The Liberal Education ideal is ruining my life. Please help disabuse me of it (or at least temper it.)
February 16, 2011 11:55 AM   Subscribe

The Liberal Education ideal is ruining my life. Please help disabuse me of it (or at least temper it.)

It started with Mortimer J Adler and his ‘How to Read a Book’. I bought it about two years ago, and shortly after that time I became fixated on the idea of getting a liberal education and reading the Great Books. I am not uncritical of the merits of this sort of education; I've read every book on educational philosophy and theory I could get my hands on, and I’m still suspicious of the lofty claims of its proponents, but nevertheless I can’t help but try to achieve this ideal.

I should mention that I’m genuinely interested in a wide range of topics, but I also have a tendency to avoid my university studies to look for "something else", some other activity or field of knowledge which will bring satisfaction to my life. I’m not sure if this is strictly procrastination, or if its something more.

I started with reading books from Adler’s list and other similar lists on the internet (you know something is wrong when this list starts to look resonable). Then I rekindled my learning of French. I’ve given up on the idea of learning to play an instrument, but I feel like I ought to, and I occasionally browse the web for pianos and piano lessons.

This much I could handle resonably well, but then I found the The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar. These two companies sell packaged audio lectures of university level courses. I’ve downloaded most of the courses that I could find through torrents, and have since been listening to the lectures for an average of 20 hours each week for the past 7 months.

I’ve certainly learned a lot, and much more quickly than I would have if I only used books, but it is at a disfunctional level. I'm learning about things that I don't have a huge interest in, such as art and classical music, just because I feel like I should. I’m neglecting my university studies to either listen to these lectures, read non-school books, or in attempting to learn French (with plans to learn other languages after.) And when I’m not learning, I’m stressing out about all the stuff that I could be learning.

I also need to find a job as my savings have nearly run dry. But at the same time that I think that this liberal education is important, I don’t feel like I’m qualified for even an entry level job.

I’m guessing I have a combination of an inferiority complex, a habit of procrastination, and a tad of neuroticism thrown in for good measure.

What should I do to have a more healthy attitude towards this pursuit? Any comments, reflections, or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

*If you're not obsessive like I am, I highly recommend both the Teaching Company and the Modern Scholar.
posted by Homo economicus to Education (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Simple: slow down.

A liberal education is a life-long project. There's no need to cram it all in six months or even six years. Sure, you have to spend time on it regularly if you want to get anywhere, but letting this pursuit interfere with your life is, ironically, directly counter to the aim of a liberal education, i.e. virtue.

Take a few deep breaths, get your classes done, and basically just chill. You're obviously doing this apart from your schoolwork, so there's no reason you need to stop doing it once you're finished school.
posted by valkyryn at 12:00 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Look at your university experience like a true homo economicus; you need credentialing to get a decent job. The barista stands are full of MLISes, let alone English majors. Concentrate on your schooling and once you've a couple of bucks and a few spare moments, then you can civilize yourself.

Or, alternatively, be an iconoclast and get an apprenticeship in a well-paid, non-outsourcable blue collar field like plumbing and devote spare time to the canon.
posted by codswallop at 12:02 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: What should I do to have a more healthy attitude towards this pursuit?

Pursue a major and a set of internships that lead right along towards a career once you graduate. While you are pursuing these things, continue with your self-studies in Liberal Education as well as taking classes on a wide range of topics you are interested in. It doesn't matter if you become an accountant or a teacher or an engineer or a doctor or an economist at the end of it all: what matters if that you took care of yourself economically and intellectually while you were in school.

Other options: put a specific time limit on your Teaching Company/Modern Scholar audio lectures, like 4 hours/week. Then STOP and wait until the next week to continue.

You are supposed to make learning a lifetime project, so you have time.
posted by deanc at 12:02 PM on February 16, 2011

What are you studying in school?
posted by Jahaza at 12:02 PM on February 16, 2011

Don't feel guilty about anything!

Easier said then done, though. I'm an unschooler, and one of the hardest things to learn after leaving school was that I don't have to learn everything. I got over this by being burnt out for a good couple of months. But you're probably going to burn out eventually anyway when you put yourself under so much stress.

