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I finally watched the lovely film Coda, which won the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture. I enjoyed it fine. I appreciated the celebration of characters (and actors) with hearing impairments along with the exploration of working class life, etc. However. Can we please stop making stories that tell young people lies about college?
I’m talking about the plot point in which the protagonist, Ruby, joins choir on a whim in her senior year, learns two songs, and—prompted by her impossibly charismatic choir teacher—strives for a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. Guess what, spoiler alert: she gets it. Admittedly, her audition performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” makes for a banger of a scene. But two weeks after she learns that pianissimo means “soft,” she’s on her way to a prestigious, extremely competitive music school? And of course, she will now live happily ever after, the conflict between loyalty to her family and her vague dream of singing heartwarmingly resolved.
Give me a break, people.
First of all, let’s get some facts from Berklee’s actual website: “Approximately 40 percent of entering campus students are awarded institutional aid, with an average award covering 40 percent of tuition.” So much for solving Ruby’s financial need. You’ve still got tens of thousands per year to cover, honey. The family fishing business ain’t gonna cut it.
Coda is not the only film guilty of hallowing fairy tale college aspirations. Think of all the movies in which some amazing scholarship becomes the protagonist’s “I want” motivation. The recent series Unorthodox has Esty singing a couple songs (which she hasn’t rehearsed) in an effort to win a “hardship” scholarship to a Berlin conservatory. (To be fair, whether Esty gets the scholarship is left undetermined, but in any case, none of this actually happened to the woman who wrote the original memoir; it was a fictionalized plot point devised for the TV series.) And then of course there’s the sports version of this, where “scouts” appear inexplicably at the big championship game of some small-town nowhere high school, ready to award an athletic scholarship to the endearing young gal or fella who scores the winning point at the last minute, which they always do.
In the High School Musical series alone—which is, admittedly, a silly confection in no way resembling real high school life—Kelsi and Ryan end up going to Juilliard, Taylor goes to Yale, and Gabriella gets into some bizarre freshman honors program at Stanford that begins in the spring of her senior year and absolutely demands that she miss—gasp!—her prom! (Note: there is no such program at actual Stanford.)
It’s a modern day Cinderella trope, isn’t it? The long-suffering, virtuous-and-talented high schooler is visited by a talent agent/scout/special teacher/fairy godperson who provides them with the means to zing through the Dress Ball of Admissions and be whisked off to Handsome Prince University, which of course ensures them a rich and fulfilling future although we remain fuzzy on the details. I will note that the protagonists in question are almost always talented in some performance field—music or athletics. I have yet to see a story in which someone gets a magical nursing or history scholarship.
Anyway, here’s the brutal truth: getting into prestigious schools at all, let alone with any kind of magical scholarship, requires achievement and dedication that runs young people ragged by their senior year, not to mention a huge dose of luck, maybe some good old-fashioned nepotism, and plenty of family money to pay for top high schools and lessons and travel teams and summer workshops and all the other stuff that actually makes one competitive. More realistic is the character Rachel in The Wilds who has sacrificed everything, including her physical and mental health, to become an elite diver—but she peaks, stalls, and gets cut at the last minute. No Stanford scholarship for her. She’s left to pick up the pieces.
So “Collegiate Cinderella” is one lie young people imbibe about college. Let’s move on to another one: the Vocational Soul Mate lie. Let’s say that the savvy young people of today shrewdly recognize the Cinderella stories for the fantasies they are and are quite happy to matriculate at Ordinary University, grateful for any kind of decent education. Well, now they have to battle the pressure to find the perfect major, then the perfect internship, which will then ensure them the perfect career right out of college. It’s another happily-ever-after story, another fairy tale we like to tell. After all, it helps boost admissions.
I’m not saying college degrees shouldn’t have a practical payoff. Research shows that they do. However, I have long complained that we create a narrative in which that payoff comes via a straightforward and efficient process: enter college at one end, pop out the other with all questions answered and a meaningful and lucrative career happily launched.
It’s just not that simple for a lot of students.
I had the privilege of working this past semester with fourteen excellent Calvin University seniors in our English Senior Seminar course. We spent some time reflecting on the topic of vocation, as we are wont to do at Calvin University, and fortunately, these seniors—not without pain and struggle—are smart enough to deconstruct the Vocational Soul Mate fairy tale.
