A long awaited letter arrived in 2002 that had had me watching the mailbox like a hawk for weeks: my academic record from RMIT for the second half of that year. I’d been watching the mailbox because I knew it would contain only one thing - a whole bunch of ‘F’ - and I would immediately have to burn it.
Yes, you are currently reading the demented scribblings of a professional (award-winning!) journalist what dropped out of journalism school.
Well, Professional Writing & Editing, and the dropout/fail was due to an administrative communication breakdown that meant my planned deferral ended up on paper as little more than semester-long truancy, but still, it was my second uni cockup in three years (I deferred a BA in Fashion Design and never returned), and it took me about a decade to finally feel ok about it all.
See, despite all that I’ve done, and the career I’ve managed to carve out, the spectre of being an unqualified drop-out has long haunted me.
This haunting is, I’m well aware, mostly irrational, because in truth, had I clocked the BA in Fashion Design, it would have guaranteed little for me save for a possible future academic position, and likewise, the Diploma in Professional Writing & Editing would have been little more than a nice jumble of letters to put on my business card. You don’t need a degree to be a designer, and the ability to write well is arguably a more compelling attribute as a journalist than the ability to secure a degree.
And yet, why did I - and why do many others in similar situations - feel such a deep sense of shame at being “unqualified” for so long?
It needn’t be said that degrees aren’t the answer to everything (no smartarses in the comments mentioning the obvious exceptions like medicine and law, please), and perhaps anticipating the needs of dropouts and failures, the internet is teeming with “feel better about your future prospects” type content such as 10 Very Successful People Without A College Degree (Richard Branson! Will Smith! Some other dudes!) and Wikipedia’s handy List Of College Dropout Billionaires (more dudes!).
Additionally, that lack of a “piece of paper” isn’t an intellectual death sentence (as my family is fond of saying whenever I mope about my lack of a degree, “look at Phillip Adams!!”), or at least it doesn’t need to be. Once libraries ceased to be reminders of my abandoned tertiary education, they became founts of knowledge once more, and I read about Freud, European witchcraft, cookery in the Middle Ages... learning for the sake of learning, which never seemed to be on the cards when I was actually in a place of (institutionalised) learning.
The further I get from my aborted attempt at further education, the more I wonder about the model we push upon kids in Australia. At my high school, we were expected to know what our VCE subjects would be, more or less, by Year 9, and since VCE subjects are the conduit to whatever tertiary education you end up doing, that effectively means we expect 14 and 15 year olds to know “what they want to be when they grew up”. The decision to study fashion came about because I liked drawing glamorous evening gowns; it wasn’t until much later (this year, really) that I realised it was costume design that I was interested in. How could 14.5-year-old-Me have worked that out? I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, other than that now, at 31, I know that I have 30-40 years to work it out!
As part of my uni dropout rehab, I have also realised the value in short-form further education, something I once pooh-poohed in my desperation to be a real, proper, university-educated academic, even as I knew tertiary ed’s grip on me was slipping. I’ve studied millinery at the CAE, leatherworking at masterclasses in Wyoming, and am this week learning about textile effects for costume design at Central Saint Martins in a pilgrimage of sorts to where my heroes Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan studied.
McQueen and Chalayan may well have earned their degrees, but at least now, 11 years after I lost the chance to get mine, I feel no shame in walking into their hallowed halls of education to study for five days before returning to my qualification-free existence.
After all, as Captain Edmund Blackadder so sagely put it, “[I] am a fully rounded human being with a degree from the university of life, a diploma from the school of hard knocks, and three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me.”