Give yourself a week or two to relax and then decide what you really like.
posted by wayland at 12:04 PM on February 16, 2011

Have you seen the movie Quiz Show? Charles Van Doren, the aristocratic intellectual whose downfall through cheating and dishonesty is chronicled in that movie, happens to have been the co-author of How to Read a Book. Just a reminder that reading the Great Books of the Western Canon doesn't guarantee an improvement in moral integrity.
posted by theodolite at 12:04 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it was Mark Twain who said, "never let schooling interfere with your education." It sounds to me like you need to take a step back, and, for a while, not let your education interfere with your schooling. Focus on your actual college courses and finding a job for now. Perhaps if you pay more attention to the classes you're actually paying (presumably) to take, you might get more out of them.

You have the rest of your life to read the Great Books and pursue classical interests. But at this point you need to be practical.
posted by phunniemee at 12:05 PM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: I'm an economics major. My username was chosen with my tongue firmly in cheek.
posted by Homo economicus at 12:07 PM on February 16, 2011

I'm going to go totally counter to everyone else's advice.

If you're an econ major, and your problem is that you want to be Reading The Canon instead of doing your econ homework...

Maybe you should take some more liberal artsy courses? If your school offers minors, this would be a great use of that system. Or you could even consider changing to a more humanities oriented major. I majored in anthropology and found good, meaningful work right away after college. Don't choose your major based on what you're supposed to want, or what might net you a bigger paycheck down the road*. This is one of your few chances in life to devote yourself to what you love. If you love literature, why drive yourself crazy wasting time and energy on something else?

*I know far more people in finance who were laid off during the recession and had a really hard time finding anything else than I did people who'd majored in the arts or humanities and were pursuing humbler careers. (I even know people who majored in the "right" thing, got awesome corporate jobs, were laid off, then ended up going back to school for education, social work, and other fields that often attract humanities types.) For what it's worth. Just do what you love.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'm not the only one! I've got all those Great Books lists bookmarked/Amazon wishlisted, I've got the torrents from TTC on my iPod, I read textbooks on Google books, I'm constantly trying to keep my French up and have lists of the languages that I'll learn "next." I definitely understood that "should" feeling. And I wish my parents had hired a governess for me when I was younger.

No advice, because I'm struggling with the exact same thing, but you are not alone. I justify it by telling myself I'm studying for the Foreign Service Exam.
posted by thebazilist at 12:28 PM on February 16, 2011

Response by poster: thebazilist, I'm glad I've found a kindred spirit. I come from a working class family and often feel like I missed out on many educational experiences in my childhood that I'm now making up for. I sometimes wish I had a J. S. Mills type education, even though I'm fully aware of his later nervous breakdown.

Keep the answers coming folks, getting some outside perspective on his problem seems to already be calming my "itching to learn" nerves.
posted by Homo economicus at 12:39 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: Autodidactery is a process, not a checklist.

Why are you an econ major? Do you really truly love crunching numbers, designing or running models, figuring out how wheat harvest failures in the 1850s affected emigration from France, or figuring out new ways to support developing economies? Are you there because you want an MBA or a JD down the road and someone told you that econ was a decent way to get there?

You've got far too much input and not enough synthesis at this point. I'd recommend stopping the extracurricular learning for a couple of months and letting it percolate at the back of your brain; it sounds like you're bringing in so much information at a rapid pace that you likely can't figure out what to do with it all. [N.B. this is not generally a conscious process upon which you can set deadlines.]

I'd posit that you also don't have enough social interaction with other humans, with whom you might discuss these things and learn more than you can grasp on your own. Almost everything you're reading was first developed in conversation before it was codified and bound and put into a library.

I was once very much like you. I missed out on a lot while I was racing through the Western canon, particularly the opportunity to chew over what I was reading in the company of other people fascinated by the same ideas. I still have some of that same impulse to learn everything, but it's honed itself over time. Process, not arbitrary deadline.
posted by catlet at 12:39 PM on February 16, 2011

Wait, are you blowing off classwork to listen to lectures you aren't even interested in? Don't do that. There are reasons to divert your attention from your studies to other projects, but if you aren't even enjoying what you're slacking off to do? That doesn't even make sense.

