Lucy Mangan

"I am so jealous of my friend going to uni"

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My friend Jo has gone to university at the age of 36.

She is reading English. I am so jealous I want to hit her with a hardback copy of Paradise Lost when I see her. She doesn’t know this.

It’s the copy of Paradise Lost that I took to university and which has remained untouched since. Its pristine state stands in mute testament to the forces behind my violent envy – namely that going to university at the age we customarily do is a terrible, borderline criminal, waste of time.

Oh, the waste! When I look back on my 19-to-22-year-old self (I gap-yeared but spent it working on the switchboard of the local GP’s surgery instead of travelling…Why go all the way to Delhi to experience amoebic dysentery when you can do it vicariously via patients eager to describe their symptoms over the phone?), rocketing mindlessly between libraries, lecture halls and pubs like a demented pinball, I could weep.

I couldn’t have been less prepared for university – any university, but it was aggravated by the fact that it was Cambridge (I’m fairly sure I got in because I ticked two diversity boxes, what with both my state education and my lady-parts. Not sure whether the latter counted towards gender equality or their disability quota, but no matter, I guess – the net result was the same).

Suddenly I went from a place where we struggled through the set syllabus, three to a book (I still find it easiest to read at a 45° angle) to a place where people had ‘read around’ a subject and seemed to have absorbed general knowledge – dates of naval battles and the names of kings, queens and prime ministers – through the hallowed stones of their public schools (and which most of the monarchs and ministers had probably passed through).

I was, entirely unexpectedly, desperately homesick and spent the first six weeks in tears. I was bewildered by the lectures and utterly out of my depth in every single way. I was far too young and far too stupid in all sorts of ways to get anything like what I should have got out of it. Grants of any kind were long gone, so it still wasn’t cheap but thank God I didn’t have to spend £9,000 a year finding out how little a person could learn for just under 30 grand.

I was far too young and far too stupid to get anything like what I should have out of university

Your social life is what makes up for this at the time, naturally, but looking back, was it really the best way to spend three years?

No. No it wasn’t. How much better it would have been to do what Jo is doing now – wanting to learn and wringing every last ounce of opportunity out of it. And still going out and getting bladdered with her new friends, albeit only a couple of times a week rather than twice a day.

Once you come into your late twenties/early thirties and gain some perspective on your education (or lack thereof), a new and admirable impulse to self-improvement and the broadening of horizons is frequently born. It might not be academic – my sister, who spends all day fixing computers and building databases, spends her evenings silversmithing and learning stained glass window wizardry (I’ve had a very nice pair of earrings out of the former, so far, though the Gothic-arched nativity triptych I ordered to brighten up the downstairs loo seems to be taking a little longer), but it fulfils a need in a growing number of us.

Aside from all the arts and crafts stuff I’d like to do (and for which I have displayed no discernible talent in my entire life), I’d like to find someone, somewhere who could help me tie together such fragments of historical knowledge as I have – gleaned mostly from Blackadder and Philippa Gregory novels – and give me some semblance of a picture of why the world is as it is today. I’m still too scared to go back and try again, though – which is absurd. But at least when you’re young, the fear of failure is less. Maybe that’s why the system sends us there so early. Still, the benefits of choosing, as a fully sentient adult, what, where and when to learn must surely outweigh this emotional baggage?

Once I have curbed the desire to beat her with epic poetry, I’ll check with Jo. She’s been doing nothing but read for two terms. She must be clever enough to know by now.

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Picture credit: Getty Images