Eight years ago I dropped out of school for the second time. I’d bailed on my college journalism program in 2004, but started a bachelor of arts in university four years later. I assumed a BA in communications and history would lead to a career in TV writing, but then I realized over the summer between my first and second years that I could pick up freelance writing work online and didn’t need a degree to start writing scripts.
So, having not studied for my second-year communications final, I scribbled “It’s not your fault, I don’t belong here” on the last page of the exam, painfully aware that I was likely going to fail it. (But sadly oblivious to how tragically dramatic I’d made myself seem.) I handed it in, walked out of the classroom, and almost immediately started trying to piece together a freelance writing career. University wasn’t my thing, and I was fine with that.
The thing is, academia isn’t for everyone. Post-secondary education is expensive. Some of us don’t thrive in traditional classroom settings. University can take up an inordinate amount of time. But none of the aforementioned should stand between you and your capacity to learn. Education doesn’t rely on having a degree, it relies on choosing to do the work on your own and in your own way. And while I look back and value my first year at university and everything I learned there, I learned much more as a writer who used culture as a barometer for current events. It—and other writers—challenged me. I learned to take accountability (and apologize) for opinions that were ignorant or I hadn’t researched, and most importantly, I learned to listen. And while those aren’t traditional academic lessons, they’re still important—especially if you want to be an active participant in the world.
Because we never actually stop learning. And, thanks to where we’ve come from, our extenuating circumstances, who we are, and what we do every day, none of us are learning the same things. Education isn’t limited to buildings designated for lectures and labs, it’s fluid and accessible through personal experiences; through failure; through successes; through books; through films, TV shows, newspapers, essays, and conversations. So to not embrace traditional academia doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you better suited to learn a different way.
Even if that brand of learning comes from hitting rock bottom or realizing you’ve been a colossal f-ck-up.
Last winter, I decided to go back to school. I re-enrolled as a part-time history major and started two courses I was sure I’d be able to handle in addition to working full-time and signing on for a new project. I missed learning. I love history. And, certain that I could compartmentalize my schedule enough to Tetris it into making sense, I lasted a month before I dropped a course and realized I only had room for one text-heavy history class on top of daily deadlines and the first draft of my book. And it worked: I wrote my essays on time, completed my readings, participated in all class discussions and walked away with an A (which I lorded above my enemies, mentally).
But then the semester ended. And when I started my next class, I realized within about two weeks there was no way I could keep up traditional learning without letting my editors down or burning out or melting down or a messy combination of all three. So I pressed pause again and made peace with the fact that if I was ever going to finish my BA, it was going to take decades. And also, if I decided not to finish it at all, it wasn’t like I’d “failed.”
Especially because failure exists only in a certain context anyway. By dropping out of school or forfeiting post-secondary, you’ve “failed” only if abiding by a very specific set of standards—one that dictates an outdated and irresponsible type of norm, and one that asserts all people learn the same, live the same and have the same set of goals. Also? One that overlooks the fact that school schedules and tuition prices don’t work for every person. (Like, hi: if you have rent and bills to pay, that $400 textbook can go f-ck itself.)
Ultimately, one of the most valuable lessons I learned through my failure in, and staggering of, traditional academia is that I don’t need it to move forward. I don’t need it to learn or to educate myself or to grow and I can still be a grown-ass woman who exists in the world without a degree. And if you want one, go for it, you’ve got this. But we are the sum of the way we educate and challenge ourselves—not merely the sums of our alma maters.
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