On Education and Ambition

A warning before you start reading: this is a very long, horribly self-indulgent whinge which I began writing when I was feeling upset and emotional. After a talk with a good friend, and an evening off worrying about work, I am feeling a lot better – but I still wanted to finish it. Since only about half a dozen people read my blog anyway, I don’t feel remotely guilty for writing an essay-length post as catharsis. Please don’t feel guilty about choosing not to read it. I don’t particularly want sympathy or suggestions or commisserations, I just wanted to get it out of my system before getting back on the horse and carrying on as usual.




A couple of days ago I was chatting to two of the girls in my year, one of whom I haven’t really spent a whole lot of time with – we aren’t doing the same optional subjects and we’re not in the same groups for the compulsory ones.

So when we started talking on the way back from lectures it was the first time we’d really had a conversation. I can’t remember how the subject came up but somehow we got onto discussing that I am planning on becoming a midwife, and that I’m hoping to start volunteering at the hospital. I also mentioned that I tutor, and she already knew I’m a choral scholar.

I’ve become very, very used to the sorts of questions  I get from people who find out for the first time that I’m not living the conventional “Law student at Cambridge” life:

Why are you doing law if you don’t want to be a lawyer?
How do you have time to do your work when you do so many other things?
Why don’t you give up choir if it takes up so much time?
Why do you have a job?

I do understand where these questions are coming from, I honestly do. All the degrees here are demanding but subjects like law in particular require a lot of self-discipline and independent study. The students who want to be lawyers have to devote a huge amount of time to applications for vacation schemes, schmoozing law firms, doing work experience placements, and of course studying very hard because you have to get at least a high 2:i to stand a chance of getting a training contract.

So I realise that when I tell people that choir takes up ten hours of my week (at least), tutoring about four, and that volunteering will take another three, with possibly two more for speech therapy, it sounds like a horrific amount of time to be taking out of work. There’s this pervading belief that you have to work for at least 10 hours a day and if you don’t then there’s no way you could possibly succeed at your degree, or your life in general.

It remains to be seen how my exams will turn out – we have just taken a mock in two papers so the results from those will be a good indicator – but my reports have said that I was working at a 2:i/2:ii level this term. That’s an improvement on first year, and I put in quite a lot of time revising over the vacation so it should go up. But whatever grade I come out of this degree with, and I can’t see it being below a 2:ii unless something goes badly wrong, I will not have wasted my time here. I go to additional lectures on things that sound interesting. I visit museums and art galleries, and exhibitions in the library. I plan for the future and give myself extra commitments to juggle because they’re necessary to achieve what I want to achieve.

I didn’t really get to explain to her, and I doubt it would have done any good anyway. I live my life in the way I do because almost 21 years of experience has led me to a particular set of priorities, beliefs and ambitions. You can’t communicate a life in ten minutes and she wasn’t really interested anyway – she just wanted to let me know that she thought I was wrong.

I don’t think I am wrong, but that’s beside the point really. A good friend came by this evening and I decompressed a little, telling her what had happened and how I felt about it. She told me something that I found very true – that when people get offensive about your life choices, it’s because they are feeling defensive about their own.

I hope that I don’t make people feel as though their decisions are under attack when they find out about mine. Honestly, I don’t think I’m doing anything all that unusual. My friends who study english talk about going weeks without lectures, about writing essays drunk, about spending exam term of first year punting on the Cam and drinking Pimms for breakfast. Even at Cambridge there is no law that says you have to spend your entire time in the library and cannot think about anything else.

So in answer to your questions, all you people who have asked (none of whom will be reading this, but I needed to write it):

Why am I studying law? Because I used to be am passionate about it. I find it interesting. Because I want to be more educated. Because I enjoy being taught how to reason, how to think, how to read and argue and reference. Because I had a bit of a crush on my A-level law teacher. They are (almost) all perfectly good reasons for choosing a degree. I have never heard anyone be asked to justify taking a maths degree.

How do I have time to do my work? I actually don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t mean that I don’t know how I have time – I mean that I don’t know why people think I wouldn’t have. I would truly love to know exactly how much time other students spend genuinely working, and not just sitting with a textbook while they chat on facebook and watch iPlayer. I doubt it’s more than five hours in a day, I really do.

I study most effectively in the mornings, and I can get a good three hours of solid work done before lunch without taking a break. In the afternoon my attention span is a little shorter and I generally can’t manage more than two hours without a change of scene. After about 8pm I don’t feel I’m achieving anything at all by sitting over my books. When the situation is critical – I have another fifteen cases to read by the next morning, for example – I will stay up late and burn through the work but I am always aware that my notes are getting more and more like copies of the textbook, the information passing from eyes to hand without taking root in my brain. Five hours a day of solid, efficient, fully engaged reading is better than ten hours of exhausted, switched-off copying. I’m not saying that everyone else is getting it wrong. I’m just saying that I have found what works best for me. And I’ve acknowledged that it involves getting as far away from the internet as I possibly can, and getting enough sleep.

