In the United States, there is still a subtle stigma about attending college at an untraditional, older age. Tell someone you’re in college as an undergraduate in your mid-twenties and older and a quick flicker flashes in their eyes, or sometimes an eyebrow raises briefly, or a low murmur hums out before they manage to suppress any further actions. I find that a shame since so many of the teenagers and young adults I often talk with have no clue what they want to do or be for their rest of their lives. Even some firmly into their major(s) are unsure of what they want to do after they walk across their graduation stage. Part of that is the rocky economy that Millennials and Generation Z navigate, but some of that is because life is still sorting itself into the correct puzzle pieces of their lives. But what if we focused on life and educational transformation and learning instead of herding young adults off a cliff of debt and fear and uncertainty?
I didn’t know I wanted to become a lawyer until I was thirty-two years old, after a decade of working at one organization. I didn’t actually start my undergraduate degree work until thirty-four, and I’m now a junior in college at thirty-six. The truth was I didn’t know how to adult in all the ways you’re supposed to know how to adult. I don’t mean knowing things like cooking, cleaning or paying bills, things people without interfering disabilities need to know how to do as adults, but I didn’t know how to map out my entire life the day after I graduated high school. I didn’t know how to pick one career and make it my life’s mission the second I held my diploma, nor how to waltz into college three months later ready to lay the groundwork down for the next forty-five years.
But what if we took seriously what Foucault said when he stated, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning”? Certainly, what Foucault expresses here is not limited to formal education. One can settle into transformation at any stage and anywhere in their lives. They can adopt a personal motto to strive towards looking at their socialization and environment and working towards becoming a better and more complete person. Formal education does have its role though. What if we focused on creating an environment where people were able to take time to discover who they are and where their happiness and strengths lie? What if we made accessibility to exploring the world and different ways of existing through work and careers something people could easily do?
Foucault’s logic by itself does not pay the bills. Only a select few will ever have the luxury of tailoring their life and work into a positive transformative experience for themselves, and even those who love and choose their career will not always “become someone else that you were not in the beginning” from secondary, formal education. For even when people manage to pick a road to travel early, they may find that the industry has become over saturated or the need for it has disappeared with the advancement of technology or changing cultural attitudes. They may also discover they dislike the work, or that they are unable to do the work necessary for the field.
And this is when people throw out a clichéd response of naming celebrities who didn’t publish a book until forty years old, or another who didn’t start acting until fifty, or someone that didn’t start their professional fitness journey until seventy-five. Of course, those stories are inspiring and important. I’ve found solace in them myself, but we shouldn’t need those stories to allow people to find their way. We should support those who know from the moment they discover the
play kitchen as a child that they want to be a chef to the person who quits the job they hate and goes on to become a successful mechanic at eighty. Youth does hold its own merit. Meandering for decades will not always produce the doctors, inventors, politicians, and lawyers we may want or need. We’re probably not going to have a lot of forty year old Olympic-level gymnasts in world competitions for several reasons, but it would be nice to also allow people to enrich their lives without the burden of knowing how to do so perfectly immediately after high school.
There is the point that higher education is still a luxury for some. We still live in a world where millions of people can’t obtain education because of assigned gender, poverty, war, or other unstable conditions. We also, unfortunately, still have a wide-variety of factors that can contribute to mortality at a young age. Those are all things we need to address, but for places where secondary education is a possibility, we must start to think seriously of the impact that taking Foucault seriously would mean.
When talking about his vision through education, we can’t just talk about how nice it would be, but how it would operate in action. There are needs that older students have that often aren’t easily met through traditional schooling. There are often fewer scholarships. This can be frustrating, especially in the United States, where student loans take even traditionally aged students a lifetime to pay back. Childcare and scheduling that works for commuting learners are often difficult to arrange. Education for older students is sometimes harder in general, a punishment for not picking their perfect career at a younger age. For Foucault’s words to become part of our lives in any meaningful way, we have to build a society and encourage a culture that fosters the opportunity for people to work towards transformation at any age, including educational transformation.