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College Days 3 min read

College Days

What if you just kept going to school forever?

By Cary Littlejohn

Every now and then, I’ll see something that makes me envious, and I’ll jokingly say “It’s tough to see someone else living out your dream.” It’s usually said with a grin and shoulder shrug, like “Whaddaya gonna do?”

I definitely felt that reading a recent New York Times Magazine story about the man who couldn’t stop going to college.

The lede alone had me hooked:

Benjamin B. Bolger has been to Harvard and Stanford and Yale. He has been to Columbia and Dartmouth and Oxford, and Cambridge, Brandeis and Brown. Over all, Bolger has 14 advanced degrees, plus an associate’s and a bachelor’s. Some of Bolger’s degrees took many years to complete, such as a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Others have required rather less commitment: low-residency M.F.A.s from Ashland University and the University of Tampa, for example.

I’ve been to a lot of school compared to most people, but this is wild. But I say constantly: If money were no object, I’d just go to school forever. And here this guy is, doing it.

His backstory is a compelling one. He had severe dyslexia to the point where his mother read assignments to him into college (from which he graduated at 19 with a 4.0 GPA) and into Yale Law School, where their system simply couldn’t keep up.

It feels comparable to seeing a genius in a particular area, and say “I wish I could do that,” but what we’re really saying is that we want the parts of it that seem appealing. We don’t always consider the ways in which that level of genius (or just singular focus on a particular specialty) makes life difficult, makes socialization seem unnatural. Bolger’s home-schooled existence seems to have produced a great academic and intellectual environment, but a line, tossed off quickly in the piece, states that he only had one friend his age as a child. For as appealing as his intellectual development (and the outside-the-box homeschooling that produced) may seem desirable when I think about the results and his countless degrees, I think about the simple joy of childhood friendships and know that it’s not as simple as just saying “I wish that were my educational experience.” As with everything, there are trade-offs.

He’s clearly a supremely intelligent person to have gotten beyond the learning challenge and admitted into such prestigious schools in the first place. But the author struggles, on the page, with the “why” of Bolger’s pursuits. And it’s truly perplexing when the answer comes back: I love learning. The author comes back to it a few times in the piece, and this quote about what the rest of us who “love learning” do hits home:

One thing Bolger has not seemed to learn over the years is to introspect. Why has he driven himself to this extent — to place himself over and over in the kinds of impractical programs young adults enter to wait out a bad economy or delay the onset of adulthood à la National Lampoon’s Van Wilder? Many of us love learning, too, but we don’t do what Bolger has done; we listen to history podcasts on our commutes or pick our way through long books in the minutes before sleep. Despite all his degrees, Bolger has never sought a tenure-track job — only a few of his degrees would even qualify him for such a position — and he has never really specialized.

The piece goes on to highlight how he’s made a career for himself by coaching kids on how to get into the best colleges in the world. It’s one that makes total sense: If he has expertise in anything, it’s the intricate dance of putting together an application packet.

And that’s worked out well for him. Can’t begrudge him for that.

But I prefer to think about his motivation rather than what his schooling has earned him:

“I believe that people are like trees,” he said. “I hope I am a sequoia. I want to grow for as long as possible and reach toward the highest level of the sky.”