Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Further (and further and further) education

For all that I didn't like the specifics of school - the enforced sport, the pointless busywork, the endless repetition of the same material, the polishing of church pews - I quite liked the idea of school.  I was good at learning.  I got good marks, for the most part.  This was a very important self esteem booster in a big, bad, scary world that seemed determined to crush my spirit in as many ways as possible.  I couldn't play sport, ride a bike, make friends, apply makeup, draw, paint, sing, flirt, dance, talk to people, or any of the other things girls were supposed to be able to do, but I got good marks.  I read a lot.  I was clever.  That was my thing.
Unfortunately, there are two downsides to having Being Clever as the hook from which you hang your identity.

The first is that clever is a relative term. I did very well at primary school, but looking back the school itself was, to be honest, a bit crap.  We did a lot of hymns, polishing of the aforementioned church pews, and copying things verbatim off the blackboard, but the only science project we ever did was when a teacher found a dead rainbow lorikeet on the ground and got us to go out every day to watch it rot; an experiment which came to an abrupt end when a passing dog ate it.

But at high school there were many more students of much greater diversity, and I was no longer one of the smartest kids in the class.  The work was suddenly much more difficult - possibly because I missed some of the groundwork while polishing pews and observing dead wildlife - it was suddenly a lot harder to be clever.  But I didn't switch to easier subjects, even though it would have massively reduced my stress levels and the number of homework-related meltdowns.  I Was Clever, so I had something to prove.

That's the other problem with Being Clever being a core part of your identity.  If you're suddenly not - because the work gets harder, because the skills you have are suddenly not relevant to the problems you're facing, because you're thrust into a world where problems can't be solved with long division and analysis of Shakespeare - suddenly a big chunk of your identity has been taken away.  Not only are you struggling, you're a failure.  Who even are you, if the only thing you have going for you is gone?

Fortunately my catastrophic final results in physics didn't amount to much in the real world, because by then I'd given up on dreams of being an astronomer and slid into an arts course at uni.  I was back in my element - I was Clever again.  My ability to wheel out big words and echolalic recall of the kinds of phrases that pressed my lecturers' buttons enabled me to sail through quite comfortably despite the occasional complete misunderstanding of the actual assignment.  I loved uni.  I could have stayed there forever.

And here's the thing - I really could have stayed there forever.  I could easily have continued into postgraduate study and stayed in the hallowed halls of academia for the rest of my life, learning a great deal about a great many dead poets and then inflicting my learning on the next generation of literature students.  It would have been a much safer course than the one I took, into the uncertainty and chaos of journalism.

But while it would have been safer, I'm glad I didn't choose that path.  I've learned so very much though my adventures in the big wild world outside academia, and met so many people I wouldn't have in a uni setting.  It also provided the opportunity to be diagnosed, which I'm not sure would have come my way otherwise.  I feel I've grown more as a person - as clich├ęd as that sounds - than I would have done had I taken the safer option.

For Aspies with an intellectual inclination, academia may be a safe and orderly refuge in a hostile and bewildering world.  For those who function well in such an environment, I can see the strict rules, hierarchy and structure of academic life holding a very real appeal.  In fact, I haven't entirely ruled out going back for further study one day.

But not just yet.  Because there are many adventures to be had in the wider world as well.

Image: Pembroke College, Cambridge, from the Cornell University Library collection on Flickr Commons