Reflections on University

Note – A short piece from a defunct blog. I hope it means something to some weary undergrad somewhere.



I’m one month from the end of my undergraduate degree. It’s a grey Easter Tuesday in mid-going-on-late April. I’m taking today off for two reasons; 1st I have a strict and yet wide ranging interpretation of state holidays, and 2nd I am, unexpectedly ahead of schedule on my dissertation. These are welcome facts. I hope to use some of my time, and yours, by reminiscing about the value of university.

I’m a different person than the bright eyed young scallywag who started QUB in September 2014. Much of this change is unremarkable. I’m very slightly taller. I’m notably thicker around the waist, stomach, buttocks and thighs, although the slide into middle aged obesity has not kicked into high gear yet.

There are the non-physical but perhaps more consequential changes. I’m on time for things much more often. I have a vastly improved, although still questionable, ability to wake up in the mornings. I have become acquainted with washing my own clothes, and said goodbye to the necessity of ironing. I cannot confirm that my ability to wash, feed and clothe myself is related to my improved relations with my parents, but I suspect my eventual financial independence from them will also aid general filial cordiality.

The changes are not uniformly progressive, and university has been attended by some unexpected regressions. My alcohol consumption and tolerance is much lower. As is my general fitness. My level of physical exercise has not so much dropped as it has plunged through the earth’s crust, and is now slowly migrating through the thick mantle of wheeziness and body-fat increases. I also talk less than I used to, not because of an increase in shyness quite so much as a decrease in opination. My friends and family would dispute this last claim, and I can only hope you, dear reader, have a higher opinion of my verisimilitude.

I have succumbed to some of the stereotypes of student-hood. My politics have moved notably leftwards, from an already lefty basis. I am much more familiar with Marx, LGBT issues, intersectionality and male privilege. Apart from the crude dialectical materialism, I am not at all embarrassed by these changes. I hope they have made me a better and more interesting person.

Along with these new and predictable interests, I have acquired some strong dislikes. I now both understand the general hatred of meetings, and am confused as to why this antipathy has not reduced the number of meetings one encounters in life. I no longer role my eyes at mentions of ‘internal politics’, and understand better the general scourge of middle management. I understand bureaucracy better, and have bought into the national pastime of shitting on it. While mentioning national pastimes, I am now both a keen observer of and commentator upon the weather. I apologise to my 16-year-old self for this betrayal, but I cannot deny it has happened.

I have found that academia both transcends and lives up to nearly every popular imagining of it. Yes, nearly all academics are perennially late, left wing, obsessed over minor and confusing aspects of their disciplines, and generally better talkers than listeners.  However, they are also nearly all driven people, good listeners (in private), caring and interesting friends. They are also intensely shit at bureaucracy and the management of their lives.

I have unexpectedly gained a more classical university education than I intended to. I now know the difference between Herodotus and Thucydides and even find those differences interesting. I understand something of the clash between Athens and Rome, Homer and Ovid. I can tell uninterested friends lengthy details of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tain bo Cualinge. I think that Lucretius is beautiful and Sappho is underrated. I object to the notion of Pandora’s box both on the ground that (a), it’s a hideously misogynistic parable and (b), it was a big jar, not a box.

I have become a keen modernist. I love the surrealists and have an embarrassing and beloved T shirt of a Dali painting. I have had time to read Kafka, Nabokov, Joyce and Borges. I also understand why some people would object to these men not having a ‘post’ appended to the modernist tag, and care enough to have that argument. I have also gained sufficient shame to be aware of the masculinity of that list, and hope to amend it.

The above new interests were almost exclusively gathered from outside of my degree. In classes I have gained all the pedantry and passion that historians are mocked for possessing. I have become a far, far, better listener. I think I now understand what an ‘historical debate’ is, and hope to promote, protect and participate in them. I now understand and appreciate what anthropology and sociology are, and don’t laugh at jokes about them anymore. I will forever proudly (and perhaps undeservedly) call myself an historian, and secretly feel justified in this self-description by my essay marks.

These are just the headlines of my gains. By far the most meaningful things university has granted me have me new friendships and relationships, but these are harder to talk about while avoiding sentimentality.

The above is my attempt to answer the, by far, most common question graduates receive, which is, ‘is it worth going to university’. I can’t answer that from an economic, personal or financial perspective. I would say that if the above sound like worthwhile things to gain, you should at least consider third level education. I have found it a fascinating, frustrating, frightening and altogether worth-having experience. Beyond that, I can’t answer the question. It’s on you to find out.

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