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October 10, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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We are Here to Drink Beer

There was a time when everything was simple. The sun was out everyday. There was glue and popsicle sticks on every table—it was impossible to figure out exactly what they were for, but someone had the revolutionary idea to turn them into stick figures.

Some benevolent overlord would cut apples into quarters and dispense them equally to everyone. Despite her peculiar obsession with the alphabet, she would always clean us up when defiled by the tyranny of our own bladders. When we were not dressed as tiny pirates, frequent and proud public nudity was acceptable. Life was but a vain quest to discover China at the bottom of the sandpit, hands smeared with honey and green paint in equal measure. Do you remember kindergarten?

And primary school! Bare feet and low-hanging branches to be conquered. Nudity was no longer acceptable—lesson learnt that time we were too lazy to do our fly up, and that day we abandoned our shorts on the back field. Freedom was in peril. But Coke was only a dollar a can, and the lollies were but five cents a pop.

The journey through childhood was a carefree one. Incrementally new freedoms crept into our life—we could walk to school, we could stay over at Jacinta’s—but always, they were conditioned by new responsibilities. While walking to school we had to stay clear of the friendly stranger in the fetching trenchcoat, and it was no longer acceptable for someone our age to go to Auntie Sarah’s wedding dressed as Batman—despite the eternal need for justice to be done.

At the time we could not conceive of how little responsibility we bore. We could not know how these times fitted into our lives—whether they were Good or Bad. We had no point of reference; this was all we knew. Now we reflect on those times with a reverence for the long and lazy afternoons, wistful for the time before assignments and jobs. We wish we realised at the time just how good we had it. It is only with the passing of years that we realise the unique nature of those days; clarity is borne of time.

And now we are at university. The next step. Some of you will be coming to the end of your first year, others on the cusp of graduation, and the rest of us are lost somewhere in between. But why, exactly, are we here? University costs money. It steals your time. It’s hard. As another year draws to a close, we ought take stock of all that has been and gone to try and explain to ourselves what the fuck is going on. There are many answers.

Those of a somewhat clinical bent will tell you that your degree is an investment. You, as a rational actor, have assessed the increase in your earning potential as a result of becoming qualified, and weighed this against the cost of tuition. Obviously, if you are here, that analysis lead you to enrol. Similarly, the government has attempted to measure how much it is worth for the community to have you educated and has subsidised you accordingly. You want to further your prospects and university is the tool by which you do that. This is all true—to some extent at least. But university is not, and never has been, purely a means to an end. This doesn’t adequately explain what we are doing here.
Others will tell you that university, and what it represents, is the goal in itself. This is the answer of unconditioned idealism. The pursuit of knowledge is what furthers us each as individuals; it is what sets us apart as human beings. University is that sacred place in which knowledge, and the pursuit thereof, is worshipped. The library is a temple; the professors disciples of truth. There are things that only university can teach us, that we cannot learn from travelling the world or through a nin- to-five shift, week-in week-out. We come to university to be a part of this: to gain knowledge and be exposed to new ideas, sharing our own in return. We are here to unlearn our superstitions and prejudices, and to liberate ourselves from ignorance. We are here to contribute to the most noble of ideas. But experience tells us that this is frankly not the way things are, no matter how much we hope it to be true.

These two narratives have been endlessly litigated. Here we are not going to revisit that enquiry. Both have elements of validity, but to promote one to the exclusion of the other is reductive. There’s another way to reflect on why we are here at university. It’s one that isn’t often described well in the glossy undergraduate prospectus we picked up at open day. University is about more than just what is learnt or experienced in lectures or tutorials. It’s the cumulative experience. It’s about this time in your life. As a young person. At university. Right now.

It’s the freedom. It’s simple but odd; we can do whatever we want. At first one cannot appreciate the enormity of it. At first, the new freedom is feeling sly while drinking cask wine in your hall room past 10pm. The new freedom seems to be never doing any work. It’s waking up at 4am to peer into your neighbour’s window just for kicks because mum’s not enforcing her silly rules anymore. It’s deciding that you really like spaghetti so, from now on, you will eat nothing else. But, it takes a while to find where the real liberty is at. It is not that what we do has changed dramatically—it doesn’t matter so much whether we have actually exercised these freedoms—but it is the very fact that, suddenly, we know no master but ourselves. Except for the motherfucking po-lice.

But freedom brings its own burdens.