Why don’t I give up choir? Well sure, why doesn’t everyone give up everything they enjoy? We’d all have acres more spare time. To fill with… what? More work? See above. Singing keeps me sane. Services keep me centred. Routine keeps me efficient. Being part of a group gives me friends and a social life.

Why do I have a job? This one is pretty ironic if you consider the stereotype of the broke, starving student living off baked beans and working a part-time job to pay their rent. My friend, another lawyer at a different university, works 20 hours a week and also volunteers. At any normal university, the question would be “why DON’T you have a job?”. I have a job because it gives me financial security. I could manage without it, but it gives me a buffer. It allows me to go out for dinner with my friends, or buy new clothes. At the end of each month I put whatever I haven’t spent into my savings account, where it is slowly turning into a buffer for an uncertain post-graduation future.

I would like to turn those questions around. I would like to ask “why am I forced to study subjects I have no interest in and cannot understand, purely because they are necessary to qualify as a lawyer?”. Certainly they should be offered as part of the course. Certainly people should be encouraged to take them. I disliked two of my first year papers but I’m glad I was made to take them because they gave me a base level of knowledge. I can’t feel as glad about not being trusted to choose my own areas of interest when I reach my third year.

I’d like to know why we’re expected to do at least twice as much work as other students, in not a lot more than half of the time. The friend I mentioned earlier told me he does about an hour of reading for each seminar (the equivalent of our supervisions). I do fifteen, and I’m reliably informed that it isn’t enough. A ten-week term would still be unusually short, but it would not be as pressured. That is assuming they didn’t just increase the workload by 25% as well.

I’d like to understand why people think it is any of their business what I choose to do with my time. How can it be more acceptable to spend ten hours a week in getting dressed up, pre-drinking, clubbing, post-drinking and recovering from a hangover than to spend ten hours a week in a choir? I don’t try to stop people from going out (although I would very much like to stop them from waking me up when they come back in). I sometimes go out too, although not to clubs because I can’t cope with them. Everyone has different ways of relaxing, and mine happens to be singing.

And the job question. Good grief, the job question. Why is it that people think it is irresponsible of me to earn my own money? Part of what led to this conversation in the first place was some kind of comment from me about putting my stuff into storage during the summer, or possibly about going to America. I don’t even remember but it prompted her to ask (in what frankly sounded like a judgmental, suspicious tone) why I wasn’t going back to my parents. I tried to sound reasonable and sane while I explained, but it’s difficult to sound reasonable and sane to someone who believes that you have to be mad to make different choices to them. I wonder what would happen if she met someone who didn’t have parents to live with? I know of at least one person in our year who doesn’t. The fact that not everyone comes from a happy fairyland nuclear family wonderfest with parents who would like nothing more than three months with their adult offspring lounging around, unable to get a job because there aren’t any, shouldn’t be a surprise to someone in their late teens, but it seems that it is – I will never forget the shock on the face of the ex-Etonian when I told him that I had worked in Sainsbury’s throughout my A2 year. He had never met anyone with a part-time job before.

This weird world that I live in sometimes brings me up short. I can’t quite see how I’ve got here. I’m increasingly certain that there’s something badly wrong with formal education. I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how Cambridge-centric my degree is (at first I was impressed that all my textbooks were written by my lecturers. Now I’m frustrated at having to read internet blogs like The Cake of Custom to find other perspectives). I’m increasingly anxious to get out into the real world and live like a normal person who doesn’t have to share a sink with fifteen other people who can’t seem to remove the congealed food they just washed into the plug hole. How exactly have I ended up at an elite university, studying a very academic subject, under rigid and frankly incomprehensible regulations that mean I have to email all my supervisors each term to find out exactly when we’re next meeting (why, in the name of all that is holy, does term start on a Tuesday whilst lecture weeks start on a Thursday whilst supervision weeks start on a Monday?), with a life-plan that will involve at least four more years as an undergraduate?

It’s days like today that make me wish I had fallen pregnant at sixteen and moved into a council house. I don’t need a law degree to be a mother, and  I don’t desperately want to be anything else.

Apologies if you have made it through to the end of what has been my longest post ever by a significant margin. I’m not angry or upset any more, but I am still a bit bemused and I expect I’ll stay this way for many years to come. Somehow I’ve turned into a person who doesn’t quite fit into the society she’s landed in. Not quite a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation, but certainly not a hand-in-a-glove situation. I’ll just continue to compromise some and fight some, and remember that no matter how miserable I might feel when I’m 30 pages into the first 60-page chapter of three, I’m still very lucky to be here.

One thought on “On Education and Ambition

  1. “I have never heard anyone be asked to justify taking a maths degree.”

    I had to justify it quite a few times, I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or not.

    For what it’s worth, I think that having a passion for something – anything – outside of academia is a great thing because it means you’re actually an interesting person. I’ve seen someone struggling to get jobs (with a 1st in Maths) where putting on their CV they’d been involved in lighting Fame at the ADC suddenly resulted in 3 offers.

    I got a 2:ii and managed to make it work for me – as have plenty of others I know. For most people getting to Cambridge, top grades are everything; it’s once you get out into the real world that you realise there’s far more to life than academic achievement.

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