Friday, May 28, 2010

Useless Education

I have heard many grumblings from students regarding, well, many things, but one complaint that is perpetually recurring is regarding the requirement that they take classes that they “will never need.” Although this view appears to be valid from the student’s perspective (I was once that student), it is only so because of youthful myopia and inexperience. The student usually has neither the vision nor the years to know what he or she will need in the future. To exacerbate this problem, the student also doesn’t know that he or she doesn’t know. When school is approached from the right perspective, when one is in it for the journey and the experience and the excitement of learning something new, it is not an issue. It only becomes a chore when one views it as such.

There is, however, some truth in what they say; there are some classes required that would probably hold no practical purpose later in life. The catch is knowing which classes they might be. I was a math whiz in high school, I was good at it and it was exciting for a while. I never stopped to think about what good it would do me in my later life because I didn’t care, it was fun. I cannot say the same for English or some of the social sciences, but here I am so many years later with a life that is heavily entrenched in just those areas. I knew how to read and write – learned it in grade school - what else did I need to know? Of course, I had no idea what the future held, but I thought I did. Today I rarely use any of the advance math I learned so many years ago and it is pretty clear that those other areas turned out to be anything but a waste of my time.

While I was an undergrad at California State University, Sacramento, I took an optional upper-division class while pursuing my government-journalism degree. Magazine writing was a fill-in class for me. I did not need it to fulfill the requirements for my degree, but I had room in my schedule, it sounded interesting, and… it was fun. I learned the particulars of magazine journalism, but I also learned (or re-learned) some valuable insight about myself. A large part of writing for magazines is that, unless one is actually employed by a magazine, it is largely a freelance endeavor. It involves writing query letters announcing story ideas to magazine editors and then waiting for a response. Freelancers have to be more than just good writers; they have to be good salespeople, we are selling ourselves. And it’s a lot like fishing, a sport I never really had the patience for.

As a full-time form of employment, freelancing can be daunting. Once established, a writer’s name can be all one needs to get regular writing gigs, but even then there is no guarantee. However, as an addition source of income, or in my case as a way to just do what I love for money, freelance magazine writing can be worthwhile. That is, the tools I learned in that magazine writing class – tools I have not used since taking it more than three years ago – are invaluable in the right here, right now. And since it’s not about the money, I can afford to have the patience and wait for a bite.

This summer, some friends and I are taking our Harleys on a 2,000-mile, seven state ride through some of the most magnificent terrain anywhere in the world. There is a story here that might be of interest to several different magazines, but of particular interest to those that cater to motorcyclists – and there are many. In addition to knowing a thing or two about putting words together, I also know my way around a camera and my trusty Canon 30D will definitely be along for the ride. I can offer not only the words, but also the pictures that will tell a story – a story that means more than just machines and scenery and more than just a summertime escape. It’s a story of people, of relationships and of camaraderie. It’s the kind of stuff I like to read and if the content of these magazines is any indication, I am not alone.

So what does this have to do with that magazine writing class? It is not so much about the writing, although there are nuances that are particular to magazine writing. And it’s not so much the personal insight I gained in that freelancing, as employment, is not for me. The class taught me how to go about getting the attention of the various editors and the formalities involved in submitting query letters, a term I knew nothing about prior to taking that class. There are procedures unique to the business and all of the many other journalism classes I took did not touch on these. And I did not know what I did not know.

Fortunately I had experienced an attitudinal shift long before enrolling in that class. School at that point in my life had taken on a much more global perspective. I was there to learn and all learning had become exciting. It still is. I learned that magazine writing was not going to be my bread-and-butter and I guess I surmised that what I learned would probably never be used again. And that was okay. As it turns out, however, there is a use for it after all. It’s not a necessary need – I could certainly go on this ride, take pictures and put it all right here in my blog. But I write for a number of reasons and one of them is to be read - getting a major magazine byline would be pretty nice way to get more readers... and a little money, too.


Man Named Kim said...

when we only pursue what we know, we never learn what we don't know.

i'm an advocate for a good old fashion Liberal Arts education. there is plenty of time to specialize after you've experienced a real sampling of life's lessons.

Snaggle Tooth said...

I'm jealous of your awesome travel, personal get-together odyssey, photo-op, n story op opportunities!
Ton's of folks would want to read that article/articles-

Good gig!

Of course since the "reader feed" thing so few comment now, it's tough to know your audience on blogs these days. So many lurking thru readers.

It's great when stuff we learned does come in handy in a pinch, too!