The broad reason why a liberal education was invented is so that rich young European gentlemen could have cultural cachet and their own secret language that the plebes couldn't understand. The broad reason why a liberal education is still around is that it offers people of all classes, ages, and genders a chance to understand, explore, and enjoy our 10,000 years or so of human cultural heritage. Most people who are really into "the" humanities aren't into ALL of the humanities. You don't have to be equally conversant in history AND art AND music AND literature. Does any of the "humanities" actually excite and interest you? If so, focus on that one. And do your homework.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:42 PM on February 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

- I could be mistaken, but this looks like a very Euro-centric education at a glance. It also looks like you're focusing on learning based on what you think you 'ought' to be learning, which is based on lists made by other people. Take a break from The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar for the next month and branch out. Make your own lists. Spend time at the library. Figure out what you want to learn; that's important and there are just as many thoughtful, interesting books written on those topics. Read the books suggested in bibliographies of books you particularly enjoyed. Request books if they aren't available - librarians are helpful by definition, and they might be a particularly awesome resource for you. Ask your favorite professors for book recommendations. Read new books in other languages. French is a colonial language - there might be more useful alternatives unless you really like French or live somewhere French-speaking. Consider Manarin, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, or Arabic.

- You sound like you might be smart enough that you might not need to be in school. Take a year off if you need to. Work somewhere where you'll be getting paid to learn something you'd like to learn (examples could include being a bike mechanic, carpenter, glass blower, small-scale farmer, or interning with an economics-related company) I waited to go to school until I needed the degree because I wanted to work at places that required a degree or years of skills. An alternative to a degree would have been to focus on a skill or skills, stick to that field, and do really well. In some cases not having a degree is limiting, in others, it isn't. If you decide to stick with school, focus on doing well while you're there. You can do this without letting it own you.

- I'm sure you know, but just in case: do not get yourself into debt. It isn't worth it.

- And don't worry; you'll be ok.
posted by aniola at 12:43 PM on February 16, 2011

I come from a working class family and often feel like I missed out on many educational experiences in my childhood that I'm now making up for.

The extracurricular education you are receiving will probably be of use to you, even if it's not immediately apparent. Athena may have sprung forth, fully armed, from the head of Zeus, but there's no reason to expect that of yourself.

I did what you're doing in my college career, but realized it was not possible to fill every perceived gap in my learning because (at least in the United States) our system of education is not set up that way. My philosophy degree was a joy to pursue, as was my classics minor. Neither have landed me a job, per se, but both have been immensely useful professionally nonetheless. My interest in classical music helped finance my education, btw, since Tower Records had a real need for people who had knowledge in that area.

You might do well to consider what it is that you want to do with your life. You may or may not make a lot of money, but you will be happier. Maybe the appeal of the liberal education is an indication that you're not doing what you want to do with your life.
posted by Hylas at 1:24 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: I'm learning about things that I don't have a huge interest in, such as art and classical music, just because I feel like I should.

Not to take away from some of the more encouraging advice like Sara C.'s, but that last part is a red flag. The fact that you feel like you're supposed to have certain knowledge in order to be sufficiently cultured is not a very good reason for pursuing a hobby. The point of a hobby is that you don't have to do it; you do it because you want to.

Self-education can be great, but no one -- not even the most supposedly brilliant polymath -- has time in their finite lives to learn even all the basics about every field within Western civilization (and even Western civilization, of course, is just part of the whole world). They might feel like they do, but do they actually have a deep knowledge of, say, classical music or philosophy?

For instance, I do have a deep knowledge of some aspects of those particular topics -- but not of all composers or all philosophers. More to the point, I haven't had the time and/or the passion to become deeply familiar with poetry or novels or science. There's a trade-off: I focus on certain topics like those because I'm passionate about them. If anyone was hoping I'd become equally familiar with great poetry (which I respect but have never found exciting), they're just going to have to be disappointed.

The chances that you're ever going to get a pop quiz on Beethoven at a cocktail party or job interview are negligible. I happen to find Beethoven exciting, emotional, fascinating -- and that's why I listen to his music and read about his life. The fact that he's universally recognized to be part of the "Western canon" is nice, but that can't be my main motivation to spend the time it takes to listen to his 9 symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, and 17 string quartets. If you find Beethoven boring, you have my permission to ignore him. On the off chance that you ever do get that pop quiz and fail it miserably, you could always have a self-deprecating laugh at your own expense (ah, I should have known that the "dun-dun-dun-duhhhhhh" is from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony).
posted by John Cohen at 1:27 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Within economics, depending on your school, there may also be the opportunity to do some economics history classes, which can tie some of this liberal-arts learning to what you're doing for school (e.g., you might look at Dickens's take on the Industrial Revolution with a perspective that an English major would never be able to have). That might help you feel more like this work is better integrated into your college education, and at least start to the procrastination part of the problem.

