Student Dysphoria, and a Previous Life's War

There was a brief, beautiful moment from 2014, the first year of my life (that I feel comfortable admitting to), until mid-2016—a year-and-a-half long moment when I didn't have to fight a desperate and obviously hopeless ideological war of survival against a Society that's trying to kill me.

(Technically, trying to impose the use of gerrymandered concepts that raise the message length of my existence in social reality, which is the same thing as lowering the probability that social reality assigns to my existence. Like I said, trying to kill me.)

Peacetime was amazing. I was so happy—not ecstatic, but happy in the ordinary way of moral patient, someone whose life is valuable simply in the experience of living of it, rather than for its effects on some grand Cause. I wrote a chess engine; I gave money to charity; I drank pumpkin spice and played that tower defense game where the bad ponies are the good ponies and the good ponies are the bad ponies.

That carefree selfishness is gone now, subordinated to the war effort. And so soon after the last war, too.

The first shots of the last war came on 29 November 2007. I was a schoolstudent at the University in Santa Cruz. Coming into that quarter, I had been excited to take the famous "Introduction to Feminisms" course, only to find, as the quarter wore on, that it seemed to be taught in a dialect of English that I could not speak. The texts and the professor kept describing features of Society as oppression as if simply to condemn them. I agreed with the condemnation, of course, but I could not understand it as knowledge and could not produce such sentences in my own voice; I wanted an explanation of how the oppression worked.

My subsequent difficulty in writing the required papers for that course weighed heavily on my soul. The failure to live up to expectations would have been shameful for any course, but as a male squandering the privilege of being allowed to take "Introduction to Feminisms", it was simply unbearable. Unable to reach the prescribed wordcount for the final paper, I had a hysterical nervous breakdown at the end of the quarter, crying and screaming for hours, "I betrayed them; I betrayed them." (The professor and the T.A., who were kind and deserved better than to have to teach a male who couldn't write.)

Ironically, in the inferno of shame over having betrayed my mandate to the University, my attitude towards school flipped practically overnight. I had never been the most diligent student, but I had mostly accepted the duty of getting an "education": I didn't always do my homework, but when I didn't, I at least felt guilty about it. But suddenly, the difference between schooling-as-education and actual learning became distinct. I had always been a voracious reader; for years, I had been filling little pocket notebooks with my own thoughts—clearly, school itself couldn't take credit for everything I knew. I took a leave of absence from the University and went back to my (previously, "summer") job at the supermarket, with the intention of being an explicit autodidact. I had always learned from books "in passing", in my "free time", but now I would give it the full force of my legitimate effort—it wasn't "leisure" anymore; it was my actual work.

And not just reading, either. I remembered enjoying the linear algebra class I took in winter quarter freshman year at the University, although the course had gone slowly, such that a year and a half after it was over, I found I didn't recall what an eigenvalue was, although I had retained mastery of taking the reduced row echelon form of a matrix. But what did it matter that the "course" was "over", if I didn't know? So I got out the textbook (Bretcher, 3rd edition) and set to work ...

This was fine, for a while. I learned from my books, and—there was a dignity to working at the supermarket. It was boring, to be sure, but at least I had some function other than simply to obey a designated authority. You can tell when a customer's latte is too foamy, or the coinmag on checkstand 1 needs to be swapped out, on its own terms, and not because the teacher said so.

But making $9.40 an hour at the supermarket indefinitely (and paying a nominal rent to live with my mom) didn't seem like an acceptable destiny for someone of my social class. It was assumed that at some point, I would have to figure out how to get a grown-up job (although my colleagues who had been at the supermarket for 20 years probably wouldn't approve of me calling it that).

Somehow, this seemed more of a daunting problem than learning linear algebra. To make a dumb story short (I tried career college briefly on the theory that they could just teach me job-stuff without them fraudulently claiming credit for my education, then found that horrible and traumatizing for the same reasons as regular school and quit, then thought I could study for the same certifications on my own, then took a differential equations class at community college just for fun and to prove that my math self-study measured up to standards—and did poorly, leaving me devastated and feeling obligated to finish my degree after all in order to prove that I could), I eventually ended up back in college again, at community college, and then San Francisco State, my father not willing to pay for me to go back to the University in Santa Cruz again.

Now that I had a higher form of existence to contrast it with, going back to school was awful. I hated the social role of "student" and the whole diseased culture of institutional servitude. I despised the way everyone, including and especially the other "students", talked about their lives and the world in terms of classes and teachers and degrees and grades, rather than talking about the subject matter. I wanted it to be normal for boasts of achievement to take the form of "I proved this theorem and thereby attained deep insight into the true structure of mathematical reality", rather than "I got an 'A' on the test."

(Where, sure, it makes sense to take a test occasionally in order to verify that one isn't self-deceiving about the depth of one's insight into the true structure of mathematical reality, or in order to provide some amount of third-party-legible evidence about the depth of one's insight into the true structure of mathematical reality—but the test score itself isn't the point.)

I hated the fact that, if it weren't for my desperate efforts to start intellectual conversations with anyone and everyone, people would assume I was one of them. Being perceived that way by Society hurt. I was frequently moved to rage or tears just getting through the day in that dehumanizing environment. (The supermarket didn't feel like slumming; community college absolutely did.)

That part of my life is behind me now—not because I won my ideological war against institutionalized schooling, but because I escaped to a different world where that war is no longer relevant. My autodidactic romance had already included some amount of computer programming, and taking a 9-week web development bootcamp leveled up my skills and self-confidence far enough for me to easily find a well-paying software development job. (As with the supermarket, the code bootcamp didn't feel dysfunctional and oppressive in the way that school did, precisely because no one cares if you graduated from code bootcamp; it was very clear that the focus was on acquiring skill at the craft, rather than obeying the dictates of an Authority.) So I went on to live happily—if not ever after, then at least for a brief, beautiful moment from 2014 to mid-2016.

But that was just my good fortune. There are others who weren't so lucky, who are still suffering in mind-slavery under Authority in the world of schools I left behind ...

We could imagine someone sympathetic to my plight in school deciding that my problem was a psychological condition called "student dysphoria"—discomfort with one's assigned social role of student. We could imagine a whole political movement to help sufferers of student dysphoria by renaming everything: instead of a "student", I could be a "research associate", instead of taking "classes", I could attend "research seminars"—all while the substance of my daily working conditions and social expectations remained the same.

I don't think this would be helping me. When I was angry about being in school, it wasn't because of the word "student"—it was because I wanted more autonomy and I wanted more respect for my intellectual initiative. Changing the words without granting me the autonomy and respect I craved wouldn't be solving my actual problem. It would probably make things worse by sabotaging the concepts and language I needed to articulate what my problem was. My pain and suffering was no less real for being "merely" game-theoretic (looking to the reactions of others), rather than some intrinsic organic condition to be accommodated.

Likewise, being a "student" would have been fine in a world where students got more autonomy—a world where there was a collective understanding that courses are a supplement or pragmatically useful guidepost to one's studies, rather than course grades being the whole thing. I'm happy to learn from the masters: that's what textbooks are. I wasn't delusional about doing particularly novel original research; I just wanted recognition for the real intellectual work I was doing under my own power.

Asking whether student dysphoria is a real or fake condition would be the wrong question. The pain of not being seen by Society the way you want to be seen is unquestionably real—but because it's real, it can only be addressed by addressing its real causes: the mismatches between how I see my self, how Society sees me, and what I actually am. If I think Society has me all wrong, I might engage in a desperate and obviously hopeless ideological war to prove it—but to actually prove it, not to coerce Society into humoring me. If Society isn't buying my vision, that terrible reality is something I need to track.

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