I just finished writing a short essay for an Anthology of Latinas in Higher Education. It was an interesting piece to write as it made me focus on my college years and the fact that often times I feel as if I had forgotten lots of what I learned. I relive this feeling every weekend when I participate in a Spanish book club in Manhattan and I realize that my peers freely quote from all sorts of novels and poems and even though I have read most of them, I can’t.
I used to think that I suffered from some kind of memory loss. It was worrying and also a bit embarrassing to be one of a small handful of writers in the group and to keep quiet at critical parts of the discussion.
Writing the essay forced me to think about what I learned in college during those six years while I worked on my Masters in Philosophy and Literature. (In Argentina, you enter college and graduate with a Masters degree.) Yes, I read more novels than I can count, and I took four years of Latin and ancient Greek; yes I took Linguistics, Semiotics, History of Philosophy, and all those interesting courses you’re supposed to take when you work on a Liberal Arts degree. But if you ask me to sit down and explain the basics of Parmenides theory, I’d be hard press to come up with the answer.
And yet I know that it was during those formative years that I learned how to structure my own thinking and writing and to create layers of meaning. It was thanks to the hundreds of books that I read and the hours spent interpreting them that I developed the ability to translate complex thoughts and topics into simple ideas for large audiences. These are things you don’t go to college for, when in reality they are the main reason why you do. They are almost a side effect of doing all the hard work in school. The Vitamin D you get from being in the sun when the only thing you were after was a good sun tan.
The experience of spending those years exploring my interests was not only critical to shaping my thinking and worldview, my inner voice and reasoning skills; but in addition, it was instrumental in building my confidence. Those years shaped me, they gave legitimacy to my talents, and they opened up a world of opportunities only available to those who are able to express their ideas clearly.
Would I sound smarter during our book club discussions if I remembered my literary periods better? Probably. Would that make me more effective in my chosen career? Very unlikely.
So I made my peace with the fact that, even though on the surface it seems as though I should be good at something I’ve gone to college for (such as literary analysis, for instance), different people learn very different lessons from the same teachers.
The fact that I have some strong memory loss when it comes to remembering the characteristics of a particular literary movement doesn’t mean that I’ve wasted my education. It means that I selectively remember skills I learned which were not even in the syllabus and that to me are far more aligned with my goals and passion.