On Facebook yesterday, one of my long-time college friends posted a photo of her son’s residence hall room. She added that this made her want to go back to college, which prompted a short chorus of me too‘s from several of us who went to school together, including yours truly.
Yup, for geeky types like me, it’s a midlife fantasy: Going back to school again.
For me, the wished-for do-over has a high maintenance quality, as it comes with at least ten conditions:
- I don’t want any required classes.
- I only want to write papers that I want to write.
- I don’t want any in-class exams; this should be a minimal stress experience.
- I’ll pass on any classes before 10 a.m. as well.
- I want to do college over again with my current gifts of wisdom and hindsight.
- I’d like to have a bit more money than the first time around, but without taking on more student loans, as I spent almost 20 years paying off the first batch.
- I’ll pass on the immaturity, angst, anxiety, and insecurity that characterized my first go-around of college.
- I want to do another semester abroad in England with the exact same group I was a part of in 1981.
- I want my own dorm room with a bathroom, thank you.
- I want extracurricular and co-curricular activities to count for credit.
Basically, I’d love to luxuriate in the life of being a student — thinking big thoughts, taking part in extracurricular activities, reading and watching what I want when I want, going to movies, sporting events, and cultural activities, and enjoying the company of fellow students.
Alright, some of you in the Peanut Gallery may be chuckling that I basically have this life as a professor! Well, although I appreciate very much the opportunities and flexibility provided by academic life, a carefree sense is not always among its main qualities. Even for tenured profs, academic life balances its genuine blessings against its share of anxieties, pettiness, and bureaucratic cluelessness.
In any event, there’s a much bigger picture here. Why don’t we have more opportunities for adults to do the kind of reflective, life-enhancing learning that is afforded to some folks during their earlier years? You know the phrase, it’s a shame that college is wasted on the young? It does have some truth in it. Great books and important ideas passed over at age 20 may have real meaning to the same person at age 50.
In Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), psychologist Carl Jung asked, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answered:
No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.
For what it’s worth, I think that we, as a society, have a lot of hard thinking to do about the world we want to see during the coming decades. This will include assessing the role of lifelong learning.
Going to college under the utopian conditions as I have stipulated above is darn near impossible for most, but the world we choose to create could be enriched by adult education opportunities for virtually everyone, and mostly inexpensive ones at that. This could include nurturing the development of adult education centers; fostering informal, collaborative learning such as discussion groups, book clubs, and movie nights; creating alternative universities; and supporting public library systems.
In other words, a world that allows adults to embrace the life of the mind, to engage in cultural activities, and to share compelling ideas with others is utterly possible.
Through it all, my baseline request stays the same: Please don’t schedule any of the good classes before 10 a.m., okay?