Dickens, water polo, and why you should go to school, graduate or otherwise, only if you want to

Charles Dickens was born today in 1812, and here we are celebrating. Robert Banks Jenkinson was the Prime Minister at the time. The Pope was Pius VII, O.S.B. The US President was James Monroe, a man that most people couldn’t name on a bet, for all the flouncing around about staying true to America’s founders. (Though, to be fair, the two on either side, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, are likely to eclipse just about anybody save Jefferson).

My point is that we remember Charles Dickens 200 years later because he knew how to tell a story. He knew how to make you care about characters, and how to communicate ethics.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, everybody who has ever said to an English major: “What are you going to do with that?”

In all likelihood, in 200 years, nobody is going to remember you, either, no matter what you do, given how easily very accomplished people disappear into history. So you might as well live the life that matters to you and to the people important to you.

No, you’re not likely to become the next Charles Dickens. But you can always find another way to earn a living if your dreams don’t pan out. If you enjoy comfort more than your art, then you can sort that later by apprenticing yourself to a contractor or a mortician or something more lucrative.

With all the critiques of higher education as a means to get a job, and the constant blather from wannabes and outsiders about how terrible it is to go to graduate school, I was reflecting on a student who is in my class right now. He’s on the USC water polo team; he’s a nice young man from all appearances. I wonder if anybody says “What are you going to do with that?” to him?

I hope not. Because water polo strikes me as really fun, and a good way to take care of your health, even if he never gets a job out of it. It’s already helped him stay healthy and pay for school.

You should think about education the same way. Educational challenges should be fun, and you should use it get your brain in shape. You certainly don’t have to go to school and pay tuition to keep using your brain; but just like lots of people don’t like to exercise alone, classes give you a social setting for exercising your brain.

Getting an education or playing a sport or staring out your window is only a waste of time if you let other people measure your life out for you. I have never done that, and Thank God.

I went to graduate school for the wrong and right reason: to get a job, to become a professor. But I wanted that job for the right reasons: because I wanted to spend my days reading and writing about what I wanted to read and write about.

Now I look back on graduate school as one of the best times of my life. I grew so much. I read, and I argued, I failed, I wrote, I failed some more, and I can’t remember a period in my life when I was more happy and challenged. No, the professors didn’t respect me–and nobody else respected my decision either. Everybody from my parents to random people from yet-undiscovered Amazonian tribes second-guessed my decision. (Except the person that really mattered: my husband). I’m eternally grateful to my professors and peers in graduate school: like every other aspect of my life, my growth was hardly dignified, but it mattered immensely to me.

Of course, I write this as one of the lucky few who did wind up with the job that I wanted. I can understand being angry about not having things turn out that way. What I can’t understand is why you’d ever cheat yourself of the chance to do work that you really, really want to do–to write your own story, the way you want. It’s not about whether the professors love you. It’s about whether you have work that you can’t wait to get up and do.

In the interim, you can take a tour of Dickens’ London.