It’s the responsibility. While our freedom is ours only, so too are our failures. Every day of university adds weight to the student loan, ever-growing and ever-hungry. “Feed me”, it cries, embarrassed by its size, alone in the dark. And still we have to pay that rent. Worst of all—unlike the primary school years—Coke now costs $1.90 a can, and lollies are forty dollars a pop. Further, lecturers don’t really care about you. No one is going to chase you up for dropping a grade or for forgetting an assignment; they don’t care. They’ll just fail you. And then you cry. And mum’s not there anymore. There’s also no one to tell you when to stop. Because sometimes you take your freedom that little bit too far. It’s that time you have to fork out fifty dollars for a rug doctor after the neighbour has one too many shandies. It’s when you have to go sober for a week because you had to pay off a mysterious internet bill, brought about by virtue of your flatmate’s (read: flatmates’) incessant porn habit. Or, it’s when you can’t return home for a week because the house has been decreed unsafe after you decided to do some ‘minor’ renovations.

It’s the people. They come in many different varieties. Fucking hipsters. Fucking library-rats. Fucking douchebros. Fucking greenies. Fucking student politicians. Fucking wannabe-journalists. Vitriol aside, the oft-touted value of diversity is in all respects true. You meet, and in some cases learn to love, people that you would never have selected to dance with at the school disco. Perhaps the communists aren’t all that unkempt (lie), and the libertarians aren’t all old white men (lie again). The right way of doing things changes, and that’s for the best. Without reference, we can’t know the true quality of our own way of life. And perhaps you’ll suddenly feel compelled to buy a Che Guevara t-shirt, start calling your acquaintances comrades and stop wearing shoes—they’re oppressive, man.

And while diversity is rad and all, university also provides the chance to find people who are fundamentally the same as us. You like dressing as a 17th-century duke? That wasn’t okay before university, but now there’s a whole collective of people who share in your depraved fetish. And who would have thought that other living things actually enjoy the subtle melodies of Aphex Twin’s back catalogue? There are also others who have read the abridged version of Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra just like you have—and they’re just as much of a wanker as you. While you used to have to be real underground to appreciate Bansky, everyone at university owns a spray-can and has an uncanny nous for cutting socio-political critique. No longer do you have to continue hiding your peculiar bohemian habits from the clutches of the backwater agrarian community from which you originate.

Most of all, it’s the experiences. Squinting as the sun rises while you’re still up writing a substandard essay on the economics of Buddhist metaphysics. It’s the futile attempt to slink home through the last shadows the following morning, as the sun rises once more, revealing the conspicuous stains on your shoes. It’s finding a glass of milk beneath your bed, concealed there by a ‘friend’ six months prior. And that fucker will always be half-full. It’s feeding five people with a can of budget tomatoes like you’re motherfucking Jesus, but more holy (Luke 9:10-17). It’s the excitement of a new sexual encounter, quickly—very quickly—followed by a deep sense of shame. But it’s a shame that will become a source of mirth by lunchtime. Too bad the rash won’t retreat as quickly.

And then there’s the loneliness. And the corrosive self-doubt. It’s when no one is home but you, it’s three in the morning, and in realising that you should have started writing that essay two weeks ago, you think perhaps you’re not as cut out for all of this as you once thought, not as smart as you had always assumed, and you wonder if maybe the future is not as certain as it once was. But then you stop. You stare out the window, watching the city seethe, and know that—despite all the shit—it was the right choice. You are where you belong.

We are often told that these years are the greatest of our lives. The sad thing about this is not that it is all meant to get worse very soon, but how rarely we appreciate this. The painful truth is that so often we only really appreciate things in retrospect. Perhaps it is impossible to look upon the present with any semblance of clarity. Perhaps it will all just fly on by and it won’t be until twenty years have passed when—suddenly—it will hit us: there was something curious about those days. Or perhaps you were a particularly wise toddler, and knew all along exactly how precious nap time at kindergarten was. But if you weren’t—as we weren’t—don’t let the same become of your years at university. To never pause and realise that university means more than mere words on a certificate and dry facts in your mind would be the greatest tragedy.

There was a time when everything was simple. Afternoons were spent talking shit with friends on the porch. There were cigarette butts on every surface, and it wasn’t quite clear why they hadn’t been cleaned up. You had a lecture in an hour—maybe you would go, maybe you wouldn’t. The government gave you an allowance. And all you had to do in return was write essays and get drunk. Life was but a vain quest for glory in the glossary of a text-book and the last dregs of wine in the bottle. Bukowski said: “We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” This is why we are here.

Do you remember university?

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

Comments (2)

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  1. Alyx says:

    Awesome; looking forward to this on a weekly basis next year.

  2. smackdown says:

    im covered in mud

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