A Letter to High School Students
During our travels, I have always encouraged my students to observe the details of the world around them and to become more aware of their actions and the results thereof. There is a multitude of reasons why I need to teach such a thing, but perhaps the most pressing of them (for this essay at least) is this: most of them being of middle and high-school age means that one of the biggest choices they will face in life is just around the corner: which university to attend and what subject to major in. This is the time when we essentially pressure a child with little life experience to decide his fate, often without him being aware of what he is most suitable for nor capable at. Selecting a university major, in essence, is the choosing of a direction in life, and since this is generally a terrifying situation for the both an inexperienced or naïve child and parents who wishes ‘the best’ for them, we often find parents calling the decisions based on their own interpretations, ideals and insecurities. It is no small matter to wilfully invest at least four years of our most physically capable years into something, so you had better choose wisely!
The question is: “But how to choose?”
And my answer is: “How do I know if you don’t even know?”
But what I can do is offer a few examples of some familiar student-parent predicaments that most likely resonate and of which would be well worth your time reflecting upon during this anxiety-inducing time. See if you see yourself in any of these.
THE GIRL WITH THE UNSATISFIABLE FATHER
This seemingly all-round unsatisfied man wants to decide on his daughter’s university major despite her preferred path being of stark contrast to his heart’s desires. His desires include the daughter taking a degree that will require a considerable number of years of struggle in order to obtain, and even worse, these desires are to be met by being based for all these years in a relatively small industrial city just ‘to be nearby’. This girl is well aware of the bright lights and opportunities that a cosmopolitan city offers, and even worse for her, is that she has already travelled to two far-away continents with me and knows what exists beyond the limited scope of her father’s ‘tastes’. The question for her is whether to listen to him or not? Is the world meant to flow forwards or is life just water in a still paddy field? And the questions for him: do you even have a field that you need to your daughter nearby to attend to? Are we living in the abundance of the twenty-first century, where even your own daughter has already been to lands that most could only dreamt of? The problem here is that he will never earn true peace in life when his (hypothetical) satisfaction comes from dictating the lives of others, nor will he ever curate a quality relationship with his daughter. If someone’s sole goal is to have others listen to them then you might want to consider changing the goal to ensure something healthy and happy comes as a result. Unless your intended goal is precisely the opposite, of course.
THE MOTHER SO INVOLVED SHE CANNOT SEE ANYMORE
One mother is so involved she has been stressing for years over her son’s grades so that she can get him into a good university to study business – a path that he himself always wants to follow. The funny thing, to me anyway, is that their family already owns several successful businesses and so the template, opportunities for experience and the resources are already available – in fact, a business university is already right there in their own hands! Why spend all these years studying just in order to have some institution ‘approve of’ what you already have, when you could invest this time and energy into building something of your own right now instead. Sure, you may not receive a paper degree to dangle on a wall behind your desk, but those were only invented to hand over to someone else in order to prove you’re capable of doing a job for someone else, never as a prerequisite to becoming your own boss! Sometimes the obvious gets lost in the fog.
THE BOY THAT DOES FOR THE SAKE OF DOING
This boy is in university doing a major he is not passionate about, though luckily, one that is not too dissimilar to the field he would have preferred. Of course, this was because of his father’s belief that by following his advice means more prospects for getting a ‘good job’. I often wonder: how many people give much thought to what a ‘good job’ actually is? Does having a position in a company on a fixed salary and schedule, under someone else’s command, not to mention the risk of getting fired at any moment, constitute a ‘good job’? If you are not passionate about this ‘good job’, are you going to magically fend off competitors who would otherwise be better suited for the position? Don’t forget that these days everyone and their dog have the same degree and they are hot on your heels in the current job market. And, are you confident you know the future so well that this ‘good job’ will still retain its goodness in the ever-changing future? At least the training of your skills in the areas you are passionate about and naturally talented in ensures that you will hold on to your enthusiasm and energy – and the world highly needs your passion and energy right now as can be seen by a quick look at the social trends of many young people at the moment. But, maybe this boy might be able to incorporate his interests into his field of study at some point in the future if he is creative, just as I managed to combine travel with education when the idea sprung upon me unexpectedly one day.
THE FORTUNE SPENT ABROAD FOR LITTLE GAIN
This former traveler/student of mine has been studying in a ‘prestigious’ college abroad for a couple of year already in a country not known for its low cost of living. Another case of a person studying a major chosen by his father, but in any case, this boy was extremely happy to go abroad, not only to escape the tight grip of his parents, but out of pure excitement to surround himself with a foreign environment. This boy came to visit me at my place in Istanbul during a holiday period and when after making a quick calculation of the price of which I purchased this property located in the center of a famous tourist city, plus the rental gains I could accrue should I chose to rent it out as tourist accommodation, and in comparison to the university fees and living expenses he has been paying for the so-called ‘honor’ of being there, it would turn out that he could have purchased properties in Turkey instead and already be financially independent and, travelling off the income generated. Good economics, and funny because he is studying an economics-related degree, and sensible because his strengths and interests lie in the humanities. But at least this boy speaks impeccable English and as I have always said: ‘knowing English is like having money in your back pocket’ when it comes to looking for work and opportunities around the world. His degree may come in handy though eventually, but at such a cost? Only time will tell.
