Since the day my mom brought me to Kindergarten in September 1970, there have been very few years when I have not been involved in the formal education system in some way. Often as a teacher, but far more often (and sometimes simultaneously) as a student.
This past weekend was Convocation at the university here. A colleague of mine took a rare day off work for his son’s graduation; I went to the library to return some books on Friday and had trouble parking because the convocation ceremonies were being held in the same building as the library. I heard snippets of the various commencement speeches on the morning news. Other than that, since no-one I know is graduating, Convocation weekend didn’t impact my life much.
Some years, as I drive past the university and see people in cap and gown gathering on the steps before or after the ceremonies (which continue for a few days, as all the various faculties have their graduations), I feel a twinge of something more than nostalgia — envy, perhaps. The desire to be back in school, getting another degree. There’s something about the academic machine that I love, even though I’ve often been bored in classes over the years.
This year, there wasn’t a hint of envy or regret as I sprinted past the gowned grads on the steps to return my library books. I think I may finally be over my long love affair with academia.
I graduated from high school in 1982, then graduated again from Andrews University exactly four years later in 1986, with a double major in English and History and enough education courses for a secondary teaching certification in some provinces.
If I could change one thing about the past I would probably have taken longer to get that first degree — I crammed in extra course loads every semester to get the double major plus teaching certification in four years, and why? So I could graduate at not-quite-21 and start working every day for the rest of my natural life? Why didn’t I spread it out, or take a year off to travel or study or teach English abroad as so many people I knew did? What was the big hurry?
I hope when I’m giving my kids study and career advice in a few years, I won’t be as focussed on the shiny diploma at the end of the trail as I was when planning my own education. I was much too young and green during my first year as a teacher, and while I met people and had experiences that year that definitely made me who I am today, I wish there was a way to keep those people and experiences while having delayed the whole process by a year or two.
Anyway, a few years after that, I decided I should get a Masters’ in English. It seemed like a logical move, as I was teaching mostly English classes and had always enjoyed English literature. I must have learned something along the way because instead of trying to jam in a Masters’ degree entirely through night classes while teaching, I did actually take a year off work, come back home, and take classes at Memorial.
I got an M.A. in English in 1993, and managed to keep myself free of academic entanglements for the next few years. Then, after I quit working and was staying home with my babies, I went back to school part-time, working on a M.Ed. in counselling psychology, which I finished in 2005.
There were logical reasons for getting both those higher degrees. The M.A. helped me to move to a higher pay scale as a teacher, and the M.Ed. helped me to move in a slightly different career direction and led me to the best job I’ve ever had. In each program there were courses I loved and courses I hated. But I always loved the atmosphere of university, the whole rigmarole of going to class and writing papers and, best of all, picking up a degree at the end of it.
During those same years when I was at stay-at-home mom doing the M.Ed. part-time (usually just one course per semester), I did a lot of reading quite unrelated to my degree, mostly in the area of Biblical studies. Posting on religion debate and discussion boards, and following up the interesting conversations I had there with a lot of reading, was one of the things that kept my mind active and kept me connected to the outside world while staying at home with babies and toddlers. It was during those years that I finally found the courage to explore a lot of the troubling questions about Christianity and the Bible that I had avoided looking too closely at for fear I might “shake my faith.” A lot of what I discussed, read and learned did shake me up a bit, but there’s no doubt that I emerged with a stronger and better-informed faith.
So far, so good. But at that stage I still had this crazy thing inside me that said, “If you’re reading about something, and you’re interested in it, shouldn’t you be able to take classes in it and pick up a piece of paper at the end? Shouldn’t you use this interest to get a few more letters after your name? Shouldn’t you get SOMETHING SHINY??”
Which explains my very, very brief, and now abandoned, pursuit of a Master’s in Theological Studies.
At about the same time I was wrapping up coursework on the M.Ed., I took a couple of classes in Grief Counselling, an area which interested me, which were not offered through my M.Ed. program at MUN. Instead, they were offered at Queen’s College, an Anglican seminary which is located on the MUN campus but is quite a separate little organization. I learned a lot from the very wise and thoughtful man who teaches the pastoral counselling courses there, and, looking around their calendar a bit, I was intrigued by the thought of not only taking more counselling classes from him, which might be relevant to my work, but also by taking some courses in Biblical Studies, where I would get to discuss some of the interesting reading I’d been doing with other people, in that academic setting I loved so much.
So I signed up for yet another Master’s degree, an MTS at Queen’s. Being a seminary, Queen’s exists mainly to prepare Anglican ministers, but being the only seminary game in town, pretty much, they also pick up a lot of passing trade from people of other denominations — I have known Salvation Army officers, Catholic lay people, Pentecostal pastors, who were all working on some kind of degree at Queen’s. Rather than getting an M.Div., they tend to get the MTS, which seemed like an appropriate path for someone like me, who had no career aspirations in the pastoral area at all, but just wanted to read and discuss theology.
So I started on my third Master’s degree. This was the point at which my friend Darryl said, “You’re going to have three Master’s degrees in different subject areas. Wouldn’t any normal person just get a Ph.D.?”
The thing is, to do a doctoral degree you have to a have a passionate and rather narrow interest in one particular subject, which I don’t, and you have to love the academic world enough to spend your life in it, which, for all my fondness, I don’t. In fact, the close-up view of life as a prof that I got the one year I worked as a research assistant in the Department of Education made it blindingly clear to me that I would never choose an academic career.
So, the MTS was going to be just for fun. I had already taken the two grief counselling courses, and I took another course in The Historical Jesus, which was the major area of interest I’d been reading about for the past few years. That was great, lively, informative.
Then I started the Best Job in the World, and Queen’s doesn’t offer much in the way of evening or summer courses, so I … quit.
That’s right, I’m a dropout.
You have no idea how much this has bothered me. I started a degree which had absolutely no career value for me, just because I was interested in the subject — and then had to drop out because I had no space in my life to complete it. “Don’t be a quitter” is so ingrained into me that I really had to stop and think about this.
The fact is, I didn’t need an MTS for anything. I don’t know if I really even wanted it, except for that bizarre urge to collect shiny things. What I wanted and needed at the time were a few courses in counselling from a very wise teacher, and a chance to discuss some of the reading and thinking I’d been doing about Jesus and the Bible with some smart people who weren’t afraid to ask questions.
And I got to do those things.
Maybe, just maybe, that should be enough.
What did I learn between 1986 and 2005? That, for me, there really is NO hairstyle that looks good with an academic cap.
Although by 2005 I had such cute accessories it didn’t matter as much.
So maybe the reason I don’t feel envy when I pass graduates this year is that I’ve finally reached a time in life when learning for its own sake is enough, when I don’t need the external validation of a degree, or a silly hat, or anything shiny to say “You have learned!”
I don’t think I’ll be back in school pursuing anymore degrees, though I’ve also learned never to say never. I hope for the rest of my life I’ll continue learning things, but I’ll try to focus on learning what I want to learn for the love of it, rather than for any letters I can add to my name.