TW: brief mention of suicidal ideation
On twitter today, a well known ex-MP used a fact about someone I know to criticise her and cast aspersions about her intelligence. That fact was that she had quit college (which I believe roughly translates into UK English as more or less the same as “University”). This ex-MP used the fact that she had herself finished a degree (English Language and Literature at Oxford University as it happens) to suggest that she was somehow better, more intelligent, more trustworthy or at least that a piece of paper she had been awarded some twenty years ago made her argument better than that of her opponent who had not completed a degree.
I’m calling bullshit.
I have a degree myself. A 2.1 BA (Hons) in Philosophy from the University of York. I learnt many things from the experience of working for and getting that degree and among them was this:
“Completing college or university is often not an indication of intelligence but of the luck of not getting too ill or being too poor to finish.”
I seriously considered quitting my course on several occasions, notably including in the final weeks of my degree when my mental health was so bad that I genuinely felt it would be easier to just die than to finish the final 6,000 words of essays I had to write. Due to support and understanding from friends and tutors and a very lenient extension of my deadline, I was able to finish my course. Many friends of mine took time out, changed courses or left University entirely. They had good reasons – health problems became too overwhelming for continuation to be sensible, babies were accidentally conceived and needed parenting, funds to live off proved inadequate, aging relatives needed caring for. Some people I know realised after much effort to fit in, that University simply wasn’t for them.
Some of the most intelligent, resourceful people I know don’t have degrees. And shouldn’t need them to prove that they have opinions worth listening to.
I’m currently taking time out of my MA. After two attempts to study it, I’ve got about halfway through. I may yet quit entirely and it’s mainly sheer stubbornness that’s stopped me quitting already. I developed both PTSD and fibromyalgia whilst at University and right now they mean I’m not well enough to continue my studies. I need time to learn how to manage these conditions. My depression is pretty bad and I know I wouldn’t currently be able to cope with the stress of academic deadlines on top of the stress of applying for disability benefits. Maybe I will never finish my MA.
Maybe I will have to be strong and brave enough to know when to quit.
I know I am good at Philosophy. I know I can study and I can write and I can think critically. I also know that being good at Philosophy, at studying, thinking and writing, cannot on its own get me that piece of paper that says I am a Master of Arts of Philosophy.
Because I am also being tested on my ability to live a certain lifestyle. My ability to afford to be able to live here, my ability to stay healthy, my ability to get up in the morning and spend hours on my work, my ability to stay social and connected, my ability to drop everything to go to conferences, my ability to stay sane or at least act like it, my ability to not be needed by any children or relatives or partners for care, my ability to cook and clean and feed myself, my ability to magically prevent harassment, bullying, assault, accidents or anything bad happening to me or my family ever, or to quickly recover if things go wrong… I’m being tested on my independence, resilience and sheer luck as well as my academic ability.
And like many people, bad stuff happened to me. Like many people who aren’t heterosexual, white, non-disabled, middle-class, cis men, a lot of that stuff was discrimination I couldn’t have avoided. It’s not fair but this is how it is: a degree also tests for your ability to live whilst studying and for most of us living itself isn’t all that easy and for some of us it’s harder than for others.
So when an ex-MP, who was born into the upper-classes, who was born white and cis and as far as I know is not disabled, uses the fact that she has a degree to suggest that her argument is somehow better than that of someone who didn’t finish one, I want to shout about how degrees test much, much more than just intelligence and knowledge and the test is rigged and unfair from the start and no one should fucking DARE to criticise those people who didn’t get a degree because they were brave and sensible and strong enough to know when they needed to quit.
As a philosopher, I’d also like to point out that an ad hominem attack on one’s opponent’s character (like pointing out someone quit college to cast doubt on their intelligence) is NOT a valid argument against their views and wouldn’t be even if it were the case that degree-having and intelligence or knowledge were as linked as people might think they are. Saying that a person is stupid is not an argument that the view they hold is stupid and if you’re arguing in good faith then you should state your objection to the view not the person.