A change of message
It’s funny how quickly a prevailing message can change. During the Olympics, the victors came off the track, out of the pool, off the pommel horse and straight on-camera, where their message was uniformly: “You can do this too. Just work really flipping hard.”
Today is A-level results day in the UK, and there’s a mass impulse for people of various levels of prominence to proclaim how terribly they did in their A-levels, how they never went to university, but how terrifically they’ve done in life in spite of the fact. Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw put it well: “Media stars who today talk about their awful A-level results are indulging in the most outrageous humblebrag-ism”.
Aside from the pain of knowing that gym would always be outdoors, trudging the long way around to registration to avoid the hall, and your exams dragging on two weeks longer than your friends’ because of a cursed language oral, there was, during exam periods at our school, a punishment for anyone who was overheard bragging about how little revision they’d done. It was not The Done Thing. The pupils who could ace an exam on no revision were possessed of a rare streak of luck that never glanced upon the average grafter; most people attempting a paper on Chaucer armed only with a wing and a prayer would emerge crumpled and cursing.
It’s as much of a fool’s errand to take too much heed of media personalities evangelising their path from U grades to ubiquity. It doesn’t work like that for most people. I worked hard at A-level, got three As, went to a not-great university a mile from my house, filed a new UCAS application on the first day because the first impression was so bad, quit five weeks later, applied to Oxford, didn’t get in (still unsure if I would have gone had I been accepted), worked as 1. a cinema usher, 2. a delicatessen waitress, 3. in Marks and Spencers (for just two days), 4. a smoothie bar waitress, 5. a secretary in an architect’s office, 6. an unpaid critic and photographer for the local paper, before starting at Bristol University in 2008, which I quit in 2010.
My closest school friends have failed A-levels, failed the IB and then triumphed at A-level, started degrees, quit degrees, started new ones, ended up taking MAs, and travelling around the world. There’s no one piece of advice that would have suited all of us on this day in 2007. It’s disingenuous for anyone to veil not having gone to university as the source of their glory, as much as it is for school teachers to suggest that it’s the only path to success.
There are many professions where you won’t get further than the admin desk without a degree in the relevant field. But for those that don’t require an official qualification, beyond the question of to go/not to go, I’d look at it like this: Can I feed my own thirst for knowledge without guidance? If yes, then you might be one of those committed, charmed talents that makes it without a piece of paper certifying your ability to sit exams. If you worry about your ability to surprise your mind and broaden your own areas of expertise, university is pretty great for that.
I’m yet to use what I learned in a module I accidentally took on early 20th century Austrian farming literature (perhaps the most depressing subject of all time), but once when interviewing Grimes, she brought up the Medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, who I happened to know a shedload about thanks to Introduction to Medieval Studies (which I was not thankful for at the time). When “Bitches in Paris” appeared in materials surrounding Francois Hollande’s election campaign, I knew enough about French rap and politics to write something about it. When reading Max Frisch’s Homo Faber in the first year, I stumbled across a paragraph that was the perfect, succinct introduction to a music piece I’d been struggling to start.
I would probably never have discovered these things myself. Rather than it being “the best days of your life” (total rot), the above is why, I think, university can be a really wonderful thing. Working really hard, and constantly having your mind open to knowledge - whether you’re paying to be taught these facts or learning them on your tod - is what will guarantee you some level of success.