Bricks in the wall: why you shouldn’t go to college

comment1The law in Ireland states that you must attend school until the age of 16 or until you have completed three years of secondary education. After that point you’re free to go. Most students will stay on to sit the Leaving and finish secondary school at 18 or 19 and at this point, the average person will have been in the education system for 14 years.

After the Leaving, for those who can afford to access it, there is the option of third level education. Students who do decide to go on to third level tend to do so the year following their Leaving Cert, beginning a period of further education that usually sees them finish with their schooling at some point in their early to mid twenties.

In recent years, third level education has become the highly recommended route into life in 21st century Ireland.The societal narrative on education has seen third level replace the Leaving Cert as the minimum expected qualification. Third level is almost considered a given now, with masters degrees becoming more and more the norm.

Gap years are also becoming more common and are seen as an opportunity to experience life outside of education for a year before re-entering the education bubble. But as the name suggests, gap years are undertaken with the intention of returning to the system. By virtue of merely being a gap, they are not that great a deviation. But the set path of secondary school followed by university followed by a career has become so entrenched in our society that the idea of a gap year still seems for many to be an absurd waste of time, an unnecessary delaying of the inevitable.

14 years of education offers very limited exposure to the world and means that most secondary students who go on to third level decide on their undergraduate path with little to no experience of life outside of an enclosed environment of schooling. Choosing to go to university at 18 with the intention of picking a path that will lead you to the rest of your life is surely a terrifying, not to mention terrible, idea.

Furthermore it can be a spectacularly expensive mistake if you decide to go to university and make the wrong choice, either in your course or in going at all. Why then is it considered the right thing to do? Why are young people discouraged from delaying their entry to third level in favour of life experience?

The answer is the obvious, and the usual, answer for why there is any particular set way of doing anything: control. Going on to third level education in Ireland is held up by society as a promise of stability. If people were to flourish outside of that system it would disrupt the primacy of systematic education and so the possibility of succeeding outside of the designated channels is discouraged.

The state does not want people running around thinking they can do anything they want in life. The state wants them to think they can do anything within the context of the state having provided them with the “free education” that allowed them to achieve it. Success through education means that any individual’s progress begins with a sense of indebtedness to the state or is at least entwined with state structures.

This one road to success way of thinking breeds fear in young people that all other roads will lead to unemployment, poverty and will more generally result in unhappiness and unfulfilled potential. This fear is swallowed by second level students who are wholly ignorant of life outside of education and who see third level as the next designated safe step in life.

Young people’s reluctance to see what might be found off the beaten track (the very opposite of entrepreneurship, the buzzword and darling of modern Irish education) is marketed as a driven young demographic eager to quickly stake their place in the workforce.

In the increasingly infantilising western society, there is a want to sustain the sense of sheltered protection that is all we know from the first day of primary school. Staying in education extends the safety of childhood and further delays life outside of the enclosed system that we are familiar with.

This fear of straying from the set path is encouraged by the state and branded as a positive. Young people’s reluctance to see what might be found off the beaten track (the very opposite of entrepreneurship, the buzzword and darling of modern Irish education) is marketed as a driven young demographic eager to quickly stake their place in the workforce.  In reality, it is fear of taking a chance that is supported by a state that wants you to be as predictable and easy to manage as possible.

Driven by fear that all paths outside of education lead to a black hole, we rush into third level and in doing so we set limits to ourselves by committing to a path. We deliberately curtail our options because the prospect of doing whatever we want overwhelms us. It is the fear of the unknown but worse it is a fear of potential and possibilities.

Life expectancy being what it is in Ireland today means that most of us should hit 80. At 18, you have 62 years to go. Then you’ll die. You’ll probably have retired for around the last 15 years, with enough energy to garden and become fully acquainted with the gradual deterioration of your mind and body before one of them fully quits on you. Again to reiterate, then you’ll die.

The point of this bleak aside is that there will be a time when there will be limits set to your life that you will not be able to escape, death being the main one. The idea of life as a finite resource will be much more real. Why then would you set limits to yourself at 18? With a long and healthy first world life stretching out before you, why would you narrow the field for yourself at 18? Why the one track mind to rush towards the grave along the non-scenic route?

In first world countries, relative to the wider world, we have it very well. We have “free education” and “free healthcare”. We have embassies around the world who won’t allow us to die of hunger on the streets of their turf, even if only for the reason that it would look bad for them. We have access to any information we want online. We can cross most international borders with ease and travel is relatively cheap and easy.

The state looks after us in return for our compliance and so it is very easy to do well if you comply and, an important qualification to make, if you have been born into a situation that is compliant. If you accept the conditions of education (go to school five days a week, abide by the affront to humanity that is the points race, pay your student contribution) you’ll come out the other end in a good position to continue within the system you have been in thus far.

You’ll also be able to rent a far nicer house if you’re a mature student because it’s assumed that a 28 year old is less likely to butcher furniture.

But you can use the system against itself. There is nothing stopping you from playing the system for maximum benefit, especially since most people choose to abide by it. If you decide not to go to third level straight after the Leaving and take off to see the world and then decide to come back at, say, 28 you’ll have a much fuller experience of university.

First of all you won’t have to jump through the flaming hoop that is the points race. You’ll be more informed in terms of what you actually want from life. And if you have decided to go on to third level at 28 (after 10 years of being able to keep yourself alive without a degree) you’ve obviously decided on something you actually want to study and possibly make a career of, rather than just picking something because you have to go to college one way or another.

Presumably it was your parents who were going to look after your education at 18 (whether it be through their own savings or a loan) or the state (through a grant) and if that was going to be the case at 18 then it’ll still be the case at 28, except you’ll have given them ten extra years to save. Jesus you might even pay for it yourself.

You’ll also be able to rent a far nicer house if you’re a mature student because it’s assumed that a 28 year old is less likely to butcher furniture.

So why don’t people take off after the Leaving, explore the world and see what they’re actually dealing with before deciding on a life path? 18 is the right time to leave the bubble. The odds are that after university, however long you spend there, you won’t have the same enthusiasm and willingness to give it a lash that you will on first leaving secondary school. At 18 you’re much more likely to try things, fail, and not worry about their impact on your chances at employability. Get a one way flight somewhere and start working and moving. It’s very doable.

There are some who weigh in with the arguments “Only rich people can do that” and “You need money to travel around the world.” Not true. You need to be rich to travel around the world like a rich person. If you want to travel around on a shoe string then you need your shoes. The idea that you have to be rich to be self-reliant is another facet of the belief that it is impossible to succeed outside of the set paths of success.

The system doesn’t expect soldiers of fortune anymore and you can use it against itself. Worst come to worst for example you end up down and out in, say, Mumbai. Turn up to the Irish embassy. They can’t let you die on the street as it would undermine the state’s power. Even though you’re not playing by the rules, they still have to because most other people are. The system can’t be seen to let you die.

So take off, you might strike gold or oil or figure something out. You might save yourself a lot of money and wasted time. Learn what you like. Try things, fail. Worst case scenario, you don’t find yourself happy and doing something you love. In which case you can still go to college.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.