I’ve been reading books since I decoded the concept of words at the ripe old age of three, and as of May 2014, I will be graduating with a BA in English Literature from McGill University. Dear world: I will have successfully completed my degree. Hurray! I’ve learned so much!
In reality, I’ve spent three and a half years churning out papers on subjects I don’t care about, and sitting in lectures filled with apathetic students pretending to take notes while actually talking to their friends on Facebook. The seven amazing courses I’ve taken have hardly made up for the seven hundred required courses on concepts I will never use again because of how ridiculously abstract they are. I would rate the usefulness of my BA as on par with learning cursive—neat to have, but less important than I was told it would be. I both love and hate McGill, and I wonder just how many people feel the same way.
Before this rant goes any further, I’d like to make it clear that this isn’t the fault of my professors. They were simply doing their jobs. I merely picked the wrong degree.
McGill’s Literature program—a program that rarely discusses any novels published after the invention of the computer—just wasn’t the right program for me. I didn’t figure out that I was more passionate about studying film until I was in my third year and it was too late to do anything about it. As a result of studying novels that didn’t interest me, I stopped reading novels that did interest me, and it will probably take some time before I can fall back in love with books and undo the effects of academia.
When it sank in that I had chosen the wrong degree, I accepted my fate and started working towards a costly piece of paper that would theoretically grant me the right to never write academic papers again. I stopped trying to write well and started to use academic jargon and buzzwords in order to impress my professors. Paradoxically, my grades started to improve, even though I was putting less thought into what I wrote. I had clear theses and a boring, tried-and-trusted structure: papers that fit the McGill mould.
Isn’t higher education supposed to inspire us? Our classes are supposed to teach us interesting and useful knowledge, but required courses at McGill are often hopelessly large and out of touch with the modern world. The paper topics and lectures we receive at McGill seem like they haven’t been updated in twenty years. As a result, many students are forced to take classes they don’t want to take in order to fulfill hopelessly vague major requirements. Even the class names at McGill sound like textbook titles. When I see course requirements such as “Canadian Literature 1” and “Survey of English Literature 2” I feel creatively contained even before I attend the first day of lecture. There’s something wrong when institutionalized education gets in the way of genuine learning.
Perhaps my experience at McGill could have been different had I entered the school as a freshman student (U0) instead of a “departmental” student (U1). The annoying truth of the matter is that McGill—“Canada’s Harvard”—pressures first year students that have a lot of credits from CEGEP, AP, or IB programs into declaring a major right off the bat. The logic behind this is that students who have done a few years in CEGEP after high school probably have an idea of what they want to study and are therefore able to skip the crucial first year and (theoretically) graduate in three years. Why is this status being applied to students who come from AP or IB programs? These programs are rarely equivalent to university courses and cannot replace the experience of being a first year at university. None of the AP courses I took in high school helped me find out what I wanted to study at McGill. Skipping the first year of university isn’t helpful—it’s a hindrance. It’s like skipping kindergarten. Incoming students from high-achieving programs are treated like adults, and they should be given the choice to stay in U0 if they feel like they need that time to figure out what they should be studying.
I suppose I could have dropped out or “taken a semester off” or what have you, but then I would have been seen as lazy, incompetent, or someone who just couldn’t take the heat, because most people still think that acquiring a university degree indicates intelligence. Here’s a possibility: maybe these “dropouts” leave schools like McGill because they’re sick and tired of dealing with an institution that doesn’t have enough time or money to care about them.
That being said, there’s no real incentive for McGill to hold on to their students. After all, graduating an old student means accepting more new students, which means more money. McGill keeps accepting more students each year (and building more residences) even though it is unable to care for the current number of students, like some sort of irresponsible institutional cat lady.
Speaking of money, I’d like mine back, please. Is there a return policy on BA’s?
Robin Levinson’s recent article in the Toronto Star defends the usefulness of an Arts degree, claiming that “a BA is often a signal that the student was a deep thinker, a good writer and, perhaps most important, able to finish something.” These are definitely all things I’ve learned how to do, but they have nothing to do with my degree from McGill. My brief foray into philosophy didn’t teach me how to think deeply. Academic papers didn’t teach me how to write. Rather, these are skills I’ve honed through intense extracurricular involvement. The few classes that have helped me in these areas are all participation-intensive courses where you are forced to talk or write, engaging with course material in an accessible way and interacting with professors. For some reason, courses like these are rare at McGill—a school that encourages research instead of learning.
If I am getting a degree just to signal skills such as teamwork, communication, and technical experience, I’m not sure the signal is very accurate. How does sitting in a lecture hall for three hours a day listening to a lecture teach you these skills? I’ve had a grand total of one group project while at McGill, and I didn’t meet with the group in person until a day before the exam. Smells like team spirit, right? As far as communication goes, I rarely see students talking to the professor or even each other for that matter. Most of them are too busy typing up transcripts of whatever the professor is lecturing about. Participation is an afterthought, and there are several lecturers I can think of who ignore raised hands until the student has forgotten what they were saying. Technical experience? All of my relevant, technical experience has been gained through Google search results and non-fiction books that the McGill library hides away in mechanically compressed bookshelves. I’ve probably learned more from Wikipedia than from any of my overpriced course packs.
There are a lot of students at McGill who will soon realize that they have nothing on their resume that will get them a job. This is worrisome. Students who think a high GPA means that they have succeeded at university have in essence failed at preparing themselves for the real world—a big, dark, scary place that is increasingly reliant on things that you don’t learn while studying Art History. I have friends who go to grad school because they don’t know what else they’re good at, and I wonder how many of these kids are headed off to grad school so they have more time to think about what they want to do with their lives. You can procrastinate on school papers, but you can’t procrastinate on life.
In my case, graduation will most likely mark the last time I attend an institution of higher learning, and I can’t tell you how excited I am. I will never have to step foot in Service Point again, or sit in a cramped lecture hall trying to write down notes while sweating due to bizarre heating patterns. Most importantly, I will finally have time to learn about the subjects I want to learn about.
In May of 2014 I will be graduating with a BA in English Literature from McGill University.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.