I’ve seen this term tossed around a couple of times, especially in relation to Rush Limbaugh, who barely made it out of high school, and flunked out after one year in college. I know it’s not a logical argument to deride Limbaugh because he doesn’t have a college degree; it’s an elitist argument. But I think the time has come to reveal to one and all: I’m undereducated.
I made it out of high school easily enough. In fact, I probably spent less than 20 hours in four years actually studying. If I was in the room where the lecture took place, I absorbed it, and could regurgitate the information as needed (mostly, I already knew the information anyway). But I was very lazy about doing homework, and a look at the grade book would show a series of zeros for homework, interspersed with 100 percent scores on the tests. It didn’t do anything for my class rank; I was solidly in the middle of my group of 160.
College (the first time) was definitely a waste of time. I’d qualified for a minor scholarship just by showing up and taking a test (and making up the answers). I probably could have earned a lot more, if I had the gumption to bother; there was a “National Math Test” my sophomore year where our school’s winner went on to a full ride at MIT. He was a senior, and I tied his score (oh yes, quite a few dropped jaws during that award assembly).
But I showed up at the local state university, and quickly learned that no one cared if I showed up for class. Certainly I didn’t; class was boring, and I had other interests to pursue (tail). I, like Limbaugh, flunked out after one year.
One of the features of my high school years was that my family owned the local daily newspaper (and a few county weeklies nearby). I started working in the darkroom when I was 15 on Saturdays, and within a year I was also working early mornings, doing sports writing and editing, and eventually filling the city editor (the one who decides what stories go in, where they go, and who gets sent to cover stories) position part-time. I was not a natural writer; my first story published had three consecutive words that I recognized after the editor rewrote it. But I learned quickly, and it never occurred to me that it was unusual for a 16-year old kid to be giving assignments to staff more than twice my age, or to carefully (and with much unhappiness) unteach the college journalism interns what they thought they knew, and replace it with what they needed to know.
So, I could have continued on at the newspaper, fat, dumb and happy. One event made that impossible; my older brother returned from his time in the wilderness (managing a grocery store, doing some ranch work, doing a bit of pro rodeo). He was ready to settle down and get serious, and it quickly became clear that he and I couldn’t work together. Quirks of my personality that others tolerated drove him up the wall, and one of us had to go, and well, he was ready to settle and get serious.
So I headed out into the wilderness myself. First, I did some time as a roughneck in the oilfields. Oil was booming in the late 1970s, and there was plenty of work even if you knew nothing about drilling rigs. Unfortunately, drilling rigs are very dangerous devices that can quickly injure or kill the unwary, and I was just unwary enough to be in maximum danger.
The Air Force recruiting office was open, and I thought I fancied myself a pilot. Not having a four-year degree lowered my expectations, and after some testing I was enlisted with plans to go to language school to learn Russian after basic training. The Russian didn’t take (I really didn’t study hard enough) so I was shuffled off to weather school instead, which was a subject that interested me enough that I paid attention, and soon I was off to RAF Fairfield in Gloustershire, my first duty station.
My Air Force mini-career was undistinguished. I did my job well, very well, in fact, but I didn’t have the right personality to be a great airman. I knew I’d be getting out after my six-year term. I decided to take college classes in the meantime, but that didn’t work. See, a really smart guy would have chosen a non-thinking job like the motor pool, where they’d let you work overnights forever, and you could take classes during the day. If you were on day shifts, there were night classes. If you were pulling 72-hour rotations in the missile fields or on the alert pad, there were special classes just for you.
But if you are working three-on, two-off rotating shifts (and often enough, two-on, two-off 12-hour shifts), then you constantly have to beg your fellows to trade shifts or at least come in and cover you for a couple of hours so you can get to class. I was also tired; I thought it was the rotating shifts screwing with my circadian rhythms (it wasn’t). I got in a few lower level classes, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.
Along the way I met and married a local girl, and we agreed I would go to college full-time upon my discharge. I did, and for the first 18 months I burned through the lower-level courses for engineering and computer science. There was one oddity; anytime I had an afternoon class, I did badly; I blamed it on poorly ventilated rooms.
Then my wife lost her job, and she decided to go back to school full-time. That meant I needed to start bringing home more money, and I wound up working about 60 hours a week. My grades collapsed, and I was out of college once more, with about two-thirds of my degree finished. I continued to work in whatever jobs I could find. Fargo-Moorhead, with two large universities and a distinguished private college, was chock full of underemployed people, and a bachelor’s degree was considered a basic requirement for a receptionist’s job. If you had no degree, you did blue-collar work. That’s what I did, to keep food on the table.
But in one of my jobs, I was having real difficulty doing anything that required me to work on a computer. No matter how much coffee I drank, I was so drowsy I was useless. Someone suggested to me a possible diagnosis: sleep apnea, a condition where the person stops breathing many times during the night, followed by a gasping restart. With sleep apnea, the person never gets any deep sleep. So I scheduled the sleep study, and did it.
The result was that I didn’t have sleep apnea. I wasn’t narcoleptic, either; but that was a matter of technical definition. I was just very sleepy, all the time, no matter how much sleep I got the night before. What’s more, it was congenital and idiopathic; it had been with me all of my life. That certainly explained a lot.
The great thing was, there was a pill for it; Ritalin. Just enough (5 mg) to cancel out the drowsiness, it was like my brain was laser-powered. I could think clearly, concentrate easily, and didn’t yawn my way through meetings.
Unfortunately, there are also some side effects. Some consider them minor, but I disliked them enough that I’ve gone off Ritalin several times, and gone back to work that lets me keep on my feet. I enjoy that kind of work, even though it pays less than other jobs. But I’m getting older and creakier, and my body will tolerate less and less of the battering.
So, I’m going to go back on the Ritalin, and I’ll probably be soon helming a desk and a computer. This time around, I’ll probably hook up with one of the local colleges, and finish up my bachelor’s degree; math sounds like it would be fun. I’d also like to do some graduate study in economics. Money is an odd concept, and very few people really understand it. I would like to understand it better. And did I mention languages? Irish, and Scots Gaelic for comparison. My wife has a lifelong love of German, and it would be nice to give her someone to talk with. Latin, just to impress the toffs.
And then I shall be less undereducated.