5 Ways College Accidentally Prepares You for the Real World
My freshman year of college was filled with some pretty depressing realizations. After all, like so many high school kids, I'd dreamed of college as a magical place where all petty, small-minded behaviors would magically float away. It would be a place filled with people who "got it." The halls would be teeming with bipolar, bisexual girls looking for three-ways with a deep and sensitive boy like me, and being a David Bowie fan would not be cause for suspicion. When I got to school, however, I found that none of that was true.
Still, college taught me a lot, and I'm not talking about all the things I learned as an English major: Dorothy Mermin explained the inherent anti-Irish elitism in T.S. Eliot's "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," Gordon Teskey lectured about his theory on William Shakespeare's "project of interiority" while being on the receiving end of Indiana Jones-esque flirtations from the girls in the front row and Dan McCall delivered flawless creative writing instruction. But the most important lessons I learned from college, I learned indirectly. Life lessons delivered to me by my first immersion in a shitty microcosm of humanity.
Look, I'm sorry, but Cracked requires me to include a really old photo of myself in one out of every three columns I write. It's in my contract.
Y'see, although I wasn't conscious of it, in the back of my mind, whenever I saw children misbehaving, whether it was cheating or bullying or not sharing their toys, I thought, "Oh, some day, you'll have to grow up. Some day you'll be in the real world, and the real world won't tolerate it." But when you get to college, guess what? You're an adult. And that's horribly depressing, because you learn that terrible little children have become terrible big adults, and that's the way it's going to stay.
But before we put on the Cure and compare cut marks, let's break this down a bit more, because this thunderbolt of reality conveys some important lessons.
People Are Less Good/Bad and More Sane/Insane
I used to think the world was divided into good and bad people. Things were black and white. As I got older, I acquired a deeper appreciation for shades of gray, but that's not the point of this entry. College taught me that before I could judge good and evil, there was a more basic inquiry that needed to be addressed: Is this person batshit insane?
By living with your classmates 24/7, college affords you an insight you didn't have in high school. For example, you might think some girl who criticizes another's clothes mercilessly is just mean or cruel. She's surely that, but if you see that same girl wearing a ratty bathrobe every day for an entire semester without washing it, while spending whole days in bed and subsisting on Diet Coke and candy bars, you realize something else: She's a loony. I can actually think of two girls from the floor of my dorm alone who fit that description. (Amazingly, I only hooked up with one of them!)
In my defense, she was really hot. For legal reasons, here's a picture of someone who is not her.
College was the first time I realized that people were walking around with scars I knew nothing about. Injuries and illnesses that shaped everything they did. They weren't making objective decisions of right and wrong as they went through their day. They were acting reflexively to prior pains and current neuroses. Learning that, it got a lot harder to simply call someone a childish jerk who needed to grow up. (Don't worry, I persevered and found a way, ultimately creating a mean-spirited Web series and a caustic Internet column, but you get my point.)
There's always that guy in high school who is just smarter than everyone else. He doesn't need the teacher. You put exams in front of him and they'll come back with 100s every time. And then there's that other kid who sits in the front row and raises his hand a lot. He constantly asks, "Will this be on the test?" and then he gets a copy of an old exam from his brother's best friend's sister to prep. That kid gets 100s all the time, too. I didn't mind getting inferior grades to the smart guy, but the other kid always pissed me off. I was pretty sure his grab-ass, bullshit games wouldn't work at the college level.
They totally worked at the college level.
To be clear, I'm not talking about hard workers who arguably are the most entitled to their success. I'm talking about crafty little weasels. They end up doing even better than the hard workers, because college is not some test whereby qualified academics recognize true quality the way a psychic reads an aura. It's a machine, like government bureaucracy or your future job. The only thing most people care about is getting it done. You can be that sniveling little busybody whose greatest talent is just getting the 411 on exams, and that, alone, can propel you to greatness. Or take a privileged little student whose only talent in college was instantly memorizing all the names of his fraternity brothers. Do you know where a skill like that will get you?
Everyone's Still a Cultural Philistine
One of my biggest expectations for college was meeting people who shared my passions for comedy and films and music. I mean, college radio was where the cool stuff got played, right? Student filmmakers and college cinemas flourished on every campus. I thought that once people hit college, they magically became more sophisticated.
Well, there was a college radio station and student cinema aficionados at my school. There were freaks and artists, but here's the thing I didn't realize: The people who see the demanding movies and want to talk about them, the people who search for obscure music and study the nuance of the classics, will always be in the minority. They're the freaker artistic fringe. College, like most of society, is filled with bland people whose favorite author is John Grisham, favorite movie is Forrest Gump and favorite band is the Spin Doctors. (That's the '90s version of being obvious and boring. Today it would be, oh, I don't know, Stephenie Meyer, Love Actually, and Coldplay.)
