My first job right out of college is as surprising to me now as it was then: staff photographer for the Cincinnati Historical Society. Surprising because, even though I basically knew my way around a darkroom, I had never done professional work of any kind before that (unless you count frying mushrooms and potatoes at Kings Island—and I don’t). I applied on a whim, fully expecting that someone more qualified would get the job. To be fair, the staff there knew me; I’d spent a previous summer in their cool, temperature-controlled basement microfilming countless dusty, crumbling editions of a long-dead Glendale newspaper (when I wasn’t napping). But all I really could show for myself in terms of qualifications was a year of photography classes at school. They hired me anyway, and it turned out to be a great first job. I was left to my own devices most days, which meant a lot of time in the darkroom making prints (and napping, of course) with occasional forays outside in the daylight to document Union Terminal’s transmogrification into the Museum Center.
So college was worth it after all. I say this not to be coy (well, OK, just a little). With the cost of higher education skyrocketing in the last 30 years, and student debt a crippling economic issue that Congress seems barely capable of dealing with, numerous voices in the media and blogosphere have questioned what the supreme purpose of college is: advanced learning or job placement? And either way, do we get what we pay for?
Spoiler alert: He eventually went back and got his degree. But the lesson was in the journey, not the destination. After I graduated, I remember telling someone that had I not gone to college and instead spent four years holed up in a library reading the classics and whatever else interested me, I probably would have learned just as much. Clearly, college—and perhaps too many beers—had gone to my head. So much so that I had momentarily convinced myself that I hadn’t really needed it after all. Funny what an education can do to your brain if you’re not careful.