I left school at seventeen. I never did so much as a shred of homework that wasn’t punitively extracted of me in ‘detention.’ The education at school was, to me, useless and boring; the thought of taking more of it home with me, after spending a thirty-hour week in small rooms stuffy with hormones and tedium, was out of the question.
But I would bring home with me, always and to varying degrees, guilt and fear at knowing that I had homework: that I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t going to do it, and I would again be subject to a bollocking for having not done it. It’s not a nice feeling, knowing that you’re due a telling-off, deservedly and constantly.
One can clear this cloud of guilt feeling at university, but there is a right way and a wrong to do it: you overcome it, or avoid it. I went for the latter at school, but it was terrible tactics, attempting to avoid all of one’s teachers when you see them every weekday. But at university, one doesn’t have this problem. Lecturers and seminar tutors don’t have a bollocking-spiel at the ready: if you don’t go, you don’t go; if you don’t read, you don’t read; if you don’t learn, that’s your own fecking problem. You are, formally at least, a ‘responsible adult’ and ‘independent learner.’
These words, independence, responsibility and learning, are foreign until further education. Until then, your responsibility is to learn, whereas ‘learning’ means actually retaining masses of information so that your capacity for regurgitating it may be examined in a series of stressful and stupid examinations—you don’t attain knowledge for yourself, you remember stuff for exams. Your independence is naught, you are given the lessons, the timetables, the teachers; you are told what to do and what to think, where to be and when, and you’re punished for any transgressions.
So university is as much unlearning primary and secondary ‘education’ for examination as (newly) learning how to learn for knowledge, for development, for you; this is difficult, involving a change in the objective sphere of education. But this task is tough on multiple levels, moreso on the subjective, as you tackle for the first time living independently, learning and researching independently, prioritising independently; in short, tackling university independently, without a teacher or a parent to kick your ass into gear or provide that cloud of guilt which spurs some to study.
What follows are the thoughts of a reformed homeworkaphobe approaching his third-year of studying something which interests him at university; points on living, learning and prioritising independently; additionally some personal points which don’t constitute universally applicable advice.
Do different things with different people.
Having heard and seen some of the states to which houses and student accommodation can deteriorate, my first advice regarding independent living is to make friends. Don’t stick with your clique from back home or pair off with that dude you met on the open day, meet and speak with as many people as possible. Don’t allow your living situation to regress such that everybody bitches about everybody else, complaining, fighting, stealing and poisoning the food of others, all of which can be nauseatingly commonplace if a balance isn’t struck. And if it can’t be, for it may well go sour with or without your input, do not involve yourself, do not ally yourself and make enemies, rise above the bollocks and work around it. Worse come worse: move. But bear in mind, you may move but you still bring your own attitude with you, make sure it’s one that makes you tolerable to live with.
Avoid inscribing bad habits.
Yes, it can initially be an exhilarating novelty to drink in a bar full of fellow students on a weeknight, to have fast-food and weed delivered to your door, to avoid exercise and sports because, well, nobody is there to tell you otherwise. I’m not for a moment saying don’t do any of these things ever, just know that there is more to be gained from the first-year university experience than savings on Jäger-bombs at the SU and pizza at Dominoes; indeed, there’s much to be lost in habituating the consumption of junk-food, drugs and alcohol.
University life teems with other opportunities; you can join just about any society you can think of, like the Kung-Fu Society, the Beard Society, the Surfing Society, and the Philosophy and Literature Society (examples from my uni). Join a band, start a club, get a training partner or a study buddy—this support can be invaluable in routinising your life and motivating healthy habit formations. (Disclaimer: British university societies are much like British society at large: they revolve around alcohol and you’re likely to have more ‘socials’ than society meetings, beware…)
Help is always at hand.
There are government and university and student organisations dedicated to student welfare, for people struggling financially, academically, personally, etcetera. There are plenty of genuine people about who have the experience to help you—don’t be shy, they’ve seen worse situations.
Get your priorities straight.
If your top priorities are beer and the opposite (or whatever) sex, at least make university your number three, because one, two, ten years down the line, you’re going to be prioritising differently: don’t make future-you despise current-you. At university, enjoying yourself should be secondary, or at most equal, to enhancing yourself. What does this mean? That lecture and seminar attendance and reading should not repeatedly fall victim to hangovers and munchies and sheer lack of will.
You are in a superlatively privileged position, able to access the pinnacle of our culture’s knowledge in an institutional tradition the likes of which people around the world would and do quite literally die trying to reach. You could come out the other end a podgy, pot-smoking piss-artist with a few funny stories; or you could emerge an enhanced, humbled and learned human endowed with indispensable knowledge and experience, and yet still have a few funny stories to boot. In a nutshell: you will have to make the jump from doing what you want to do, to what you ought to be doing; if those align, which they seldom do without a mature work ethic, so much the better.
