On Campus

Graduation or "Nothing"

Our society's attitude towards education, and especially towards university, is unhealthy.

I gave advice to a student today. She’s in academic trouble, and that’s about all I can say. But the issue is seriously in doubt as to whether or not she’s going to be able to finish university any time soon.

At one point she said something like this. “I’ve always been at the top. I’ve always been someone that people come to for advice and listen to. I can’t become nothing.” That’s literally what she said. “I can’t become nothing.”

People think I exaggerate in my book, sometimes. People think I overstate the kind of misery and hopelessness that some students are going through. Of course I see the extreme examples, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that every unhappy student feels this desperate, but I’m truly amazed at how common these feelings really are. All you need to do is ask an academic advisor how many desperation cases he sees in a week. Go to wherever students file their last ditch petitions and appeals and speak with the university employees who have to deal with them. Then you get the true measure.

More often than not, the misery and desperation hides easily in plain sight. People aren’t eager to show their problems to the world. Everyone who can possibly manage it puts on a brave face. And so we don’t see it. But the truly hopeless students are more numerous than you’d imagine, and there’s a far wider group of students who are simply very unhappy but functional.

I believe that something is very wrong with our attitude, as a society, towards education and especially towards university. When perfectly decent people have got the idea into their heads that their choice is between graduating from university or becoming nothing, then we’ve lost all perspective. I’ve watched students trudge down the hallways of academia looking and acting like lifetime convicts without hope of parole. They endure year after year of frustration and failure. It’s only prolonged, in some cases, for the students who aren’t lucky enough to fail decisively. Some hang on by their fingernails for incredibly long periods of time. They’re convinced they must be in school but too depressed and dispirited to actually make anything of it.

Of course this isn’t every student. And it isn’t every family and social environment that conspires to produce this situation. But it’s frequent enough to be extremely disturbing. We’ve entirely collapsed the distinction between success in university and success as a human being. Is it any wonder that students who’ve bought into this crap can’t be honest with their parents, or with advisors, or with their friends? Quite a lot of them can’t even be honest with themselves.

I try to wrap up on a positive note whenever I can. I’ve got nothing here. Our society’s attitude towards education is unhealthy. Young people are chewed up and spit out year after year, because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, yet they’ve been raised to imagine they are “nothing” if they can’t succeed at it. This will continue until we manage, as a society, to foster a healthier attitude towards education. That’s all.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.