I am just not an intellectual. I am not an academic. I went to college because my parents told me that I would since as early as I could remember – it was assumed – but I never really felt an interest in it. I managed to bash my way through to a BS degree in Psychology, but never used that degree other than the fact that I know of at least one job that I would not have landed had I not gone to college. I worked for a university for nearly 25 years, but always as support staff – different animal care and administrative assistant positions. Right now, I’m a birdkeeper for a biological lab that develops and produces vaccines. I am truly happiest when manual labor is a large part of my job, when I’m using my body until it sweats and puts on muscle, when I’m outside in the weather for at least part of the day, and when I’m doing something that has a sense of necessity to it (the animals MUST be fed, watered, and cleaned up after or they will get sick). Unfortunately, it seems in this world that the more you sweat at a job, the less that job pays – unless you’re a top professional athlete, that is.
One thing I find particularly interesting is that back in high school, I got straight As and people seemed to assume that I was really “smart” and was going to be very successful in college. Instead, I spent years on and off academic probation, dropped out after four years (still officially a sophomore at that point because I’d failed so many classes), and then went back part-time and took one class a year until I managed to scrape together a degree. Not what anyone considers a successful time in college.
Then there’s my “career”, which has not been so much a career as a series of jobs. Birdkeeper, from age 21 to 26. Administrative assistant the next couple of years. Then back to animal care (all kinds of research animals) for a few years. From there to Editorial Assistant for a nutrition journal – this for over a decade. Another administrative assistant job followed. And now my birdkeeper position. So maybe it’s been two careers taking turns. But not exactly upward mobility – if you take cost of living into account, I don’t think my salary has changed very much since my first job at 21. I’ve been okay, but no one would call it a thriving career.
And I remember people pointing me out in high school as so successful. What happened?
This isn’t a post about what “successful” means – that’s a huge issue, and obviously it means lots of different things to lots of different people. For the purposes of this post, people obviously meant that they thought I would do well in college and have an upwardly mobile career.
When I think back to my childhood, and that classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, the only answer that I remember giving was “I want to be a cowboy”. People would say “You mean a cowgirl” and I’d say “No, I mean a cowboy” and I’d add in my head “What the hell is a cowgirl??” And no, this post is also not about me being transgendered – I’ve always been fine with being female, but I still wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to ride horses, work outside, be active all day, sweat and be dirty and be tired at night, and have camaraderie with others who did the same.
I remember telling my dad once that maybe I could be a house painter like him. It looked like satisfying work, making buildings pretty, and involved many of the things I liked – physical work, being outdoors, and seeing your work actually do something. My dad’s response was “No daughter of mine is going to be a painter!” I don’t think he was being sexist – I think he used “daughter” because that’s what I was to him. I think he just wanted his kids to have something “better” than he did.
In high school, I came up with the idea of being a game warden. But when I checked into the idea, I found that my nearly-blind right eye and nearsighted left eye put me out of the running for that career.
I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in high school, and I totally enjoyed that experience – but I guess I didn’t see that as going anywhere, and besides with my parents’ insistence that I go to college I didn’t really see how to pursue wildlife rehabilitation. I was very shy and not good at networking – I would show up at the center and do whatever work needed doing, but I was lacking in the communication and inquiry skills that would have been needed to question people and research my options for turning those interests into a successful career.
I remember taking some sort of test in high school that was purported to measure your aptitudes and interests and suggest careers that might be appropriate for you… the answer I remember getting was “electrician”. In my mind, that was fixing toasters, and I just sort of went “Huh?”
So it was off to college, where I supposed I was to “find my passion”. Instead I found that I hated going to class, studying, and taking tests. I didn’t have much interest in a lot of the subject matter, and even subjects that I did find interesting I always felt like I was looking in from the outside somehow – like I wasn’t really “getting it”. There was not a cowboy major, or a wildlife rehabilitation major – I took some Wildlife & Fisheries Biology courses, and some Animal Science, but that was chicken farming and computer modeling deer populations, and I was just so lost and confused and, well, just feeling like an outsider. I didn’t connect with the other students – I made friends instead with people who had either graduated already or had not gone to college, who lived in or near the college town but were not part of the school at all. I ended up spending more and more of my time working part-time jobs until I was spending far more time at work than on academic activities, and my school work pretty much fell apart. I wandered from major to major, finally finishing up in Psychology because I just wanted to get a degree and be done, and looking at the courses required and what I had finished so far Psychology offered me the quickest route to my BS.
After I finally finished, I remember my dad asking me “So, are you a psychologist now?” and I said “Well, no, Dad. I’m just someone with a Bachelor’s in Psychology. I’d have to do a lot more schooling to actually be a psychologist. I just have a job.”
Well, if college didn’t get me a specific career, at least it was supposed to get me out there getting life experiences, exploring different subjects, networking, and finding my path in the world, right? It didn’t do much of that for me. I suppose it did get me out in the world away from my parents, and for that I am grateful – I’m sure it was a better way for me to spread my wings than renting an apartment near my folks and just finding some job to pay the bills. But why didn’t it help me find my passion? With all the thousands of interesting people doing important things, with all the subjects to be investigated and all the possibilities for learning, why did I find it so uninspiring? Couldn’t I have found SOMETHING that could have incorporated my natural interests and talents? Am I really just a ditch-digger at heart?
I’ve decided that a lot of my confusion and disinterest in college was due to the education that I received prior to college. My parents sent me to a private religious school from third grade through my junior year of high school. My parents were not particularly religious, but they did not much like the public schools in our area and thought that I would get a more personal education in a private school. Unfortunately, the school they sent me to was a pretty conservative Christian school – what they call a “Bible-based education”.
So I received a more “personal” education – smaller class size than the public school, teachers that took a personal interest. But at what cost? What did a “Bible-based education” actually mean?
It meant putting more stock in a book written by people who thought the Earth was flat and the sun moved around it than in the results obtained by modern scientists.
It meant learning to judge literature by how it reflected “Christian values”.
It meant that debate class focused on three issues: abortion, homosexuality, and evolution. And that the “debates” were rigged to make one side look like the only possible right answer – because The Bible.
It meant being rewarded for giving the “right” answer (according to the school’s ideology), not for thinking.
It meant actively shutting out questions that brought up contradictory viewpoints.
Shutting down free thought.
Stifling intellectual curiosity.
Spewing back the party line.
It meant that my straight As did not mean I was learning, but that I was a good little robot.
Enter college and the expectation that students can come up with ideas, put different ideas together in interesting ways, devise experiments, draw conclusions, ask good questions, self direct, and have basic intellectual curiosity. I failed miserably. I had not developed those traits at all. I don’t think I even understood what people around me were doing.
But I loved to go to work. I had developed the traits to be a good employee – follow instructions, work hard, be punctual, take pleasure in a job well done, get along okay with others, be honest, don’t be afraid to sweat.
Don’t get me wrong – all those traits are great, and I’m very glad I have them. I like my job. I’m proud of myself. But sometimes I do wonder what I would have done if I had grown up learning the mental and psychological skills to really get the most out of a higher education. If I had the mental/intellectual drive to match my work ethic, what could I have accomplished?
I want my kids to have both – to learn to work hard physically and be a great employee, and also to be fascinated with all the knowledge available in the world and be able to bring that knowledge together in novel and interesting ways. To be able to think for themselves, be open to new ideas, be critical of what they read and hear, be critical of their own thoughts but never afraid to think them. I hope that they have great intellectual curiosity which will lead them to seek and find a passion – hopefully one that will pay the bills, too.