Also seconding John Cohen's point. I have an advanced degree in English - I've taught English at the college level - and I haven't read everything I feel like I "should" have read. I'm pretty good at faking it at cocktail parties, though, and it turns out - to be honest - that that's a lot of what most people do. Follow what you're really interested in, whether or not it's the Adlerian canon, and learn how to think critically about it (which econ can help with, or not, depending on where you're studying). You'd be surprised what a well-rounded education you'll get out of that in the end.
posted by mishaps at 2:06 PM on February 16, 2011

The Liberal Education ideal is ruining my life.

No, it's a great ideal.

You're binging on it, though. And therefore it's making you sick, not nourishing you.

Be more patient. Listening to great lectures about topics of general interest is an awesome thing to do with your spare time. As is going for a walk or chatting with friends or watching TV or reading a magazine or knitting a sweater.

But your job right now is your university studies (plus whatever day jobs for money you might have). Being a fully rounded Renaissance person also includes being a pragmatic, goal-focused person.

I am the last person to suggest that arcane knowledge of any kind is useless (HELLO I SPENT YEARS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL READING LATIN AND PROVENCAL LITERATURE!) but focus is key.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:11 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nobody has told you to get therapy yet? What is this site that looks just like Ask Metafilter and yet so clearly is not??

Srsly though, this bit jumps out at me:

I'm learning about things that I don't have a huge interest in, such as art and classical music, just because I feel like I should. I’m neglecting my university studies to either listen to these lectures, read non-school books, or in attempting to learn French (with plans to learn other languages after.) And when I’m not learning, I’m stressing out about all the stuff that I could be learning.

If you find yourself spending a lot of time doing things that don't benefit you, and that you don't enjoy, simply because you feel you have to and experience anxiety when you aren't doing them, I think potentially you could benefit from a visit to the campus counseling center.
posted by phoenixy at 2:44 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The humanities are great for discovering the width and breadth of the human experience. They're also great for humility: there is no limit to the endeavor. You will forever be in ignorance of vast swaths of history, art, culture, language, literature, philosophy--everything. Even if you master a certain domain that gives you cachet within a certain sphere, there are other domains and other spheres, and you will never master them all.

This is like, a big deal. You should spend some time reflecting on the fact that your life will never be finished, and so approaching knowledge as though it were a collection that could be completed is fundamentally flawed. While you're at it, contemplate death, too, since they are related notions and probably the two biggest big-picture ideas that you need to have a personal grasp on in order to live your life the way you want to live it. Not an answer, mind you. But an acknowledgment that those limits exist, and that you have spent and will continue to spend mental energy untangling what they mean for you in particular.

If you haven't considered the ramifications of those two ideas, you're not living your life. You're living someone else's idea of what your life should be, and you'll probably regret it at some point.

There's a great freedom in the humility you get from those two ideas because it means that failure isn't an option, it's mandatory. Don't fear it. Like the line from a TV show I just saw the other night, if your heart is broken many times it means you have loved many times. And that's a good thing--the love, and the heartbreak. They go together.

I would urge you to pursue your interests, whatever they are. And don't mistake your pastimes for interests. Just because you read doesn't mean you have to be a writer or critic. Just because you watch movies doesn't mean you need to steal some film equipment and max out your credit cards to make a shitty short film for the indie circuit. Once you know what you're interested in, you can make it a part of your life. And because your life is finite and short, and the world is vast and complicated, it will be a vital part of your life until you die or grow bored of it.

Another thought: experience is a vital part of knowledge. Armchair philosophers/explorers/historians/etc. are derided with reason. Sometimes the insult is simply anti-intellectualism, but the truth behind it is that experience cannot be replaced by book knowledge, nor book knowledge by experience. You can learn different things about human nature from being a bartender in two or three different cities over the course of four years than you can from getting a psych or sociology major. The inverse is also true. Both sets of knowledge combined create a more powerful tool, and a richer life. So while you can (which means now), experience as many things as possible. Limit hard drugs, sure. You don't do anyone any good as a meth head. But get a job at the porn shop, or cleaning houses, or doing research for someone. Couch surf somewhere. Try to hitchhike to the next town over and see if you can do it.

