I do not come from a family that has experience with post-secondary studies and because of this I had no one to prepare me for it. Though I was very excited to be going, it meant that I was moving out of my parent’s house at age 17 and moving into the city to live on my own (actually in a house full of people from back home, but that is another series of stories). It is also true that my excitement was very much tempered by my fear and feelings of intellectual inadequacy.
Why inadequacy? My marks coming out of high school were not just good, they were stellar! However, I knew that I had struggled with concepts that many of my peers had no problems with because those concepts were familiar to them, and not to me. For example, I was constantly missing biblical allusions that others seem to grasp with ease. A lot of literary allusions passed me by as well, because I simply hadn’t read those books. My mom read fantasy and science fiction, and my father was a bit of an amateur WWI and WWII historian, so that was what I accessed growing up (I have seen Das Boot more times than I wish to admit).
During my last year of high school I came to the realisation that if I was going to survive university, I had to catch up on all these ‘classics’ that our teachers kept referring to. Otherwise, people at university were going to realise I was a backwoods hick with a vocabulary that impressed people out in the sticks, but didn’t measure up in the city.
All my fears were confirmed when I began socialising with university students in the summer and fall before I began my degree. They talked about things I had no clue about! They threw around references to philosophers and works I’d never even heard of, and the words they used… I quickly learned to hide the fact that I didn’t understand much of what they said. Keeping my mouth shut helped. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”, and all that. I didn’t have a handy quiver of quotes like this back then, and it left me feeling like a bit of an idiot.
I had a notebook where I would write down the names of authors whose works I absolutely needed to study in order to understand these conversations: Paine, Molière, Voltaire, Marx, Engels, Diderot, Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, and so many more. This is probably funny to some of you already, who weren’t so intimidated and terrorised by the unknown and over-estimated intellectual superiority of university students, but I honestly had some vague belief that I was going to be tossed bodily off campus if they discovered how unlearned I was.
My first year classes did little to calm me. I graduated from high school with just over 80 other students, and there I was in first year courses with upwards of three hundred peers in huge auditorium classrooms, listening to initially incomprehensible (but impressive sounding) gibberish from stern professors who didn’t care at all if I never showed up again. The readings were taxing, though not impossible and I soon began to decipher this new language; but even then I believed I was at a serious disadvantage and had to catch up. I devoured The Classics like I was drowning, which isn’t far off from how I felt.
It was like western thought bootcamp. I forced myself to read things like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract. I suffered through the literary works of the dark and self-loathing Russians, thrilled to the unexpectedly campy and adventurous French, dragged myself through the weird and dense Germans, and cried myself to sleep in boredom over the celebrated English female writers. I had no road-map to follow. If a writer or philosopher was mentioned in a conversation, or in something I was reading, I believed I had to learn about their works or I would end up hopelessly lost in academia. This was not pleasure, this was survival.
I often despaired. I believed that my peers had been exposed to these works since they were in the womb and that there was no possible way I could catch up. How much of what I was reading did I really understand anyway? So many of these works referenced yet other works and until I read those works, wasn’t I missing something truly important? At any moment, I was going to be recognised for a complete fake, and laughed out of my classes by professors and students who would no doubt hurl intellectual incantations at my retreating back that I would never ever manage to decipher.
So it was that one evening, over a pint of beer, I was once again listening as some impressive third year political-science student who identified himself as a Marxist-Leninist and who smoked entirely too much and wore nothing but black, waxed eloquent on provincial politics. All of a sudden, I realised I understood the jargon he was using, and not only that – he was using it incorrectly! He was literally babbling total and contradictory nonsense, attributing quotes to the wrong people and making an utter mess of things. I was pretty sure that this “Marxist-Leninist” had never really sat down and read Marx or Lenin. Why then, had I?
This experience had me paying more attention to other interactions I had with the people I had up until that point believed my intellectual superiors. I began to understand that many of these people used specialised vocabularies to say nothing at all. I had been fooled by the impressive words and the references to authority, but I had also been developing this vocabulary and it no longer impressed me as much. What was worse, I discovered that it was shockingly common for people to pretend they had read the works I had been punishing myself with. They knew just enough to reference these works in essays or conversations, but at best had merely skimmed what they were referencing.
I had believed I was lacking an entire education that somehow, others had gotten while I was watching Hogan’s Heroes with my family. Instead, what I had been lacking was the finely honed skill of pretending to know more than I do. When in doubt? Baffle them with bullshit.
That isn’t to say everyone I met was an intellectual fraud. Some people really have read all those works I let myself believe were the basics, and plenty of people understand them and remember them much better than I. More importantly, reading or not reading these works in no way guarantees anyone’s intelligence.
I lost my fear of academics. I lost my fear of specialised vocabulary. I realised that I am just as capable as anyone else of learning words that I can confuse other people with if I choose, and that this ability is not special nor even particularly impressive. In fact, some of the biggest words hide the biggest fools and some of the people that inspire me the most are those that can explain complex concepts in simple language.
I am glad I discovered Dumas, and the Count of Monte Cristo remains one of my all-time favourite adventure/revenge stories, but I very much doubt I will ever revisit most of the works I laboured through during that time. I did not need those books to make it in university, I simply needed to learn how not to be intimidated. I have so many more things to say about how I also learned to value indigenous knowledge and how I overcame the self-loathing brought on by a society and education system that constantly undervalues and demeans our ways of knowing…but that came later.
Law school also intimidated me, but having already been through the experience of realising that other people are just as scared I was helped me make it there as well. Demystifying higher education is something that I think a lot of people have to go through if they do not come from families where post-secondary education is the norm. Having someone in your family that you can ask about the experience is an invaluable resource. If it turns out that you need to be that trail-blazer, be assured that you can absolutely make it through alive; and luckily, you don’t have to read all the dry, boring crap I did to do it.