Sunday, January 2, 2011

Higher education

John's finished his first semester of his masters' degree. The whole time he's been working on it, I admit to being a little bit jealous. Sure, he's busy and stressed out. But he gets to learn all this neat stuff!

I really miss studying. I liked college a lot. Just lots of learning, all the time! Other people wondered why I got such good grades while appearing so relaxed -- I must not be studying at all! But in fact, I was studying, I just mostly studied for fun. Except for a few short deadlines and some core classes I hated, I found it relaxing to study.

Yes, part of me would really like to go back to school and get some kind of higher degree. But I've dismissed the idea for a long time because I have no idea what I'd study. I'm an English major, but I have no real desire to get a masters in English. Then there are the classics, where I know I excel, but ... what would I do with that? Teach? I already teach -- there is nothing a masters could teach me that I would use with these high school kids, who have trouble remembering the difference between a declension and a conjugation. And although it would be nice to get back to reading Greek, I can't really justify spending all that money just for that -- especially when I could brush up on my own and get a lot better than I am now without spending a cent.

So every time John brought up the idea of me getting a higher degree (which he often does, mainly because he thinks I am smart -- even though he's married to me, I still feel proud that he thinks so) I generally dismissed it. But lately, getting so into nutrition and health, and occasionally being beaten down or even having my comments deleted because I don't have "credentials" to say anything about health ... it's been getting me thinking. Biology was my favorite subject for several years, particularly in junior high when I took advanced high school biology, with some additions from my mom's college textbook. When I got to high school and found out what passed for biology there, I was so disappointed! I had been hoping to learn so much more. The workings of the human body, particularly on the molecular level, are just fascinating to me.

And yet, if people ask me my credentials, "junior high biology and a lot of independent study" just doesn't cut it for anyone. I have a liberal arts degree; no help there! Unfortunately people do trust credentials a lot, and so (particularly in comboxes, where I admit I hang out a lot) the objection "Are you a doctor? Are you a nutritionist? Are you a chemist?" comes up all the time. The implication is that you can't possibly have anything to add to the discussion, or any objection to the establishment ideas, unless you have a degree. If you haven't got the education, people assume that you just "read it all online" and therefore don't know what you're talking about.

Personally, I've always been an autodidact (self-teacher) and I know how to sort good sources from bad when I'm researching. All the same, it isn't just the degree that I'd like. I would also like to learn a lot more about the human body works.

For example, I read an article lately questioning whether viruses are really the cause of disease, or whether they are simply a side effect of disease -- being, as they are, simply bundles of DNA in little packets which replicate using a cell's own mechanisms. Could they be created by the cells on purpose? Who knows? I suspect not, but unfortunately don't know quite enough science to address it. Sure, I know what science teaches about viruses -- but I don't know what mechanisms were first used to discover all we know about them. What's the proof? I haven't studied far enough.

But it is mostly the degree. I am tired of people who buck the establishment in various ways -- real food, primal living, natural childbirth, declining vaccines -- being sidelined and treated like they can't possibly know what's good for them, just because they don't have a degree. Does it take a degree to change the way you eat and notice that you feel better? Yet our society can't give the slightest bit of advice on diet, exercise, or childcare without saying, "Before doing anything, ever, consult your physician." Let me tell you, my doctor does not care if I start doing sit-ups or not. The internet told me to "ask a doctor" about the excruciating back pain I experienced during pregnancy. I asked my ob/gyn, who said, "Oh, that's just a normal symptom, I can't help you with that. Ask your mom." Really?

I guess I'd just like to be able to say, authoritatively, "I know how the body works, and so I know this or that course of action is not dangerous just because your doctor doesn't recommend it. I also know it could be good for you for these reasons."

At first I was thinking it would be nice to study nutrition. Fairly easy degree (fewer years compared to, say, medicine), and nutrition is very interesting to me. But John pointed out that my curriculum would be completely determined by the ADA (American Dietetic Association), which I totally and utterly can't stand. Its recommendations, like the food pyramid, are based way more on who's got the money than on science. What science they have is being discredited all the time, and yet they hold on for dear life to their old notions. No, the ADA is not my friend, and John, having had to deal with a few kooky notions the American Library Association keeps pushing, advised me that I would have a lot of trouble dealing with a curriculum that taught the opposite of what I think. I mean, what would I really learn from it, if I didn't trust the teachers?

Medicine itself, though, is beyond me. Do you know how many years it takes to become a doctor? And after that, to get enough experience to practice on your own? Besides the fact that I don't actually want to be a doctor. That's a very demanding profession, and I already have one of those. Not to mention I disagree with the medical establishment almost as much as the nutritional establishment. Doctors seem unfamiliar sometimes with the workings of the human body when it's healthy -- their expertise is treating disease. So when it comes to how to help a healthy baby or what diet or exercise to recommend, they're operating outside their expertise and their advice varies a lot.

So I've settled on biology itself. I want to learn about the healthy human body. Molecular biology and biochemistry are particular areas of interest. I want to know how medications work, and what factors can affect cellular metabolism. Stuff like that. But I also want to study digestion, and, of course, reproduction and birth.

How much biology to study is another question. I would have to start over entirely, because my English degree is no good at all where science is concerned. A bachelor's degree? Do I have it in me to get a masters? I am pretty sure I do not have it in me to get a doctorate -- I know enough grad students to be intimidated by that idea. Writing a dissertation sounds fun, but not the rest of it. Probably I would eventually write a book or two, whether I got a doctorate or not.

Most likely, I will just take what biology classes I can, when the occasion arises, and see how far I go. Money is an issue, after all, and I don't have a career plan involving biology. Luckily John's dream of becoming an academic librarian may open doors for me -- many universities offer a certain number of free credits for families of staff.

What do you all think? Is it crazy to think of getting a degree "just for fun," because I'm interested in the subject and like studying it? Or, worse still, to get people to listen to me? Do you think biology is the right field for me?


Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Sheila! I didn't read this post of yours until today, which is why my comment comes so late.

So it seems that another thing we have in common is the desire to get a degree "just for fun"! =P I don't think it's crazy at all, but I'm surrounded by people who can't see the point in it because I can't tell them "what I'm going to use it for." The only one who understands is an independently wealthy friend who has--ahem!--two Masters degrees and a few credits shy of a third. She stopped after a very serious career counselor asked her, "Are you just collecting them or are you planning to get a PhD someday?" In other words: "Is this a hobby or part of a plan?" Gone are the days when "school" and "leisure" were practically the same thing!

Anyway, no, I wouldn't recommend getting a degree just so people will listen to you, although I understand your frustration. (One of the bullying physician stories you linked to featured a nurse who began, "If you knew how vaccines worked--" and the mother who cut her off with, "Actually, I do. My husband is a molecular biologist." Ah, mind muscle!) But your interest in biology, health and nutrition has been apparent for a while: maybe this really is the beginning of something big for you.

PS--I had to grin at your paragraph about John vs. the ALA and you vs. the ADA. I, too, once had to deal with a curriculum that taught the opposite of what I did . . . not that I did much "dealing" as I ended up dropping out in disgust. Colleges of Education are intellectual cesspools, I tell you.

Sheila said...

Ah, yes, there's definitely a reason I never went on to study Education, even though I'm a teacher.

If only the money were there to collect degrees, just for fun ... but, on the other hand, I hope that someday there's at least a little money there for it. Or free classes. Or something. Certainly this dreamed-of biology degree is not happening now, but perhaps someday ...

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