There are three things I swore I’d never do again.
The first two, I can’t tell you about because the police in Sarasota County are probably still looking for me and I don’t want to get caught. I believe prison would be bad for my self-esteem.
But the third thing I thought I’d never do again is return to college.
I first attended college from 1977 to 1981. Like many young men of my generation—perhaps every generation—I went mainly to drink beer, meet girls and put off growing up as long as possible.
Education was also important, but I wasn’t a model student. I studied fairly hard, but didn’t even try to get perfect grades. I attended the classes I liked, but skipped a lot of the ones I didn’t. I missed so many sessions of one particular English class that I still occasionally wake up at night worrying about whether I have an assignment due.
Perhaps I do.
I honestly can’t remember.
When I did study, it was to earn a degree in Technical Journalism. Technically, I’m not even sure what that means. I’ve never met a journalist who was capable of using a calculator reliably, let alone being technical; most of us are generalists, which means we know a little about a lot—enough to chitchat about philosophy or physics over cocktails, but not enough to speak authoritatively about anything except the weather outside or our own work.
We tend to be fiercely proud of that skill, just like trivia buff Ken Jennings is proud of winning more money on Jeopardy! than any other contestant in the show’s long history—$3,022,700 in all.
But the truth is that most journalists are either unwilling or incapable of attending to one subject long enough to truly understand it. Perhaps that’s why, as a group, we often behave more like a classroom full of ADHD kids who forgot to take their Ritalin than “professionals.”
It might also have something to do with how journalism school—or J-school, as we call it—works. Because most of us have the attention span of kindergartners waiting for cupcakes, J-school students are encouraged to sample liberal arts programs liberally.
So I actually accumulated more college credits in both English and philosophy than I did in journalism.
English was easy and fun for me. I like to read, writing’s usually not a chore, and I’d rather express my reactions to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls than explore the method of fluxions any day. Truth is, I wouldn’t recognize a fluxion if it fell out of a tree and hit me on the head, let alone know how to calculate its mass.
Philosophy was fun, too. Philosophy is the systematic study of lofty subjects like existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. I like it because you can’t be proven wrong—you can only be argued with, and I’m good at arguing. You’ve never really had fun until you get rip-roaring drunk at a party with a bunch of nerdy philosophy students and then quarrel about whether Martin Buber was a heretical boob, or, later in the evening when the beer buzz starts to wear off, commiserate about why Søren Kierkegaard was such a sad sack who was always saying things like, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Fun aside, I almost immediately realized that my appreciation for English and philosophy weren’t going to get me anywhere in life economically, even if it was coupled with a degree in Technical Journalism. So, unlike most J-school students, I spent most of my time in college working at my chosen profession—for the student newspaper, and for any publication anywhere that was willing to pay me to write.
And when I finally graduated Magna Cum Lousy, I vowed to never return to school—not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it seemed much less useful than the on-the-job experience I got actually working for actual magazines and newspapers. Within weeks of being handed my degree, I landed my first job at a magazine. Then I kept on working at various publications and jobs without a break until last December, when I impulsively (and probably foolishly) quit my job as an editor because I was about to be laid off anyway.
And it was that decision, strangely, that led me back to college, like Rodney Dangerfield in the 1986 film Back to School, except that my version of the story isn’t as funny.
The way I see it, traditional print media like newspapers and magazines are all but dead, killed by the Internet and a general state of illiteracy that seems to be the natural by-product of YouTube and the Xbox. In geeky computer terms, I need to reboot my career—which is running about as well as Windows Vista—and that takes training. Specifically, I’m hoping to get a job as a writer/editor with the U.S. government, and the feds like students. So a few weeks ago I enrolled at the University of Colorado-Denver, where I’m now working toward a graduate certificate in Environmental Policy, Management and Law.
It’s strange—and exciting—to be back on campus now that I’m all serious and grown up, and much, much less interested in beer and girls than I once was.
Although I still don’t like tests or finishing assignments, and I’m often tempted to skip class just for old time’s sake, I also still truly enjoy learning. It’s oddly invigorating to lounge around in the student union with the other students and study, although I usually drink soda now instead of beer.
And even though I’m very happily married and not in the market for a date, I’m also pleased to report that I’ve still got “it” where the opposite sex is concerned. Most of the women, including my professor, may be half my age, but my mature good looks and years of accumulated wisdom—however trivial—are apparently so overwhelmingly powerful to them that they can’t bear to talk to me, or look at me, or even to acknowledge that I exist.
But I do.
Because as the philosopher René Descartes once said, “Cogito, ergo sum”—I think, therefore I am. And if you disagree, well, meet me in the student lounge Friday afternoon to discuss it. But be prepared to lose, because I’m relentless in an argument.
P.S. — I’d like to wish a happy 208th birthday to Victor Hugo, the French author who wrote the original screenplay for Disney’s 1996 hit film, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.