Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” I stumbled upon that quote in my late teens while in the midst of confusion about my schooling. I’d decided, quite absentmindedly, to study Business Administration in undergraduate rather than Literature or Creative Writing because it seemed, at first glance, to be a more practical and economically sound choice for my future.
This was the 1980s, a time of excess in America. With a Masters in Business Administration a graduate could easily command US $30,000 in an entry level position. By comparison, degrees in Literature or Creative Writing did not appear to be worth the paper on which they were printed.
“What will you do with a degree in Literature?” the adults in my life asked “Teach? Oh, how?! Do you know how much they’re paid? You’d be better off driving a taxi!”
Conversations about creative writing were not much better. I was constantly reminded that less than 2 percent of all writers will ever be legitimately published, that the only way most writers are able to see their work in print is by self-publishing.
So Business Administration it was. I told myself that it wouldn’t be so bad; I’d always been a business-minded person and besides, it’d be a solid foundation to fall back on should I not make it as a creative writer. That logic was flawed. Instead of devoting six—four in undergraduate, two in post-graduate school—years to the establishment of a back-up plan should in case you fail at your primary passion, why not simply devote the entire six years to working hard at whatever it is that holds your passion to ensure success?
Of all the terribly boring courses I had to take, Business Law was the one I enjoyed most. I realise now it was because the cases would have made such interesting plots for novels or short stories. They contained all the elements of good literature.
The case I remember most was Lucy v. Zehmer. Mr. Zehmer owned a farm that his friend, Mr. Lucy wanted to buy. He’d once told Lucy that he’d sell it to him, but then changed his mind. One night, Lucy took Zehmer out and got him sloshed on whiskey. By the end of that night, Zehmer had scribbled a note agreeing to sell the farm to Lucy. He even went home, in his drunken state, and ordered his wife to countersign the note. She was resistant but ultimately heeded her husband’s instructions. When Lucy came to pay the money and complete the deal, Zehmer claimed the agreement was not enforceable because he had been inebriated, not of sound mind. A legal battle ensued. The judge decreed that the agreement was valid and enforceable, that Zehmer was not so drunk as to be unaware of the consequences of his actions.
I was fascinated by the scenario and wanted to know more: what impact did this have on Zehmer’s relationship with his wife? Did it break down the marriage? Did the loss of the farm bankrupt the couple? Was Zehmer ever able to forgive Lucy or did that event effectively terminate their friendship forever? I raised my hand and asked question after question.
“Miss Danquah,” the lecturer finally said, “this is not a Literature course, it’s Business Law.” He meant to be cheeky and the rest of the class laughed, but there was wisdom and insight in his words. I collected my books and walked out of the class. It was too late in the semester to change my degree focus so I simply dropped out of university. It was a hasty decision, one that, much like Zehmer, I took without proper consideration of the consequences.
I spent the next several years underemployed, working odd dead-end jobs. But I used my spare time to do the things in which I’d always found pleasure—I read voraciously and I wrote non-stop, even managing to get a few pieces of work published here and there. I also took workshops and though I didn’t enrol as a fulltime student, when I could afford it, I signed up for individual courses at the university that I found interesting—courses like Art History, Archaeology, African Literature, Speech and Drama.
Education is a constant topic of our national conversation. I often hear people saying how low the quality of education in Ghana has become. Having lectured here, I would be inclined to agree. There were students in my undergraduate level courses that, based on their competence and comprehension, I believe should never have been allowed out of secondary school. Likewise, there were people in my post-graduate courses that would have benefitted from more undergraduate-level education. I’ve met people with degrees who can barely string together a sentence and would certainly not be suitable for corporate employment anywhere outside of this country.
That might be because it appears the emphasis here is more on schooling, on obtaining a degree at any cost, than on education, the acquisition of information and skills necessary for critical thinking. Quiet as it may be kept, that information and those skills can also be found outside of the academic setting—in books, on the Internet, in conversations with other people. If an individual is determined to learn, he or she will learn.
Some of the most successful people in history had little or no formal education: Bill Gates, inventor of Microsoft, dropped out of Harvard after his first year. Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb, never went to school, but was educated at home. The author Charles Dickens was an elementary school dropout. The author, Mark Twain, whose quote I used at the start of this article, also dropped out of elementary school. And, as I revealed earlier, I dropped out of university during my first year.
After my first book was published, I decided that perhaps I should return to university as a degree-seeking student. I took the necessary tests and filled the necessary forms to apply to various institutions. Several of them referred me to their post-graduate admissions office. Based on my test scores, my application essays and my real-world accomplishments, I was given “life experience” credit and exempted from the prerequisite Bachelor’s degree. Thus, I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in Literature and Creative Writing—but no undergraduate degree. Unusual, I know.
Not all of us are intended to walk the same road. Some of us must pave our paths by walking, by taking it upon ourselves to find a way and a means to reach our destination. It is possible to obtain success without formal schooling, but it is next to impossible to do so without education. Instead of wasting time crying in your soup about what you don’t have or were not able to do, focus that energy on finding a way to move past the limitations of your circumstances. Read a book, or two or twenty. Rent or buy tutorial DVDs in the subject of your choice. Go on the Internet and research information that will increase your knowledge. Just educate yourself by any means necessary and available.
And most importantly, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed.
“The View From Here,” a weekly column by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, is published every Friday in the Daily Graphic.
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