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Elgin on Higher Education

April 4, 2012

The following passage is intended to be encouragement for those pursuing higher education, but it could just as easily be read as an indictment of the system.

Excerpted from The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin:

“It may help…for you to remember a few things that tend to be lost in the academic shuffle. One is that the whole situation is artificial. You are an adult, probably an adult with adult responsibilities, often an adult accustomed to giving the orders and having them obeyed in at least one situation in your life. At college you are suddenly in the position of a child again in many ways, subject to the sort of sudden whims and irrational incomprehensibilities you associated with grown-ups when you were chronologically a child. I do not intend to try to explain to you what lies behind the absurdities you must deal with, most of which will be blamed upon ‘computer error.’ It would require a separate book. But keep firmly in mind that your situation, like childhood, is temporary. You will not be here, in what may seem to you not a temple of learning but a vast mental hospital, for more than a specific number of years, determined by your educational goal and your skill with the catalog. Say to yourself sternly, on the day when you are told that the twelve units of French which you were last year solemnly assured would allow you to graduate are no longer enough–you need three more units– and that whoever told you that twelve would do must have obtained that information from a bulletin that contained several ‘computer errors’: ‘This, too, shall pass. I do not have a life sentence at this place; I will be able to leave here and go on to other things.’

If that doesn’t do it, try shock therapy. Choose any incredible disaster that does not apply to you, and say to yourself, sternly, ‘I could have a real problem. I could have an incurable fatal disease. I could be on Death Row awaiting execution.’ Something of that kind. The point of this is to restore your sense of perspective, so that you do not have a nervous breakdown or assault an evaluations clerk over three units of French.

You must also remember that you are normal. That is, although the life of a college student may have been represented to you as a glorious series of wondrous events, the honest truth is that it rarely is that way. If it is true for you, be grateful. You are singularly blessed. Ordinarily only students in midstream–about halfway along toward this goal–have this kind of blessing vouchsafed them. For the student who has just started and therefore knows nothing at all about most things; for the student who is nearing the end of the academic trek and therefore nearing the day when all the accumulated ‘computer’ and other errors will suddenly loom up cumulatively like Mount Everest; for either of those types of student, the following situation is normal.

You are exhausted; you are nervous; you are under stress; you have headaches and colds and rashes and stomach upsets; you have no confidence in yourself; you have no idea what ever made you start this process, and you are certain that whatever it was, you were out of your mind; and in any case, you are out of your mind. If you can accept the fact that this is the tpyical internal state of the college student, and if you are not in need of professional help, most of that list will melt away. You will look around you, you will talk to other students, you will ask faculty members young enough to remember being students, and you will find that there is nothing unique about your state. Everybody either feels that way, or did feel that way, as a student. And everybody did make it through college, go on to become a real person, turned out to be sane, stopped having colds and rashes and headaches and stomach upsets, and so on. Talk to a few people instead of listening only to your own internal repeating tape. And if indeed you do need professional help, if finding out that you are one of a vast crowd of people in your state of mind and body doesn’t help, go get that professional help at once.”

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