Your first year is about winning knowledge, not arguments.
You will go to university with your conceptions of and ideas about how the world is and ought to work, but, if you are fully surrendering to what education is, prepare for them to be shattered into a thousand insignificant pieces. Think of your little brother or niece and how they say things with total conviction—‘I’m running away!’ and ‘They’re disgusting, I’m never having a boyfriend!’—but we know, even if they don’t, that they will grow out of such silly opinions. What makes an eighteen-year-old different? Coming of age seems to me to be a period in which one should challenge oneself rather than others; especially if you don’t know what you are talking about, which you don’t.
What I am saying here is this, that you will invariably laugh at how stupid you were last year, and if you don’t you are either totally perfect or doing something wrong; if you sort yourself out and attempt authentically to learn without politically predisposing yourself to any outcome, it’s wholly likely that you will look back and laugh at your stupidity several times a year, and that’s a good thing.
So, one should go into a lecture ready to be immersed in the viewpoint professed by the professor; one should enter the seminar room not as a political gauntlet, but a philosophical roundtable, around which blossoming critical thinkers can bounce ideas off of one another without fear of consequence. Fellow students aren’t your competitors and still less your enemies—chill, be proud to be willing to learn and be open about what you’re struggling with, if somebody’s immature enough to scoff at your intellectual courage, fuck ‘em!
Again, know that you are stupid.
Socrates said, “I know one thing; that I know nothing.” Your first year should be spent revelling in and remedying this stupidity, but knowing that there is no endpoint to knowledge, you will never know everything and indeed will still border on knowing nothing when you’re done. The point is a little more profound than ‘you are destined for dumbness’: it’s about an attitude, a perspective: humility is prerequisite to learning that which you don’t yet know. Christ knows it is awkward and annoying to have somebody in a seminar, who has for some reason deigned to descend to university education, who knows everything already and need not be told anything by anyone. The thing is, one can see through it. If your outlook is ‘I know nothing’ rather than ‘I already know everything,’ you’ll go further than those for whom lectures are tertiary, lecturers are clueless and seminars are for deploying one’s intellectual smack-downs.
DO SOME FECKING READING.
This is key advice, sacred for those who give more than a toss about learning at university, so I implore you to heed it if you would like a challenging experience as opposed to a debilitatingly stressful one. First week, no excuses; as soon as your fall one week behind, you’re buggered. Playing catch-up might’ve worked for GCSE and A-Level, but say you’re knee-deep in Descartes then balls-deep in Hegel, you can’t feasibly race through and cram an understanding of both in a week. Readings, for my course at least, are usually extracts of several works, sometimes with a primary text with secondary materials supporting it. If you read but one of these, enough so that you can explain what you think they are saying to somebody, then that’s enough to ‘wing’ a seminar. If you want to ‘boss’ a seminar: read it through, no notes or underlining, then read it through again, noting and underlining key or difficult passages, then write on a separate sheet of paper what you thought it was on about, what you had difficulty with and what you would like to discuss further.
After historic sociopolitical upheavals, the likes of which are unimaginable to our most recent generations, society decided to carve years out of production time so that those who wish to pursue professionalised modes of education can do so. In the past seven years the cost of this time has been raised, in financial and the corollary personal terms, to a degree that precludes many potential students or leaves them and their parents shouldering unmanageable debts—is it even worth it? Well the answer is in your action, the proof in the pudding. Again, it can be a hazy, hedonistic blur of beer and bifters and late-night cramming on Sparknotes; or you could read. It’s hard to sell, and I’m not going to try, just merely say that these three years could be precious, priceless, if you can spend it wisely, reading some of the richest wisdom that has been retained in word form. It might not seem it at first, but is infinitely more rewarding than Twitter, and tequila.
Write essays that you want to write.
Again, these are subjectively informed suggestions, some might be seeking the highest score possible for their degree; some the easiest essay for, well, their ease; a few others the hardest essay for a challenge. I find picking an essay question that I am interested in, rather than one I already know a lot about and can answer well, was most rewarding in terms of both satisfaction and marks. And sanity.
Get the whack hair-do’s over and done with.
Read philosophy and history.
I came to university to learn about politics. I ended up being immersed in a study of philosophy that eclipsed my interest in bollotics and precipitated a total disengagement with its vulgar and distractive manifestations in news media. At university you will be given fragments, tasters, essays and chapters to read; but it’s up to you to pursue a school of philosophy or particular philosopher as if you’re interested; if you keep doing so, you will inevitably find philosophy that interests and suits you—remember beer didn’t taste nice before you started drinking it all the time?