The life experience and the book knowledge will feed off each other. Don't pursue one exclusively. And spend some effort on things. If you're passively listening to 40 hours of lectures each week, you're not really learning. You're probably not really even listening. Synthesizing ideas and creating real understanding is hard work.
posted by jsturgill at 2:53 PM on February 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, and phoenixy has a point. It sounds like you're sabatoging yourself for some reason, and therapy would probably actually help you a lot.
posted by jsturgill at 2:56 PM on February 16, 2011

You're "procrastinating" on your university studies because you don't value them (relatively speaking). Simple as that. In comparison, you value your lectures, non-school books, and language learning more. Again, very simple. Everyone is highly organized and discipline in whatever areas of life or knowledge that they value, and relatively unorganized and chaotic in whatever they don't value.

My advice is simply don't try to sweep this situation under the rug or change yourself. This is a huge opportunity.

All those things you listed that you like/would like to do? That particular combination? That is unique to you, and thus it is valuable.

If I were you, knowing what I know, I would switch majors and study something more suited to me (Like, French, perhaps). That will free you up. Otherwise you're probably constantly going to feel like "this pursuit of mine, liberal education, is an obsession that I'm using to procrastinate from my real 'job' which is studying economics. Damn it, what's wrong with me!" The truth is you're not procrastinating, you're tending toward doing exactly what you really want to be doing and .

Now, in regards to your inferiority complex, money problems, and neuroticism... the great news is that when you start wholeheartedly working on things that you value, your self-worth and your confidence go up. From there, you'll be confident, you can do anything. But, again, don't do this "side pursuit" business... that will make your self-worth go down until you hate yourself, because you're going to be pursuing your true interests with a sense of guilt AND you'll be doing relatively poorly in your "real job" because you're just not as interested in it.
posted by Theloupgarou at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: Hylas: The extracurricular education you are receiving will probably be of use to you, even if it's not immediately apparent.

The best defense of knowledge for knowledge's sake I've heard (courtesy of MeFite GenjiandProust) was this aphorism coined by an SF fan named Jerry Kaufman: "The more you know, the more jokes you get."

That is, don't take it so seriously. The great thing about liberal education is how enjoyable all* of it is. If you're not enjoying, say, classical music, there's no harm in putting it aside and checking it out later. There's a lot of art, film, music and literature I didn't enjoy the first time around but then later, coming back to it, loved.

Seriously, the more you learn about history, literature, art, philosophy and so on, the more jokes you'll get. Monty Python routines that went over my head as a teen now have me laughing just thinking about them. Same goes for most of my favorite comedians.

* Okay most... yes, I'm looking at you, Wagner.
posted by Kattullus at 3:56 PM on February 16, 2011

Best answer: Even if you master a certain domain that gives you cachet within a certain sphere, there are other domains and other spheres, and you will never master them all.

This is a really good point.

In a lot of ways, OP, I got the education you feel you were denied. And then I held out and decided to get the full liberal arts experience in college rather than majoring in "something practical". I worked in museums and bookstores, and now I have a career that requires me to constantly pick up arcane knowledge. I was a fricking Jeopardy! contestant, for chrissakes.

And yet, I emerged from all that not knowing fuck all about a lot of things.

Aside from a course each in high school and college, I have read very little literature outside the English language (even in translation).

I know only the most basic rudiments on the subjects of architecture, music, and philosophy.

My science education, having pretty much ended in 10th grade, is embarrassing. Math? I can reliably do my taxes and calculate a tip. That's all.

Even after years of study, my foreign language abilities are pretty much nonexistent.

I have only the most basic knowledge of Asian history, culture, and religions. Everything I know about Africa, I learned from Hotel Rwanda and a couple of Chinua Achebe novels. South America? Fuck, I have been to South America and I still don't know shit about that continent. I have a date with an Israeli guy next week and I'm pretty sure I'm going to shove my foot so far down my throat he won't be able to kiss me even if he still wants to.

People name drop China Mieville, and I'm all, "where's that?"

I could not explain what The Pentagon Papers were if you held a gun to my head, even though I've seen All The President's Men.