THE ONE WHO DUMPED THE CHAINS
This boy is more of a unique case, and a healthy one at that. This high school-aged teenager quit attending school in order to pursue music. He is self-disciplined, diligent, interested in life and curious about the world – the right combination to put things into action. Perhaps more importantly, he has a supportive environment with parents and a community that is brave enough to step out from the norm and make their own educational and lifestyle choices, and have enough confidence to encourage and assist him to risk and be responsible for taking his own path in life. Who he has surrounded himself with is who he has become, so involving himself in interesting things with like-minded people has significantly aided him in his pursuit of seeking authenticity, meaning and truth. I have no doubt he will bring good into the world while progressing onto a career in his chosen field, whether someday that be music or not. With a strong skillset and a healthy mind, it is impossible to fail in life, but the opposite be true too, degree in hand or not. As a teacher, I a dream of the way when cases like this are common place.
THE BOY WITH THE INSATIABLE DESIRE TO TRAVEL
Well, that boy was me. Yes, I know what it is like to be deceived into believing you must attend university in order to have any ‘status’ in life, and although I did mostly enjoy school and studying in general, in reality I was a little hesitant about committing myself to yet another institution for four more years. I generally preferred ‘the betterment of self’ as a higher goal in life as opposed to obtaining a degree as some sort of self-approval. I had stared at world maps since the age of ten and more than anything else in this world, I just wanted to get to meet what I had been looking at on paper for all these years and leave behind the confinements of familiarity; those of home, school and society. So naturally, I departed the country the day after I graduated high school, and found myself living and teaching English in South Korea – aged eighteen, self-sufficient though rather lacking in life experience, but of which I would come to learn. Apart from the Korean language and customs, I was also influenced by the cultural narrative being: ‘in order to be successful you need to go to university’, and so like young people do, I followed along because I too wanted to fit in. Not long after that, I actually got offered a five-year scholarship in Taiwan to study Tourism Management – school fees and all living expenses paid. I went. Within a semester I realized I probably did not need this, nor belong there. Happenstance, I packed my bags, hopped on a plane to Shanghai, then a train to Xinjiang, then a bus to Almaty, Kazakhstan – a place I had never been before, in the midst of a bitter cold winter in order to find work and suffer while figuring out my life. But, sometimes just the excitement is the antidote the suffering, which I then learnt. In hindsight, staying at university and living for free by just following instructions, completing tasks, and listening to classes I did not care for would have been the easier route, but I am glad I did not settle for that! However, I am grateful for the experience and the insight into these institutions of ‘education’ and even these days they can at times even seem more like play centers, brainwashing facilities, or corporate money-making entities. I do like the historical concept of universities though, but the prestige is ruined when everyone with a mid-wit IQ and low intellectual interest attends willy-nilly. Universities definitely have their place in society and their use for humanity at large, but for many people, often a more suited education comes from experience in the big wide world that sits waiting to be explored. The one thing that has amused and puzzled me over the years in my professional work is that no one ever asks me which university I attended – it just goes to show that your passion, skills and experience is what people want and when you know what you are doing and your heart is in it then it obviously would seem that the rest be damned!
It could be likened to a societal illness if people are studying for the wrong reasons and motivations – whether those be pressure from your environment, social or parental expectations, cultural traditions, desire for status, or out of fear, greed or other emotions. The thing is; society, parents, culture, tradition, status and emotion are social, biological or evolutionary tools that exist to support our journeys in life, and were never designed to serve as the great evils that would destroy us – but that is precisely what we are witnessing if we observe the effects and certain social trends these days.
If it were up to me I would make it a rule that one shall be at least 30 years old to enter university (except for exceptional cases, of course), and then after some life and work experience, only the highly-driven with the thirst for intellectual brilliance would fill the institutions and then once again be able to graduate with guaranteed employment. The rest would continue to go about life investing their time and energy into other things of utility and beauty. But it is not up to me, and here we are. I do not want to contribute to this endless cycle of meaninglessness and cynicism, so instead try to open the doors of possibility through the way that I know best: education through travel, then where possible, sharing the experience. But the time has come for you too. Learn to observe yourself. Practice observing the world around you. Bravely stand up and take responsibility for your own path in life. Start now. You do not want to sink into the abyss of misery. During this important time of your life, consider this advice and ponder these ideas. Choose wisely! Don’t regret it!