I'm finishing up my senior year at Metropolitan State University and am thrilled to be getting my undergraduate degree at 40 (well, I'll be 40 by the time I walk across the stage on December 18th).
Over the past three years, when I would tell Friends that I'm in school, they would ask if I was getting my master's degree or Ph.D.
I learned to say, "I'm at school getting my undergraduate degree."
Even then, some Friends would ask if it was my second degree. And now they're asking about graduate school.
I'm realizing that as someone who grew up working class, I was trained to do tasks efficiently and right. Activities that don't lead to a product that is discrete, finite and, in the end, worth money aren't worthwhile.
As a writer, this puts me in great conflict with my upbringing. And the conflict, for me, is almost on a cellular level.
Ask me to write something for the joy of writing. Or write a novel that has no chance in hell to be published and purchased. Then I will feel a deep aversion that borders on disgust. I'm not choosing this consciously. I would like nothing more than to write for the joy of it. I do it in school because my writing at least gets read by classmates and instructors. And I have fun. But only because it's finite, discrete and worth a grade.
Friends are befuddled when I describe this feeling. Yet when I talk to other students who grew up working class, they can relate. One friend who grew up working class is getting her degree in creative writing but her goal is to become a magazine writer. She, too, can't imagine writing for fun. Another friend went on to get her degree in library science because she needed to do something that involves a steady income. Even though she doesn't need the money because her husband supports her.
I read about a humongous gift made to a Quaker school out east and then I read this New York Times op-ed about elite universities serving "less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation" and this New York Times article about public universities charging more for majors that lead to more lucrative careers.
Metropolitan State University is not an elite institution. It is, in fact, just the opposite in some respects. We're the most diverse four-year school in Minnesota, with over 26% people of color. Our most popular majors are: Business Administration, Accounting, Criminal Justice, Nursing and Law Enforcement. We are primarily working adults (working class adults) trying to get a bachelor's degrees to better compete in the workforce.
I'm aware that I'm getting a huge leg up with my degree: knowledge and a piece of paper saying I've jumped through hoops. I can play ball in the majors now. Or at least act like I can play. Just like I did before I got my degree. Only now I feel entitled to be in the game.
I'm also aware of what I'm not getting.
I'm doing my senior thesis on writer Kathleen Norris. She went to a private high school, then Bennington College in Vermont. One of her professors got her a job at the Academy of American Poets where she met the literary elite. These connections got her first book of poetry published before she was 25.
The only connection I have is an alumni knows someone who works at a place where lots of trade magazines are published. Every year I've gotten an email, along with all the other writing majors, inviting me to apply for an internship out in Minnetonka.
So, all this makes me wonder where education fits into the Quaker testimonies. We say that all are equal. But we send our children to fine institutions without thought to the privilege we've given them or the privilege that gets denied another. Or we are ignorant of the privilege we've gotten ourselves.
And I wonder what I will do with my privilege once I have it.