But I try to cut myself some slack. I'm only 29, after all. Looking at life expectancies, I'm probably a third of the way into my life. I'm pretty sure I'm going to have plenty of time to learn about all that stuff before I die. And even then, there will be stuff that I don't even know I don't know right now, which I will go to the grave not comprehending.
posted by Sara C. at 4:26 PM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, also, remember that you'll never approach learning a measurable percentage of all that's worth knowing. I find that a freeing thought, personally.
posted by Kattullus at 4:34 PM on February 16, 2011

It's great to learn! There is a near-infinite amount of stuff to be learned, too, so you won't run out.

But - right now you (or someone) are paying tons of money to be in a place where experts teach you things in an organized way, and you can go to them for advice and help when you run into trouble with problem sets or papers or other skill-development exercises, and you have lots of classmates who are engaging with the same intellectual challenges you are. And in college you're learning the skills to be able to extract more value from stuff you read later - in college you have the chance to get in-person, hands-on practice at reading and analyzing complex texts, and this makes you better at reading on your own. You have the chance to get feedback from experts on how you develop and present your own ideas in papers, which will make you better at organizing your thoughts about those great books when you read them. Etc.

Take advantage of these wonderful things during the very short time you are there!

You will be able to listen to audiobooks later, but you won't be able to go back and re-do your college coursework. You won't be able to drop by the professor's office hours, or get into discussions with other students in your courses who are reading the same stuff you are.

If your courses don't grab you, shop around and sit in on others and see if you can find ones that are better. Take an introduction to reading poetry, introduction to English literature survey class. Take a philosophy class. Take intro to art history (or just attend the lectures, which are often very large so nobody will notice). Ask other students which profs are really great at your school and try to go take classes from them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:21 PM on February 16, 2011

I come from a working class family and often feel like I missed out on many educational experiences in my childhood that I'm now making up for.

My background is slightly complicated, but I can still relate to this feeling. So many people I knew in college seemed to have been taking violin lessons since they were three and/or had gone to private elementary schools where they'd starting learning French in first or second grade. They sometimes complained about these things in a completely casual way. I would have loved to learn how to play a classical instrument, but I didn't even know it was an option until college when it was a bit late to join the school orchestra.

Do you think this sort of thing could be part of where your panic is coming from though, in terms of feeling like you have to learn French and you have to learn how to play an instrument? Is part of the problem--part of why you're feeling so swamped--because you're actually trying to get educated about both middle-class American culture and the great works of Western Civilization at the same time?

It may not be clear from the outside, but those are actually two fairly distinct fields of knowledge. Is it possible that you're sort of panicked about being ignorant about the middle class and conflating that with being ignorant about Western Civ? I've taken a lot of Latin, but I generally feel most like an ignorant, working-class kid when I do things like ask a group of my friends who Ira Glass is (NPR dude, apparently) or am forced to admit I have no idea what arugula tastes like because I've only come across it once in my entire life.

AskMeFi is a useful tool--if you read it periodically--for filling in gaps in your cultural knowledge. You might take a look at this MeFi question too. Also, have you ever heard of the blog Stuff White People Like? I now have a lot of friends who are amused by that blog simply because they see in it a self-parody, but there was a point in time when I used it as a straight-up anthropological resource.

You also seem like you're not super aware of the resources available to you on campus, which is another feeling I can relate to. There are times when I felt at least like there was secret rule book that all of the kids from the middle class got that just passed me by. Do you have an adviser or some kind of adult at school that you could talk to? A professor you like? Is there a school counselor? If you can find real life adults to talk to at school, and say to them, "I'm from a non-academic/working class family [are you one of the first people in your family to go to college?] and I need some help getting oriented here," people will be willing to help you. But you've got to ask.

I suggest talking to someone real though, because going to college and then trying to teach yourself everything on your own sounds exactly like the sort of backwards mistake I would have made, simply because I didn't understand the system well enough. Or, in other words: you're at a university, which means that there are hundreds of people there devoted solely to teaching you things. If you want to learn French, don't try to teach it to yourself. It's much harder that way. Sign up for French 101 next semester. This might also calm you down a bit, because trying to learn stuff on your own--even with recorded lectures--is vastly harder than learning it from a teacher, and since you have no direct compatriots it can make you think you're a lot more backwards than you really are.

Anyway, this became terribly long. I hope it comes across in the tone that it is meant: primarily as sympathetic suggestions from someone who has been--possibly--in your shoes. And I say from experience that the best thing you can do for yourself right now is start talking to the adults at your school and asking them for help.
posted by colfax at 11:14 PM on February 16, 2011

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