Deborah Hill Cone: on having an 'academic do-over' in your fifties
3 November 2021
Opinion: Deborah Hill Cone is well known as a journalist. She then took a spiritual journey into the valley of academia ... and survived.
I was really quite deluded. And like all deluded people, I was also deluded about being deluded.
I’d seen other journalists go back to university and become credentialled chin strokers who got to contribute to The Conversation. Their life looked so virtuous. Useful. And cosy. I wanted a bit of that! A kind of buttered-toast fireside respite from horrid late-capitalism hustling.
Was it possible to have an academic do-over, now, aged in my fifties? I didn’t have a great transcript. I was first sent to university aged 16. This was not because I was Doogie Howser. (Sorry, my ancient pop-culture references will mean nothing to a Gen Z cohort.) I wasn’t particularly clever, but I was emo before it was a thing. My worried parents would drop me at the university gate each morning in our Ford Cortina. I went to lectures, ate a pie in the student union on my own, hunched in my op-shop gabardine coat. I got an unexceptional philosophy degree in which I sulkily studied only existentialists and a bit of Husserlian phenomenology.
Would my whole life have been different if I’d bitten the bullet and done logic? In that Sliding Doors reality, I would have been breezy and made money in the property market. Instead, I was still a sucker for what the socialist blogger Fredrik deBoer calls “the cult of smart”, the pervasive modern idea that intelligence is the defining human quality and that academic performance is a shorthand for total human value. Like two bald men arguing over a comb, possibly only thwarted academics like me still subscribe to this view. Regardless, I wanted to have another go.
You are not Marie Kondo filling a mini-skip, you are a trapeze artist: you’ve just let go of one swing but not grasped the other.
Henry Kissinger famously, if unoriginally, stated that the battles in academia are vicious because the stakes are so low. (This is actually called Sayre’s Law.) This makes it sound as though the academy is a gladiatorial bloodbath. I didn’t find it so. On the contrary, the spiritual journey of being at university was more life-changing and satisfying than getting high grades or anything I gleaned from the scholarly literature. It turned out, to succeed in academia, I didn’t need to fight harder to become more clever. Quite the opposite: I had to lose my ego.
The writer Eckhart Tolle, himself a “failed” academic, describes the ego as wanting to be a mountain. He suggests when you’re in a situation where you might feel an urge to assert your knowledge or your opinion about something, to try to be present and attend to the momentum behind that strong urge to express what you know. Trust me, this is hard (especially if you’ve been diagnosed with adult ADHD). It can take a lot of presence to hold back from asserting the “I”. Because when you do, there is an instant of feeling diminished. You feel like a valley, not a mountain. But if you do let go and descend to the valley, there is a deepening, as your former self falls away. This is where you can connect to the truth, beyond your ego.
I thought I knew things, and I did. But what I already understood was an obstacle to the things I needed to understand. This process of letting go of what you know, or think you know, is terrifying. You are not Marie Kondo filling a mini-skip, you are a trapeze artist: you’ve just let go of one swing but not grasped the other.
You are suspended in mid-air; in the abyss. You could plummet to your death.
Was it possible to have an academic do-over, now, aged in my fifties? I didn’t have a great transcript. I was first sent to university aged 16. This was not because I was Doogie Howser.
That’s why you can’t do it on your own. I certainly couldn’t. Lots of people helped me, but there was one particular professor who was just the sort of person who, in the past, I would have labelled “not my tribe”. Maybe she studied logic in her youth. Or was a sergeant major in the marines. Either way, I wouldn’t have dared mention Freud around her.
Yet, it turns out the professor you don’t think you want is the exact professor you need. I had to listen to what she said. I had to stop thinking I knew it all. I had to learn to write in a different way. She took me down to the valley.
In order to become something else, we have to let go of what we were. Including all our comforting delusions. So I’m not sure I still idealise academia as my saviour or a cosy retreat from neoliberalism or the path to social approval.
I may still have delusions, but I find reality is better.
This article appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Ingenio as the guest columnist piece.
About the author: Deborah Hill Cone is a journalist who returned to tertiary study aged 51. She completed two graduate diplomas, then a postgraduate diploma in psychology at the University in 2021. She is embarking on a PhD and is a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Psychology.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and is not necessarily that of the University of Auckland.