With the arrival of a new year comes the hope that education will finally return to normal. Already there are signs of this hope being fulfilled. Students have moved back to campus, classes have resumed in-person instruction, and university events and programs have slowly returned to pre-pandemic operations. It would seem that school as we know it has finally emerged from the dark gloom of the Zoom era.
And yet, the Omicron surge has once again forced us to retreat into the uncertainty of a life in isolation, our daily lives at the mercy of our internet connection. Tossed back into the chaos of a global pandemic we thought we left behind, we wonder if there will ever be a return to normal. Perhaps it’s time to change how we think about “normal,” to reevaluate the institutions and systems that, two years ago, we may never have questioned. When a wound heals, it does not always look the way it had before the blood and the scarring. The pandemic has irrevocably altered our education, and in this new year, it’s time we reconsider its meaning for us.
Studying in isolation has had a strange effect on me. Before the pandemic, I believed college to be a gateway to the workforce, that higher education was simply synonymous with vocational institution. I saw college as a high-stakes game, in which the winners attained the most successful, renowned titles in their field, and the losers settled for the dregs of mediocrity. It was go big or go home, and I had to go big—what else was I in college for?
In this way, I experienced education through the framework of industry, compelled by the anxiety of competition for labor and scarcity of jobs. This anxiety was only exacerbated by the students around me, with their fever for networking and internships and their maddening struggle to have a six-figure salaried seat in a Fortune 500 company upon graduation. The pandemic changed all of that. The lockdown provided the perfect escape from the stifling atmosphere of exhausting work culture, and in its place, I discovered the pure joy of learning. I began to experience education untouched by industry, the kind of learning for learning’s sake with no ulterior motive. What if it was really that simple? I thought. Could we ever really turn our backs on the impending reality of employment, competition, and profit if it meant exploring our personal intellectual interests? Could education be more than just vocational?
The answer is a bit more complicated than I had originally imagined.
Perhaps it’s time to change how we think about “normal,” to reevaluate the institutions and systems that, two years ago, we may never have questioned.
There are many good reasons for college to emphasize vocational instruction. If students were to graduate and enter the workforce without adequate preparation, they would be in for a bit of trouble and harsh truth. The skills one acquires in college are invaluable and will, without a doubt, be an asset in the working world. Many students also rely on vocational education to earn a job that will provide them or their family with financial relief. For them, attending college for purposes other than vocational is a privilege of the financially secure.
Of course, career preparation is essential for every individual. It’s why the majority of high schools, community colleges, and universities are equipped with career consulting services, alumni networks, and other various career resources.
However, the problem lies in the overwhelming amount of influence economic and industrial conditions have over us and our education. They influence our personal decisions down to the degrees we spend years working towards. Big tech brings in big money, so why place your bets on the volatility of, say, the arts industry when a computer science degree could land you in the ever-expanding Silicon Valley? They compel us to make sacrifices that we wouldn’t otherwise make. Whereas a philosophy degree might funnel you into the decaying world of professional academics, an engineering degree could open you up to the perennial relevance of infrastructure, energy, medicine, and beyond. Education has become hopelessly entangled with our economy, issuing the ultimatum that traps us between what we want and what we need.
It is less about the exchange and innovation of new ideas and more about preparation for what’s to come. It is less an experience and more so a conduit, a pipeline. It’s the battering of one’s brain with ready-made instructions for a ready-made future. In a highly competitive job market, education provides an advantage, and yet it is that same job market that stifles intellectual innovation. When a college degree is reduced to a line on a resume, what does education actually mean?
Before the pandemic, I believed college to be a gateway to the workforce, that higher education was simply synonymous with vocational institution
In this new year, I’ve adopted a new perspective on my education. For most of my life, I have been drawn to the attractive possibilities of fame and critical success. I wanted so badly to believe that everything I wrote showed signs of a budding literary stardom that I refused to acknowledge any other possibility for my future. The very image of my soon-to-be bestselling novels were etched into the folds of my imagination so that it felt more like a memory than a dream.
But upon entering college, these dreams were radically changed. I developed a political consciousness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, but instead of reverting to my predetermined path to authorhood, I foraged deeper into the world of political writing and art. Enrolling in classes that stoked the intellectual fires—history, film studies, political science—I became deeply invested in my Asian American identity, something I had long buried beneath the miasma of educational and personal constraints I had forced upon myself. It was soon after this awakening that these new interests began to appear in my writing. I synthesized all the intellectual passions brimming inside me and put it toward a new dream, a new career.
However, the problem lies in the overwhelming amount of influence economic and industrial conditions have over us and our education. They influence our personal decisions down to the degrees we spend years working towards.
A career does not inform your education; your education informs your career. Education can imbue our minds with exciting new ideas and theories so that we may better understand ourselves and our world. It is a tool for self-fashioning, a means of self-expression and exploration. When we pursue the things that most interest us, we become closer to a different kind of success, one not contingent upon competition and capital. Investing in the aspirations and passions that linger on the fringes of our capitalistic work ethos, we can evade the industrial pipeline entirely and foster a new, self-defined success. An education that conforms to our personal interests will naturally lead to a fulfilling career. Passion cannot be forced. If a system does not work for us, we should not feel pressured to contribute to it. Thus, education can liberate us from the industrial complex and allows us to carve out our own spaces in the workforce.
Now more than ever, people are realizing their potential for self-fashioning. Amidst the economic upheaval brought on by the pandemic, masses of people are quitting their jobs, abandoning prescribed modes of working and living in what has been termed the Great Resignation. In 2021, there were over 4.7 million business applications submitted in the US, a 34% increase from 2019. People are beginning to forge their own paths, building their new careers upon the foundation of their self-defined standards. So too am I forging my own path.
I realize now that writing itself was never the problem. I have always loved the craft of language and always will. The problem was the kind of writing I was doing and the things I was writing about. College has taught me to divest myself from a career-oriented approach to education and invest in my personal goals and interests. 2022 is a new year, bringing in new opportunities to reform our education, our work, and our lives as we see fit. Before our time is up and we are thrust into a dizzying adult world, we as students must take it upon ourselves to make our education worthwhile, not for our employers, but for us.