Thursday, August 6, 2009

Choosing a College

The purpose of our trip to California was to tour colleges, as Gregory enters his senior year of high school. We visited USC, Claremont McKenna, and UCLA, giving Gregory and his girlfriend, Sierra, the chance to experience three very different college options: large private university, small liberal arts college, and huge state university. All three sounded amazingly wonderful, according to their admissions representatives and student tour guides, offering a dazzling array of opportunities to their fortunate undergraduates, the elite who survive an admissions process in which only 20 percent of applicants are accepted.

Gregory asked me at one point, “How much difference does it really make to your life, which college you attend?”

I thought about that a bit. The answer is very different for each of my careers. For my philosophy career, it has made a great deal of difference. Because I attended Wellesley as an undergraduate, I was taught by Henry Shue, who has had a long and distinguished career in ethics and political philosophy; he ended up giving me my first philosophy-related job, as editor for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Also because I attended Wellesley, I had the rare good fortune to be able to take classes with the incomparably brilliant Judith Jarvis Thomson at MIT; I’m sure that Prof. Thomson’s recommendation letter for me was a crucial factor in securing my admission to graduate study at Princeton. And because I ultimately earned my Ph.D. at Princeton, I was able to enter a highly competitive academic job market and receive a tenure-track offer from a top-ranked philosophy department, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In my other career, as a children’s book writer, I’d say that the colleges and universities I attended made no difference at all. None whatsoever. Editors accept manuscripts on the strength of the manuscript alone; a bunch of hifalutin’ degrees can’t turn a mediocre story into a riveting one. I noticed when I worked for Four Winds Press/Scholastic, thirty years ago, that almost none of the highly acclaimed authors we published had educational credentials as impressive as mine. But they wrote wonderful books, books that were better than anything I could write, maybe better than anything I’ve even now written. Some children’s book authors nowadays are enrolling in MFA programs at places like Vermont College and Hollins, and their course of study does help them to hone their craft and make career-enhancing connections. But in the end, it’s the story, and only the story, that counts.

I think the biggest way in which my educational background made a difference to my career is that when I dropped out of graduate school at Princeton, halfway through the Ph.D. program (which I ended up then finishing a dozen years later), Princeton was close enough to NYC that I could commute into the city by bus for my job at Four Winds Press, which is where I launched my life as a children’s book writer. Maybe one should choose the college that offers the most promising location for its dropouts to end up doing something else altogether.

So my answer to Gregory is “It depends.” Or maybe, “I don’t know.”

No comments:

Post a Comment