This study will allow you to don the philosophical-historical goggles worn by preeminent human beings: you see the world through the eyes of Saint Paul in the Bible, through those of Plato in Athens; Marcus Aurelius and Cicero of the Roman Empire; you see through Hobbes’ during the English Civil War, Jefferson’s during the American Revolution, Burke’s during the French; through CLR James’ on history’s only successful slave revolt; through Hegel’s during the Napoleonic Wars, Trotsky’s on the Russian Revolution, the list is as exhaustive as it is fascinating.
Which leads me to history: one can discern how ideas influence events, how philosophy affects history. Our ideas bring reality into being at least as much as reality stimulates our ideality; reading the philosophies alongside the histories of an epoch will elucidate this mutual transactivity.
One more suggestion, philosophy needn’t be going balls deep and, for your first year, may be totally out of the question. For example, Hegel, the philosopher on whom I will write my dissertation, has not the knack for pedagogical clarity:
“The infinite is in this way burdened with the opposition to the finite which, as an other, remains at the same time a determinate reality although in its in-itself, in the infinite, it is at the same time posited as sublated; this infinite is the non-finite – a being in the determinateness of negation. Contrasted with the finite, with the sphere of affirmative determinatenesses, of realities, the infinite is the indeterminate void, the beyond of the finite, whose being-in-itself is not present in its determinate reality.”—Hegel, Science of Logic
Balls deep is too deep, one will go into shock. So start by dipping a toe, read a Wikipedia article, watch a video on Youtube; advance to ankle-depth by reading an entry-level introduction; go up to your knees and attend a lecture, then attend another, then find some on Youtube; raise the level gently past the knee by advancing to secondary literature, then perhaps get back to ball-depth by reading it alongside a key passage or two by the author himself.
I bear in mind whilst writing this that not so long ago I would’ve scoffed at this suggestion.
Say, if you spent three years working on a building site, you’d make time in which you stopped physically working completely. It’s a little more difficult on the academic side of things, because your mind doesn’t stop whirring quite like your muscles stop working. But such is meditation: thoughtlessness. Without meditation, I would have burned out so much quicker than I did on days waking up to reading before attending four lectures on different subjects and then sitting down to write an essay; by which time I could either be too frazzled to concentrate, or, because I’ve meditatively calmed my mind, ready to read and write some more. Try just ten minutes, first thing in the morning before breakfast and coffee and phone, focusing on and slowing your breathing, do nothing else. There are plenty of meditation tips and guides about the interweb; Alan Watts is my recommendation.
Make a routine, make it sacred.
Make time by routinising it. I know I have lectures on these days, I’ll do reading at these times on these days, ready for seminars on these days; I’m going to exercise at this time on these days, go to these societies on these days, etcetera. Stick to it like it’s a job, which it is: it’s your job to become a conscientious and competent human being, not one forever ready to shirk the smallest of responsibilities. Keep a diary, keep a calendar, keep one or both handy.
Be wary of political organisations
I’ve come to find it amusing, that an education costing £28,000 can still churn out morons who go about sticking these stickers on university property. I mocked them in a seminar last year, because ‘ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS’ was stuck outside the building, and I had somebody defend it on the basis that “you can’t sacrifice a good slogan” to explain that, in fact, not every cop is a bastard, just the overwhelming majority. Another confronted me outside, rather less compromising, saying that all cops are bastards, to which I replied, “My friends and family are not bastards, actually.”
An apt aphoristic peach from Hegel will make my point: “Mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” And indeed you can become an instrument if your ‘enemies,’ be they UKIP supporters or the police, are assigned to you as part of whatever prepackaged political ideology you were sold by such nutjobs.
Education is outside the lecture hall and library.
Learn to cook. Which also means: learn to buy food. If you have a market, shop there, for they’re invariably cheaper than cornerstores and supermarkets. Then learn to cook the food: it can start easy and it’s fun. Then do the dishes afterwards. Then feel exhilarated at becoming a bog-standard adult; it’s really quite something.
Sort your bills now, or pay for it later. You will have to confront these kinds of responsibilities at some point, avoiding them and hoping somebody else will sort it is dishonest—because you know you should do something—and immature.
Learn to self motivate (read philosophy and history). Historical heroes and philosophical giants like Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche, CLR James and Hegel, will change the lens through which you interpret the world. There will no longer be insurmountable but avoidable obstacles, there will rather lie challenges, out of which you will emerge a better human; eventually you will compare your pathetic excuses for not attending a lecture or writing an essay to the inconceivable feats of humanity’s toughest, and they will inspire and motivate you.
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