Learning nothing has never been so expensive


Just before I graduated from high school, I won a minor scholarship. One woman on the panel told me afterward that one anecdote put me over the edge from the hopefuls to the winners of the scholarship.

I had told the panel about this nearly-forgotten story from the sixth grade; long ago then, prehistoric times now. One teacher gave me a C on the sort of lackluster two-page report that defines an 11-year-old’s homework – when I had gotten As on everything before in my life. I loved her forever for it, even when I got the grade, as if she had been brave or something for giving me – ME! – a bad grade.

It was before I realized that Cs weren’t revelatory, or a twisted sign of a teacher’s or my own character, or something to be remotely happy for.

In high school and, more recently, in the three colleges I have attended, I realized my gift: a way to BS anything and everything, a talent I hadn’t realized during the sixth-grade preparation of the infamous report on the golden lion tamarin.

This ability has given me so much: good grades, unexpected opportunities and professional favors that have fed my dangerous delusions that I am, in fact, extremely smart and capable. After I studied at Sacramento State, my attendance at a community college whose professors are sincerely delighted and surprised when a student puts their first AND last name on a paper tended to speed up my self-glorifying idea that I could, in fact, fake my way through any situation.

But this idea has since depressed me. I don’t try anymore in school – nor do many people I know – simply because I don’t have to try. I don’t have to worry about grades or classes much, because eventually, in the end, my grades work out and they always reach the standard I’ve set for myself. I know that to some, this doesn’t sound like such a travesty; it’s not something to be bravely endured. But think about it: Are you going to be satisfied with everything you’ve learned after you leave CSUN? A lame question, to be sure, but we’re each paying thousands of dollars for a piece of paper, and no real guarantee of a job post-graduation. Let’s face it, anyone would be mad if they left here with merely a piece of paper with their name and the date etched onto it, and an in-depth knowledge of how much Jose Cuervo one can drink before blacking out (not that this information isn’t valid).

Last December, one of my sixth-grade teachers – the one who granted the C – came into the caf? I work at sometimes in Northern California. While I made her a white mocha, she told me that I looked familiar; I said that I might because she had taught me a decade before. She asked me, brow furrowed in the way that teachers have mastered, whether I was in college; I replied yes, that I was studying journalism and international politics. She then asked me, “Are you learning anything?”

The question gave me pause. I’ve learned and put forth effort into classes in my major; the accredited program for it was one reason I came to CSUN. I could talk at length, however, about the deep themes of a novel that I had read three pages from; analyze the world wars; write long papers about the women’s rights movement, the Bill of Rights, and nearly any other topic six hours before they were due and still get a B. Was I learning anything? Maybe, but I certainly wasn’t going out of my way to learn more, as we all should.

I told her yes, I was learning quite a bit. Wishful thinking on my part, and a reassurance for her that what she had told us all those years before about the benefits of going to college was actually true. We all have our academic delusions, and I managed to feed both mine and her own with one word.