Monday, May 15, 2006

O! Grad school: reflections on a $40,000 symbolic step

Sunday morning I was announced before about 6,000 people, and I crossed a stage in a funny gown and shook the hand of a man I'd never seen before. We shared a faux significant moment; the camera flashed. I stepped offstage and received a stainless steel business card tote, a token of affection from the only university established by an act of Congress: American University.

The back of the tote read "Made in China."

Grad school graduation carries none of the emotional significance of high school or college. The ceremony was good enough; the speaker, Washington Post Co. CEO Donald Graham, told a few rousing anecdotes, self-deprecated to a pleasant degree, and sent us off with a memorable message: at some point in your life, draft yourself into some scenario beyond your comfort zone. Peace Corps, Teach for America, cooking meth in a drug-free zone, etc.

The process of higher education has seemed a sort of filling in the gaps, which one could just as well achieve by going out and getting the right job, or a library card. Now these aren't easy to do, but neither is paying back $40,000 in federal student aid. Compared to sitting 20 months of 8-hour Saturdays in a classroom, I think I'd prefer the experiential/experimental route. The only benefit of the academic route is the fixed gestation period. And I'm done now.

I reckon I learned about $5-10,000 worth in grad school that I couldn't have taught myself. The balance of the tuition was paid to have an institution lord over me, sort of like joining the Reebok club to get in shape. But strangely enough, the degree does validate me in a way that only a certified piece of paper can. I'm a master of the arts. If I'd gotten my degree in the universe, I'd be He-Man.

An academic degree is a symbolic thing, carrying a different flavor of clout than, say, an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or being shot seven times. Having now achieved that degree, I feel a mix of genuine accomplishment and unapplied, book-larned wisdom. I feel different; I feel... sexier. Now I'm out validate myself based on the 40 grand I doled out to the university. Now I'm out to get shot seven times.

Below you'll find the symbolic achievement of my symbolic degree: the short film that validates my graduate education according to the standards of the institution. In a way, this film cost me 40 grand. If you really enjoy it, PayPal 40 grand to chillrob at, and I'll know it was worth it.

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