Art by Kris Harper
An “educational guilt” creeps in especially hard when I labor over assignments I am dispassionate about, and like the best of us, I find myself calculating the bare minimum I need to score on each assignment to reach my desired grade, rather than trying to learn material for its intellectual merit. In fact, I have stopped many assignments halfway just to marvel at the fact that dozens of scholars have written dissertations and dedicated their lives in order to study things I find so dull.
Of course, I feel terrible for feeling this way because I would like to consider myself a nerd who respects educational disciplines. However, I do not believe that I am alone in saying that I am tired of school.
But too long ago, an extremely unconventional assignment helped shift my perspective. For my psychopharmacology class, my classmates and I had to find “hands-on” service hours, of which Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would help fulfill. I did exactly that not too long ago.
For those unfamiliar, Alcoholics Anonymous is an international mutual aid fellowship that helps alcoholics to remain sober and assist other alcoholics to achieve sobriety as a form of accountability. Members often take the Twelve Step program of character and spiritual development, and according to the 2014 membership survey, 22 percent of attendants have been sober for more than 20 years, 14 percent for 10-20 years, 13 percent for five to ten years, 24 percent for one to five years, and 27 percent for less than one year.
Since I went on a Sunday, I could not help but mentally make comparisons between church services and those meetings. As blasphemous as half of me found it, an overly analytic side took over my thought process and deemed the comparison fair. For instance, the meeting held a “scriptural” reading of sort, held donations that functioned as tithes, had a main speaker and made community-oriented announcements. The part that bore the least similarity to church was the fact that the AA meeting was structured around recalling failure, rather than textual examination or imparting spiritual advice.
I quickly learned that alcohol addiction is a social issue not a personal issue. The speakers I listened to listed their reasons for drinking, including isolation from a hostile work environment, a means to escape extreme poverty and a means to escape unfulfilling relationships. Yet too often I boil down alcoholism to a matter of personal weakness or slothfulness. For that, I am ashamed.
In fact, a more critical examination of the numbers in alcoholism may tell a different story. According to research conducted by Dr. Karen Chartier and Raul Caetano from the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas on Ethnicity and Health Disparities in Alcohol Research, there appears to be a greater story — one marked by health disparities. Citing empirical research that showed that both individual- and neighborhood-level economic disadvantage predicted a lower alcohol treatment completion for blacks, Chartier and Caetano highlight research on a host of factors that contribute to alcoholism. Such factors include, but are not limited to, a stressful acculturation to American culture, socioeconomic disadvantage and residential segregation.
This leads alcoholism to target the most vulnerable among us. This includes immigrants, people of color and those with mental illnesses. Based on my limited sample size of AA attendants, I can testify to the fact that the meeting mostly consisted of people of less advantaged backgrounds. While I understand that those who are more socioeconomically advantaged may attend rehabilitation centers instead of AA meetings, there is something to be said about alcoholism hitting the poor more heavily than the rich. When it comes to the lower class and alcoholism, there is a cumulative health impact from poor lifestyle conditions. While that certainly is not conclusive proof of alcohol being a social issue, it did help me contextualize the things I was learning in psychopharmacology. Drugs cannot just be boiled down to the way human bodies absorb substances but the way through which social inequalities leave the weakest vulnerable to challenges. It was also particularly humbling for me to realize that I had dismissed this very social issue as “poor judgment” or “poor character.”
This was my wake-up call. When did I stop seeing the social relevance of what I was learning?
I remember being a fresh-faced freshman, eager to navigate a world of academia because I had (albeit naïve) conceptualizations about the way the world worked, and I firmly believed that academic success could equip me to lead a life of service, purpose and leadership. However, years of navigating the way to the grade left me somewhat jaded because, quite frankly, the highest grade is granted to the one who follows the rubric but not fully guaranteed to those who think outside the box out of standardized academia.
I do not regret following the rubric for the A, but I do wish that I had taken more time to engage in activities that did not just pad my resume but helped me find relevance in the material I laboriously regurgitate for tests. I would encourage you as the reader to consider pages from textbooks not as isolated material, but tools through which you can empower your social surroundings. At the end of my college career, I am beginning to rediscover my reason to learn, and I’m loving it.
Follow Justina on Twitter: @huanderwoman