so jaded?

When a person loses the ability to enjoy something, it is often a symptom of depression. In fact, I went through a major depressive episode in 2012 and 2013. Mental illness is shockingly common among university students. Compared to many students, however, my experience was actually rather anti-climactic — after months of having every moment of every day feel like a repetitive nightmare, I got myself to SFU Health and Counselling, where I started seeing a counsellor on a semi-regular basis, and got a prescription for Sertraline (an SSRI better known on the streets as Zoloft).

But it got me thinking.

Universities put a lot of resources into increasing awareness of mental illness and making resources such as counselling and medical help available to students. This is all well and good, but when students are taking their own lives so often that universities have to take aggressive measures to prevent it, it seems to me that there’s a bigger problem here. It might be time to consider the possibility that there is something intrinsically unhealthy about university studies — or at least, the way we approach it.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything inherently unhealthy about going to university. There is nothing that precludes having a lifestyle that includes classes and homework in addition to exercise, healthy eating, a positive social life, and plenty of sleep.

And yet, many students, including myself, struggle to have any balance in their lives during their studies. During my years at SFU, I constantly ate simple carbohydrates, stayed up until four in the morning doing homework the night before it was due, got very little exercise, and struggled to find opportunities to meet people.

If you had asked me at the time why I was unable to have any kind of balanced lifestyle, I would have said something like, “There’s not enough time in the day.” Actually, more realistically, I would have burst into tears and said something about how I’m a terrible person who can’t manage my own life. But in either case, it would have felt like there wasn’t enough time.

This is a little strange though, because I actually had plenty of time on my hands. My classes only took a couple hours each day, and try as I might, I was never able to find a part-time job during my studies. I joined a few student clubs, but even that only took a couple more hours out of my week. We’ve established that I wasn’t using the time to sleep, meditate, exercise, or catch up on my homework.

People often underestimate how much stress can consume their life. I believe that, when I was stressed out by all my problems at once — classes, my health and lifestyle, my inability to find a job, my complete lack of a social life — the distraction made it impossible for me to focus on one thing at a time.

As a result, I spent a lot of time on the internet, consuming unchallenging content, usually YouTube videos, image macros, or thinkpieces about how the latest pop-culture phenomenon is “problematic.”

I craved information, which makes it odd that I didn’t harness that craving to consume the information right in front of me — namely, the textbooks I had spent hundreds of dollars on for my classes.

It’s a bit funny to think that there were plenty of parts of my experience at SFU that I enjoyed — the library, the professors, the clubs, the people — but the whole experience was ruined by the one thing I was actually there to do: to take classes. University would be a fine place, if it weren’t for all those pesky courses.

Even among people who have graduated from university, the courses themselves rarely make for fond memories. When I ask people about what they remember most fondly about their post-secondary education, they are more likely to talk about the friends they made, or the clubs they joined, or the interesting events they attended. Most of them don’t remember any of the material they learned in their courses.

I can’t help but wonder if it would make a difference if we replaced every university with a four-year vacation resort for people who had good grades in high school. You could charge the same amount of money and still hire professors and have computer labs, libraries and clubs, but classes would be strictly optional and have no grades. It would be less stressful, and everybody would learn about as much as they were probably going to learn anyway.

I believe that I had unrealistic expectations about university. Formal education is advertised as a magical institution that you can apply to, go through a series of challenges, and emerge as an improved human being. But really, there’s nothing magical about it. You go to a building, you take some courses, then you leave.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you know what you’re getting into, and you know what you want to get out of the experience.

One thing that fascinates me is the number of adults who go back to school to get a second degree, or to otherwise continue their education. Several members of my family have returned to school. For example, my aunt studied social work at university when she was in her late forties. She studied alongside my cousin (her daughter) and they graduated the same year. I suspect that my aunt enjoyed her studies more than I enjoyed mine. At the very least, I bet she got more value out of the experience. She didn’t just go to university because everyone else was doing it — she made a conscious decision to study in a field of her choice. It would be nice if we lived in a society where this is how everybody treats post-secondary education: as a conscious choice, not as a way to kill four years of your life.

As for me, I will officially graduate from SFU in October — I am still not sure if I want to attend my own convocation ceremony.

I don’t want to support the idea that there is something magical about getting a degree from a university. My years of post-secondary education were not an epic story that needs a satisfying conclusion. They were just a series of events — some good, some bad — in the longer story that is my life. Perhaps if I had known this six years ago, I could have relaxed and enjoyed those years a little more.