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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Educational Choices and Regrets Are Inevitable

There's no policy that can undo human nature.

June 6, 2017

Regrets? I have a few, but then again, not really.

Or do I?

According to a Gallup/Strada Education survey, a slim majority of respondents answered yes to at least one of these questions about their educational experiences. If they had to choose all over again would they?:

Obtain a different degree?

Study a different major?

Attend a different institution?

If you catch me in the right moment, I would answer yes to all three because based on the life I’ve lived, some different choices might’ve helped.

For example, in hindsight, education-wise, I would’ve been better served by choosing a smaller liberal arts oriented college as opposed to the large research university (University of Illinois) I attended. Being something of a path-of-least-resistance type as a young person, I took too much advantage being an anonymous presence in large, impersonal, easy-B classes that were also generally uninspiring.

Smaller classes predicated on instruction oriented around questions and issues of interest might’ve helped me switch to the on position in terms of academics earlier, allowing me to get more out of my undergraduate years.

Though, come to think of it, at a small liberal arts school, I would never have been president of a fraternity with 120 members, a learning experience that has proved very formative.

Major-wise, I sometimes wish that I’d focused on something other than creative writing. I enjoyed the writing courses and they’re obviously directly linked to where I’ve wound up, but I could’ve taken those writing courses while also majoring in something like sociology or psychology, fields that would’ve better prepared me for the career I had post graduate school as a marketing research consultant.

Yeah, but one of my most valuable attributes at the marketing research firm was the ability to bring a different perspective to the work. Unlike my co-workers, I had to learn statistical modeling on the job, but I also had other skills, like being able to recognize that a consumer considering and making a purchase maps on to the classic dramatic structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, and it could be useful to analyze those experiences through this literary lens.

For graduate work, hindsight says I might’ve been better off pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Communication, since that’s a better field for employment than creative writing and it turns out I have a genuine interest in studying the problems of helping students learn how to write.

In that alternate world I might have a tenured faculty position, rather than having reached what looks to be the end of the line of my particular academic path

But for all of the improved security and superior status that such a path could provide, I might not have had the chance to write a bunch of different books, or edit a cultishly popular humor website, or write a blog for a higher education publication.

Had I made different choices of school, major, or degree, I would’ve had a different life, Life 2.0, let’s say.

Let’s imagine Life 2.0 me – the tenured professor of writing studies – is asked the exact same survey questions and he sits and wonders what it would’ve been like if instead of taking the sensible path toward academic employment, he’d instead remembered reading a short story by Andre Dubus called “A Father’s Story,” and was so moved by its magic that he heedlessly gave in to the compulsion to try to achieve something similar one day.

Life 2.0 me might be wishing he’d gotten an MFA in creative writing so he wouldn’t be wondering if he’d ever publish a novel someday.

Life 2.0 me would give the exact same answers as Life 1.0 me. So would Life 3.0 me, I imagine. If the multiverse is real, I bet I’d have regrets in every one of the infinite iterations.

I won’t go so far as to say there is nothing actionable in this kind of study, but our awareness of the effects of hindsight bias should make us cautious about overinterpreting the results.

For example, those with education-related debt express a higher percentage of regrets. But rather than debating whether or not college is “worth it,” how about we cut to the chase and move toward policies where debt is not a factor in regrets because people don’t have it?

If this sort of survey spurs us to be more transparent up front, all to the good, but we also can’t expect to engineer human behavior out of outcomes. Many traditional-age college students go to college with limited knowledge of the world and themselves. Regardless of age, even with perfect information, we make dubious choices.

But let’s be clear on the limits of what institutions could do to change these numbers. Post-collegiate regrets have much more to do with the world the student has graduated into, rather than what they did in college. A world of opportunity and rising wages will go a long way to assuaging any regrets.

Bottom line, I’m skeptical colleges could do much of anything to change these numbers, other than help students graduate with the ambitions, spirits, and skills necessary to change the world into the shape they desire.


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