Last night Brian and I had someone from my union over for dinner – mainly to discuss some issues related to organizing workers on campuses – but also just to be sociable since our temporary organizer is from out of town and hasn’t much to do outside of work. Definitely an interesting evening, turning on both issues within academia as well as broader problems with the union movement and the failure to stem off the undermining of collective bargaining in the western provinces. (Okay – well interesting if you are a labour geek. Which all three of us are.)
In any event, our organizer left around ten and I found myself in a discussion about intelligence and academia with Brian that we’ve had a couple of times before. I’ve got some issues, you see. Issues about my own lack of graduate degree and where that places me in the eyes of my partner who has a PhD and is regarded (by myself among others) as a very intelligent person. It’s not only about how Brian regards me either, but how I am viewed as part of a couple where one person has a much higher level of education than I do – which of course also falls along gender lines in a very typical way. And while this insecurity far precedes this relationship, it’s become more of an issue for me this time than with past romantic partnerships.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty convinced of my own intelligence and apparently it’s one of my most attractive features to Brian – that we are of matched smarts, can talk long about a range of subjects, can entertain each other with witticisms on obscure labour leaders or by analyzing the anachronistic flaws in historic fiction. We both have wide-ranging intellects, a similarity I find particularly refreshing after a long string of dates who showed little interest in anything that wasn’t right inside their chosen field (music for the musician, film for the director, politics for the activist – and so on – each of these people giving me something to knit back into my more generalist knowledge base at least). It actually feels like a true intellectual match on top of everything else – by which I mean that we are of similar intellectual pursuit (rather than we are smarter than other people) – which is pretty crucial for both of us.
So what is my problem anyway?
If I’m honest it really does come down to that damn piece of paper that I don’t have. A graduate degree. And trust me, I know how ridiculous that seems – but it gets under my skin, this lack of academic fortitude on my part.
A little history may be in order here.
It probably comes as no surprise that I did extremely poorly in high school – taken up as I was with the punk scene, drug and alcohol use, and some mental health issues that I have since realized were environmental more than chemical. This left me without the grades or the inclination to attend university, despite the fact I grew up in university town and the expectation had always been there among my family that I would get at least some post-secondary. Basically I spent the next three years or so fucking around in bad jobs and hitchhiking ventures that exhausted me physcially and mentally by the age of 21. And so I applied for the community college in my neighbourhood, mostly because I hadn’t managed to kill myself off with my own excesses and the idea of working minimum wage jobs on my feet for the rest of my life had run out of appeal. You know, I had no idea what I was doing.
And did I ever fret over that decision for months. For you see, although I was an avid reader, politically aware, a good conversationalist, and thought about things – it had never really occurred to me that I might actually be smart. At least smart enough for post-secondary education. It seemed to me really that I was a bit of a loser (the self-esteem issues were pretty bad at that point in my life – so just ignore them – I’m much better now). I still remember my friend Mike giving me a pep talk over beers in Rumours that I was certainly ready and able for community college. “Come on!” he said, “Do you really think that you aren’t going to keep up with other people like me? You’re as intelligent if not more so than the general campus population. Trust me.”
I didn’t chicken out of course, and I attended two years of college, obtaining a diploma in political science before transferring to university to do an undergrad degree in communications. My moderate sucesses made Mike right – I was smart enough to do the work. And yet I still often felt that I was lacking some essential thing that gave other people the ability to understand Baudrillard where I did not. The insular lingo of academia left me feeling shut out a great deal of the time. And I could not understand the practical application of much of the analysis we were required to undertake in communication studies. (I mean really, semiotic theory is a pretty basic analysis couched in method – sign, signifier, signified – why we had to go around applying to everything we watched or saw is still beyond me.) I thought it was me that was lacking, that once again I was struggling with my own intellectual capacity, not a system designed to protect privilege or class.
Despite this, I was keenly interested in taking either a law degree or an MA after finishing my undergrad – feeling the desire to immerse myself further into the world of learning that I did enjoy. The depth with which I got to explore things was truly a pleasure, and I had two professors from my department even offer to supervise me as I got close to finishing my program. If not for reality, I would have had the support to pursue an MA in communications – that reality being a large student loan debt ($34,000), a marriage that was rapidly failing and would implode in my last few months of school, and the fact that I had a part-time job with some potential future in it. The prospect of being alone, turning down a good job, and adding to rather than subtracting from my debt load left me with more financial insecurity that my responsible self could bear. Not to mention the fact that I could hear the echo of my parents in my own head – “who needs more than one degree anyway?” And so I left school and turned to work and activism instead.
This decision has turned out very well for me of course – now nine years into a stable career, with a good foothold in my union, a comfortable salary and student loan debt long behind me. I feel that I have made a good life with that decision, and over the years since leaving school I have been increasingly empowered by the reach of my intellect as demonstrated through both work and leisure pursuits. I no longer wonder if I am as smart as other people – even those around me with higher degrees or more training. I have learned also where my intellectual strengths lie (being a generalist, I tend towards synthesis as opposed to specialization).
But still, at times I do find myself resenting the fact I never did get to pursue a second degree. I find myself angry at a system of elitist behaviour and language that keeps working class people out. I find myself derisive of the concerns that academics have about their rights, as they hold themselves above working people. I have little sympathy when they complain that the general public doesn’t support them, when in fact they keep that unwashed public as far away as possible from their campuses.
And I am particularly frustrated in a world the presumes more education equates to more intelligence. That despite my analysis, I feel inferior to my partner because he is referred to as Doctor (not his choice), and has more pieces of paper with which to line the wall. That I wonder how people from “his world” regard me because of my deficiency in education, that I wonder if he himself wishes I had more education – these are the reasons I have largely stayed away from dating academics. Just not interested in having all that stuff come out in me.
Of course it would turn out that the person I want to share my life with is of the academic world, represents academics as a union worker, and writes academic articles as a hobby. And as it turns out it’s not been so bad, because as much as Brian is of that world, he has a good analysis of it flaws and all. And he certainly doesn’t equate a degree with having smarts (having apparently known a number of degreed people who in real life were actually quite stupid). And besides all of that he understands why I have this funny issue that comes up between us once and awhile. I also know that if I ever did decide to pursue another degree he would be on my side to do it, but will never pressure me otherwise.
I know that this is my problem – not Brian’s – and it’s rooted in the same class and economics and gender issues that so many of our frustrations are. That is, academia is part of a system that is designed to keep most of us in our place. And that is something that even after all these years away from school I still find it difficult to make peace with.