Academiology 0: On the willingness to know the value of university

Published on 2024-02-06

A significant part of my writing process involves not actually writing, but rather just allowing myself to be bored. When I do this, I find my mind starts racing, and I get all these ideas that can often be distilled into very terse one-liners. Whenever this happens, I put the respective one-liner in the notes app on my phone, and then one day, that one-liner becomes the title of an article I write.

Recently, two of the one-liners that have found their way into my article ideas note are:

  • Dropping out of the rat race
  • I don't feel like my university is a place for knowledge.

I have, for quite a while now, been dealing with an ongoing crisis of faith in the university system. There are a lot of things that are abjectly bad about university. It's extremely expensive. It's extremely classist. It's getting harder to tell if the system as a whole generates any meaningfully valuable outputs with each passing year. What meaning it does generate is often encoded in a language that is so hopelessly complex that it's hard to say if it'll ever be disseminated in a way that contributes positively to society. It's bad. There's a lot of reason to not believe in university.

I, in particular, go to a very milquetoast sort of university. I attend UBC, which is like, in okay standing among universities in so-called Canada, whatever that means. But when people are talking about UBC they're usually talking about what we here would call UBCV, that is, the Vancouver campus. I don't attend the UBCV campus, I've found my home somewhere in the BC interior, on a university campus that seems to have fallen from the sky five years ago.

It's a place that's not particularly outstanding in any regard. It's a place that says a lot and does very little.

It's not exactly what I had imagined when I first signed up for university.

Yet here I am, three years deep into what's starting to look like a seven year program.

This is not the first time I've doubted the value of my degree:

Studying computer science at the end of the world

It's a crisis of faith that lead me to switch my minor this year.

I have been in doubt of the value of my degree basically since I arrived here so long ago. I was doubting it even before I arrived. I think what kept me coming back to lecture every weekday was the fact that school seemed to be all I knew. Sometimes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of university.

That started to change last year, though. I dropped my course load down to four classes, and that changed quite a bit of how I related to the university machine. Since high school, attending class, doing assignments, getting good grades... that was my life. I let that define me. But when I gave myself the time to do literally anything else, I was reminded of what it was like to have a life outside of school, and I didn't want to go back.

As expectations have scaled going into upper-year courses, I've felt the temptation to reduce my course load further and further. This is the first semester I've seriously entertained the idea of taking a gap year.

If I were to leave university for, say, a year, live off my savings, or perhaps taking a few shifts at a part time job, realistically subjecting myself to destitute living conditions, I'd have the time to truly reconnect with all the things I love. I'd have more time to write, to draw, to create music... I could finally flush out my projects that have been stalled for years now. It seems the only reason I have to stick around is the fear that if I leave now I may never want to come back.

Going to university used to have instrumental value. It was something to do.

My friends and I used to talk a lot about finding meaning in life. We'd struggle quite a bit in the face of how absurd it was, all of it was, what we were doing, what was being asked of us. One of my closest friends would often say that she found solace in continuing to go to work at the McDonald's down the road every day because in spite of how abusive those places were, they served as an excellent distraction. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," as it were. There's nothing worse than facing that absurdity with nothing to do but sulk.

For a long time, I think that's what going to university was for me. I'm told it's good to have a university degree when seeking work in CS, and so I go to university. I do the most obviously good thing I can think of.

In unsurety of the value of a degree, all you have is the now empty ritual--the continuing of action for action's sake. You continue to engage with the system merely to perpetuate it. It's not fulfilling, but it's something to do.

I'm not going to drop out of university. At least, I don't think I am. I don't think it'd be a good idea for me at this point in my life, on a higher level. Instead, I need to find something to fill that void

Recently I've found that I keep invoking this dichotomy of the leap of faith and what I call the willingness to know:

When you take a leap of faith, you accept that you will never understand how to arrive at the conclusion, just that you must. To have the willingness to Know is to accept with humility that you do not yet believe the conclusion. You do, however, recognize the value of arriving at the conclusion, and you're willing to accept the wisdom of those who're further down the line on how you too can get their on your own.

A leap of faith versus the willingness to Know

I took a leap of faith in university and it didn't pan out. Now I want to try and approach it with a willingness to know.

Academiology is a meditation on the intrinsic value of the university ecosystem

Some, though probably not all, of the next posts I make here on my gemlog are going to be a part of what I'm calling my Academiology series, where I'm going to direct the kind of attentiveness that I usually approach writing these articles with to understanding what I'm now calling the university ecosystem because I really fucking love invoking ecology as a metaphor if you haven't already noticed. Eventually I might edit and compile these into something I publish on the web.

Academiology is a word that kind of means the study of academia, and that's basically what I'm going to be doing, though two qualifications it makes sense to insert are that I'm doing this from the perspective of an undergrad, and that when I talk about academia, I'm talking about this so-called, perhaps narrowly-defined, perhaps quite broad subject of the university ecosystem.

A problem I keep running up against is the fact that I have a really hard time separating my experience of university from the relationship I have with the university company--the institution that feels weirdly analogous to a for-profit business that extracts money from my wallet and uses me as a foundation upon which it builds its power.

The university ecosystem is more complex. It's the network of relationships that exist between the university company, the professors, the researchers, the students, the businesses who operate on the university campus, the land upon which the campus is built, and all other constituents and stakeholders that construct what we understand as "the university" as an emergent property of its many components. It invokes Robert Pirsig's notion of the university as the "church of reason" without diminishing the fact that the university is also actively contributing to the construction of an illegal pipeline on the land of the Wet'suwet'en people, or staunchly refusing to divest in fossil fuels while brandishing itself as sustainable, or sabotaging the formation of unions, or paying its researchers below minimum wage. It's a system you can have a complex, nuanced relationship with.

Going into this process, I'm observing the conclusion that attending university--engaging with this system--is a fundamentally valuable experience. I'm humbly accepting that at the moment, I don't believe this to be true, but I'm opening myself up to the opportunity and actively seeking to understand why it may be.

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