I went to college at the height of grunge, but the best way to get an audience (and women) was to play really bad, extended jam hippie funk or join (God save us all) an a cappella group. Yes, just like Andy Bernard on The Office. I can't tell you how absolutely spot-on that character is. My campus was flooded with guys just like that. But no one except me and my freaker friends called them tools. And we did. Over and over. And it was fun. But most people didn't, because most people were just like them, minus the ability to sing three-part harmony to Billy Joel songs while smiling.
In hell, these guys perform all your favorite songs.
College is no different from the high school that precedes it or the real life that follows: If you want to find the special people, you need to look for them. As an aside, I have to note that, ultimately, the Internet did a better job of fulfilling the promise of college by giving easy access and a worldwide pool for similarly interested people. And much like college, you can do a lot of it without leaving bed.
Girls Are Just as Stupid as Boys
I'm not sure why, but I think I grew up putting women on a pedestal. Maybe it's because I was close with my mother or because society tells you that girls mature faster than boys. On TV, I saw an awful lot of jerk guys being mean to sensitive girls. Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie was one of the few mean girls I knew.
Today, you might enjoy her performance as King Joffrey on Game of Thrones.
I have to admit, in high school, the girls didn't seem all that cool. I wasn't impressed by too many, but perhaps they were just stuck in the overbearing middle-class peer pressure that made them puff their hair and wear Champion sweatshirts backward. I was sure it would be different in college. I'd meet a whole university of wonderful women.
Yeah, you see where this one is going, huh?
To this day, I'm still a bigger fan of women in general than men, but on the whole, I have to say that college taught me that girls are every bit as stupid as boys. I saw them getting drunk and stoned to dangerous excess, dating all the wrong people who treated them like crap and being as close-minded and shallow as their peers who had a penis. That makes total sense. We're all human, and men and women have the right and the capacity to suck equally. It was just kind of a drag to learn that they do.
Not All Actions Have Consequences
College was the first place I ever saw people getting away with stuff. Important stuff. In high school, the kids who stole an exam usually got caught. When the principal's car was vandalized, someone ended up suspended. And even when people did get away with being jerks, somewhere in the back of my naive little mind was the notion that the universe would not abide such behavior from an adult. But college showed me that not all actions have consequences.
And there is no shortage of examples. For one, I wish it were only one or two girls at school who had stories about getting date raped, but it seemed like it was at least 25 percent of all women I knew. And in almost none of those cases was there a criminal investigation. That's a lot of rapists walking around in the world, remembering that time they crawled inside that nearly comatose girl with a fond smile.
Yeah, sorry, I checked, but there are no jokes about date rape.
Or then there was a group of students who took over the administration building during my time at school. Amen! Civil disobedience! It's admirable having convictions so strong that you're willing to break laws and get arrested to bring attention to your struggle. Except these particular students agreed to leave the building they occupied only on the condition that their criminal trespass would not go on their records. And you thought only kids today could stage a crappy protest!
Oh, and then there was the student newspaper that, in a fundamentally flawed misunderstanding of the First Amendment, printed a full-page advertisement by a neo-Nazi claiming that the Holocaust had never happened. Oh, they also ran a teaser on the front page pointing to an editorial about why as journalists they had to run it. This was the same newspaper that wouldn't run an ad in the personals if they thought it would be offensive to one person. Can you believe a bunch of Ivy League journalism majors thought that there was somehow a constitutional right in this country to have a newspaper print any ad you wanted to run? They seriously claimed that. That would be like me insisting that the Constitution forced Cracked to run an ad where I explain in detail how Seanbaby is an impotent meth head. (Just kidding, Sean. I'd never pay for an ad.)
Of course, there is no such constitutional right. And of course, the president of the university wrote a letter in response to the outrage, saying ... he understood the constitutional concerns that prompted the paper's actions. Proof that you can be a genius at a venerable institution and still have no idea what you're talking about.
So college was a good way to prepare for life. It showed me that having expectations is the first step in being disappointed. There are no magical places filled with envisioned friends you've created with your mind. There are only people. And some of them will behave as badly as anything you've seen or will see. They might suffer the consequences of their failings and transgressions, or they might not, because those in power are just as flawed.
That was a lot for me to accept at 18. It's a lot for me to accept now. But it's good to know, and there is a bright spot when it comes to people: There are an awful lot of them. Good, bad, sane, crazy, boring, bland, exciting, sophisticated, dull and brilliant. The older you get, the more control you have over which ones fill your life. And the older you get, the less you keep looking for some concept of authority to set things right. You either become that sniveling kid who thinks he's smart because he's figured he can game the system without consequence, or you do things for you in your way, knowing that it might be the only reward.
Speaking of college, the new HBN is about college! And boobs! Yep, watch the new episode of HATE BY NUMBERS. Also follow Gladstone on Twitter and stay up-to-date on the latest regarding Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. And then there's his website and Tumblr, too.