BY MATTHEW PARSONS

The first two books I read after I finished working on my master’s thesis were a musicological study of the works of Arnold Schoenberg and a semiotics textbook.

I could have chosen anything: mystery novels, comic books, magazines . . . after all, school was over. I didn’t need to be brushing up on my serialism and signifiers. But I knew there was a reason for this odd behaviour lurking somewhere in the cavernous depths of my uneasy psyche, and I went searching.

It didn’t take long to find.

This coming September will mark the first time in my life that I haven’t gone back to school in the fall. Counting pre-school and kindergarten, I’m coming off an unbroken streak of twenty years of education, and I’m twenty-three years old. School has been my life, and now it’s over.

As I sit down to write this post, I don’t have a job. People keep telling me that I’ll be able to find something, and that it’s not as bad out there as they say. But, considering that I’m an aspiring Canadian broadcast journalist and the CBC just cut 657 jobs, I think I’m justifiably anxious.

Meanwhile, my all-enveloping state of denial is manifesting as a desire to read musicology treatises and semiotics textbooks in my suddenly plentiful spare time.

My present reading habits have also taken me back to an old favourite: a particular sub-genre of online lifestyle articles that I used to read in my high school days. The proliferation of “why you should go to university” articles in recent years speaks to a widespread anxiety over whether or not a university education is still a worthwhile investment. Clearly, the intended audience for these articles is the one that ought to be the most acutely aware of this anxiety: young people who have not yet decided what they’ll do after high school and, more crucially, their parents.

But lately, I’ve found myself drawn to these pieces, maybe to remind myself why I made the choice that I did six years ago when I started university, and again two years ago when I started grad school. Or, as I’m beginning to suspect, maybe I didn’t have my reasons as nailed down as I would have liked to admit, and I’m desperately trying to nail some down retroactively.

So what have I learned? I found my favourite piece on this topic, by Dr. Adrian Furnham, in Psychology Today. Furnham starts with a few traditional reasons to go to university. Chief among them: “to get a qualification that improves job prospects and the opportunity for a bigger salary.” He hastens to add, “But I am not sure this applies to every degree.”

I suspect that my two degrees in music and journalism might be the kind that Furnham is doubtful of. The statistics that Garrett Hinchey cites in a previous WORST post, “How tough is it to get a job as an arts graduate?” don’t make me feel any better.

But then, Furnham moves on from the traditional reasons to get a degree and focuses on what he calls the “good” ones, the most powerfully stated of which reads: “to guide and foster an interest/passion for its own sake. It’s a time to develop a sense of the power of learning and thought, and respect what it can do.”

Learning for its own sake. I very much like the sound of that, and it’s certainly at the root of my recent enthusiasm for recreational semiotics.

This point comes up in Jeff Rybak’s book What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make it Work for You Anyway (specifically, in the bit that was excerpted for the “Moms” section of Canadian Livingmagazine. I scoured the Internet). Rybak notes that pure learning is a justly controversial raison d’etre for universities: “Some think this is the only good reason to run a university, and that any other purpose is a dilution of this goal. Others think this is an outdated idea and one that doesn’t have much place in modern education.”

I have to admit, in a post-recession economy where tuition continues to rise, it does seem kind of frivolous and irresponsible to attend university simply out of a desire to learn, without any long-term career plans. And as one of my favourite bloggers, Philip Sandifer, points out in this deeply frustrated rant about academia, universities aren’t the only place to become knowledgeable in a subject anymore. Services like Coursera and iTunes U offer intensive courses on subjects like Ancient Greek history and Beethoven’s piano sonatas without the price tag that’s attached to that kind of learning at a traditional institution.

In any case, here’s the perverse reality of the current situation: in this job market, universities are getting closer to that romantic ideal of pure learning simply by virtue of the unemployability of their graduates. Since I’m searching for retroactive validation for my choices, that romantic ideal serves as well as anything. If I can’t claim observable metrics like job prospects or a big salary as reasons for my (fairly expensive) course of study, I can at least cite more ephemeral notions like “self-improvement.”

In all sincerity, though, I really do believe that I’m a more valuable human being for having read Ulysses, and written papers about obscure British biopics, and learned how to conduct an orchestra (however ineptly). I really do believe that I have developed a brain that can contribute something to the discourse on topics like these. I really do believe that I have learned to think with a level of proficiency that makes me useful.

Hey, wait . . . I think I’m starting to remember why I did this.

I’m at my most effective when my work interests me. I went to university so that I could find that kind of work. I went on to study journalism because I, like all arts graduates, have something to offer the world and I needed a medium by which to do so. I went to university to become the person that I presently am. So, in that sense at least, mission accomplished.

But dear God, I hope I find a job soon. 

Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute

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