That phrase comes from a 2019 essay we read together by Derek Thompson. Thompson writes from an entirely secular context, positing that Americans have created a religion of what he calls “workism.” For the college-educated, he argues, work has become a religion; we imagine work as a source of “identity, transcendence, and community,” the “centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” After analyzing the economic and philosophical reasons for this, Thompson observes that striving for the perfect dream job, the one always just over the horizon, often results in burnout, disappointment, overwork, and disillusionment. Because what happens if you’re not entirely happy and fulfilled at work, every day? “For today’s workists,” Thompson writes, “anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.”
My students were rather taken with this essay because they recognize a similar dynamic at their Christian college, where “vocation” is heavily freighted with obedience, a high-stakes game frosted over with well-intentioned striving to find God’s will. One student wrote that in a religious context, “vocation becomes a double-edged sword: the outside world is pushing us to identify with our work, and the church is telling us that our work is our God-ordained mission in life.”
Surrounded by a hazy cloud of Vocational Soul Mate aspirations—typically promoted in college admissions discourse, and certainly not just Calvin’s—students struggle to find their way in college. In their written reflections, my seniors recalled letting go of their initial certainty about their major, or discovering through trial and error what they are good at, or struggling to justify their eventual choices to others and themselves (a particular challenge these days for humanities majors). At any rate, nothing was as obvious and straightforward as typical vocation discourse—secular or sacred—made it seem.
So my students “stripped down vocation for parts,” in the words of one of them. They critiqued the assumed privilege and creeping individualism of vocation rhetoric. They insisted they didn’t want their entire life’s path decided at 18 or even 22. They deconstructed poor Frederick Buechner’s famous quote (your deepest passions/joy, the world’s deepest hungers/needs, etc.). They reclaimed the meanderings and missteps they have experienced as valuable parts of the story. They refused to regard their own talents as a “baggage of duty” and realistically assessed the future as “an enigmatic mess.” They determined to rejoice in small pleasures, take their time, give themselves a little slack even while seeking the next step as best they could.
Some of them echoed Calvin’s best rhetoric: that vocation is a lifelong process of discovery, what one student described as “a means of growth and development, rather than an opportunity to demonstrate and flaunt our personal worth and capability.” Some of them simply rejected vocation altogether, opting out of what seems to them an unnecessary and burdensome concept that makes young adulthood harder than it already is.
I wonder if this year’s crop of seniors across the college carries a particularly hard-won, steely-eyed wisdom. These are folks whose four precious college years were screwed up by Covid beginning in spring of their sophomore year. They’ve survived a lot: suddenly online classes, difficult learning conditions (online science labs?), loneliness, friendships never made, friendships lost, extra mental health stresses, so many disappointments from cancellations and lost opportunities. In light of all this, one student wrote: “the way vocation is talked about relies on the assumption that the world is predictable and that we are in control of our own lives. If Covid has taught us anything, I think that it has taught us that this is a very wrong assumption.”
Today I will attend Calvin University’s commencement ceremony, an occasion even more lovely and joyous this year as we emerge from Covid (sort of?) and return to standard commencement day festivities. I’m especially proud of our 2022 seniors. They persisted, endured, and overcame, more or less anyway. I know they’ll carry the scars of these years with them—they’ve told me so.
So as you interact with young people during this tender graduation season, keep in mind that they are exposed to any number of fiction-ready fairy tales and well-intentioned-though-misleading narratives. They probably will, eventually, figure out the truth. Life is complex and unpredictable, and self-knowledge is a lifelong challenge, and fairy godpeople are vanishingly rare and not worth waiting around for although mentors are helpful, and higher education is a privilege as well as a soul-testing process, and even privileged people struggle with obstacles and inner demons, and your life will not always be smooth and efficient, but there are infinite patterns that can make a good life, and there is always hope for companionship and joy along the way.
Wouldn’t it be better if we were simply honest about all this to begin with? Young people deserve that.
Many thanks to my seniors who generously permitted me to quote from their writing.
Image credit: calvin.edu website