The Good, the Bad, and the B.A.: Thoughts on concluding the undergraduate career

“What are your plans for the future?” Ask any third-year undergraduate and idealism spouts forth in torrents: I-banking, grad school, Peace Corps, Teach for America, traveling to Africa to stop the AIDS epidemic–a laundry list of ideas potentially profitable in cash, karma, or knowledge for its own sake (remember, we live the Life of the Mind). Of course, all this must wait until the completion of the BA paper: the ultimate stage in our undergraduate education, the synthesis of four years of learning and backbreaking work, our first original, groundbreaking contribution to humanity’s bank of knowledge for the benefit of all. For the academically inclined it is not a paper, heavens no, but a thesis–a postmodern stew of namedropping and buzzwords, a sure ticket to grad school. Brown’s department of Comparative Literatures is going to eat this up.

One year later, the paper is done. It took a lot of work and it turned out just fine. Certainly not a work of genius, but a decent piece of writing that could fetch a decent grade. For months countless students were engaged in the same small talk. So, how is your BA? Fine. It’s about blah, blah, blah, discourse, Foucault. Winter break came and derailed all progress; writing was put on hold for Christmas shopping and family trips, and the scope of the paper shrank bit by bit. Books on order at the Regenstein for months never showed up, necessitating a change of plans, but these difficulties were never insurmountable.

For some of us, last year’s idealism still burns: admission to Brown is secured, the tickets to Tanzania are in the mail, we have job offers to work sixty hours a week for a modest 70k. For many of the rest of us, things have not turned out quite as we expected. Asked about our plans for the future we say we are “taking a year off”–a more socially acceptable spin on “I have no idea,” but, really, a wise choice.

The last weeks of BA writing come at an unfortunate time. Ironically, the apex of our years living the Life of the Mind really ought to be spent thinking about other things. As the weeks quickly pass and the BA’s due date approaches, it becomes increasingly clear that every hour spent researching and editing is an hour not spent with friends who will soon leave town, not spent finding a decent job, not spent taking honest stock of life. Reality gnashes its gruesome teeth as savings deplete and health insurance becomes a real concern. Farewells with westbound friends now leave me wondering if I will ever see them again. Still the BA remains. I am done with it but it’s not yet finished; a mental block, a load to bear.

Nobody ever tells you that it isn’t so important, but really it’s not. By all means, work hard, get it done, and be damn proud of your work. Get honors, maybe even an award. But for God’s sake, don’t lose any sleep over it. Suffering so is bad for your heart and your head.

Submitting my BA brought a catharsis that opened my eyes upon the past. My vision had been clouded by an institutional piety that holds us all “Uncommon” from the day we apply. Rarely had I pondered whether the values my university had cultivated were really my own. My education has been enjoyable and enlightening, and I have met many brilliant professors, but has it been all that was promised? Many words have I read and forgotten for lack of sleep; many books line my shelves, unread for lack of time. When the pursuit of success falls in life’s way, what is the point?

For all those who feel they must choose between grad school and failure, there is a way out. “Real life” ought not to be avoided, but rather embraced. Live as you please. If the pursuit of love is worth more to you than a fat paycheck, so be it. If you find that the life of the spirit or the body is worth more than the Life of the Mind, choose whichever life suits you.