On Campus

Where’s the crime in ‘wasting time’ at university?

Don’t let naysayers derail your dreams. Study what you want.

If you are a university student or a university-bound high school student you probably have the impression, thanks to Canadian media and possibly your parents, that the future is bleak. They would have you believe that learning for learning’s sake is a waste of time and picking a potentially lucrative major is not. There are no jobs, they warn, certainly not in art history or philosophy or whatever allegedly dead-end major you plan to pursue—so you may as well learn something “useful.” They are right about jobs. The future, not to mention the present, is bleak. Youth unemployment in Canada is exceedingly high; in Ontario, according to a September report, one in two persons between 15 and 24 has a paid job—the worst ratio we’ve seen since Statistics Canada began recording the numbers in 1976.

The establishment is wrong though, about university majors. After all, if job prospects are dim for everyone, you might as well study whatever you like. The Margaret Wentes of the world love nothing more than to belittle young people who major in supposed vanity disciplines: women’s studies, queer history, French poststructuralist pining, etc. But they seldom mention the students who’ve majored in so-called “useful” subjects (law, chemistry, engineering, insert-other-subject-armchair-boomers-never-bothered-to-study), because the “useful” grads among us are also wallowing in parental basements. Numbers don’t discriminate; 2:1 is a bad ratio in Canada’s most populous province and unless every other young person is a women’s studies grad, there are a whole lot of would-be doctors and lawyers walking around jobless too. Why? Because beyond the depressing job market, the reason for rampant youth unemployment and malaise is simple: people change their minds. And no one changes his or her mind more rapidly and readily than a young person.

In my last year of university I had no idea what I wanted to do. Neither did any of my friends, the majority of whom are now pursuing completely different things post-graduation and could not have had the foresight in first year to know what would interest them down the road. When I started university, I assumed I’d become an English professor, but my essays always came back with lousy grades and comments like: “Fun read but no substance, sounds like a magazine column.” (In rejection, I would find my calling.) My best friend studied commerce, intent on becoming the next judge on Dragon’s Den. Today she teaches math to 10-year-olds, something she discovered she liked a lot more than spreadsheets and elevator pitches. If you had told her that when she was 18 though, she would have called you crazy. Dreams change—sometimes for the better. (Thurgood Marshall originally wanted to be a dentist.)

Having an idea about what you want to do isn’t a bad thing, nor is having a plan of execution. University tuition is outrageously high, not to mention grad school. And seeking education in the highly employable trades is for many students, a far more desirable path than pursuing pricey master’s degrees while waiting for the job market to change. But in our mission to beat the employment market, we risk squelching personal interest, creativity and ignoring, at our own peril, the fact that interests and expectations are wont to drastically change.

The psychological difference between a first-year university student and fourth-year student is equivalent to the difference between a Grade 9 and a Grade 12. Four years is an eon when you are young; something well-meaning parents and fear-mongering journalists should consider before pushing rigid career plans on high school students. And students should consider this: Unless you’re some kind of phenom, chances are you won’t get much done mapping out your entire future with an untested and superficial notion of success. Half of you will change your major, and a lot of you will wish you had. So read books and have fun. As Jeanne Meister writes in Forbes, citing Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, “Since humans have been proven to be terrible at predicting what will make us happy, it’s crucial that we find it through trial and error.” Your major will not make or break your future. And thinking far ahead is often the least productive, most paralyzing thing a person can do. Think about next week instead. People fall into things. Let yourself do the same.

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