I just completed my final exam in a biology class I have recently taken. My takeaways? Biology is a very complex subject, with literally thousands of terms and convoluted processes that you need to memorize. I spent numerous hours studying for the test, and used 2:55hr out of the allotted 3:00hr, scribbling nonstop on my answer sheet. Studying biology can “mentally” kill you! Biology can also “physically” kill you: viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, along with mutations and cellular malfunctions can literally kill you. Not to mention the inevitable aging process that will do us all in. So why did I take a biology class? Well, to paraphrase George Mallory – “Because it was there!” Well, actually the real cause is a bit more convoluted, but hardly more rational.

When I returned to Israel 7+ years ago, I made two major decisions: The first was to stop working full time, and the second was to live in Tel Aviv. Quitting my job was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out what to do with all my spare time…

I decided that studying “something” was a good first start. I still remembered how much I enjoyed History, Literature and Language Arts at high school. My career pointed me towards studying more “earthly” subjects like computer science and business. But I always dreamed that one day I would go back and study Humanities once more. My quest to fulfill that old dream brought me to the Open University of Israel. I decided to sign up and take classes in Philosophy, History and Art.

The first few years were pure fun. Every semester I would scan the catalog and pick one or two classes I found interesting. I wasn’t enrolled in any formal program – just took classes as I pleased. I did sign up as a regular student, which meant submitting homework and doing exams. I figured that without making such a commitment, studying will not be as effective. I am one of those students who need a deadline every once in a while…Tree-of-life

After doing that for a few semesters, I got a call from the Open University administration. “You are not enrolled in any formal degree” I was told. “That’s right”, I replied, “I am just doing this for fun”. They suggested I meet with an academic advisor just in case. So I did.

The academic adviser was really nice, and she was very excited hearing that I study the Humanities. “Not many students do that now days”, she said, “They usually look for something that will help them earn money”. After expressing her enthusiasm again, she suggested that maybe I should get a BA degree. “You will get many credits based on your other academic degrees, and given all the classes you’ve already taken, you are virtually two thirds of the way there!” I pondered her suggestion, and decided “Why not?” With a little guidance, I put together a “study plan” that should have earned me a BA in Humanities.

The big hurdle for me wasn’t the remaining classes, but rather the requirement to submit two “seminar papers”. I have never written an academic paper before, and the idea of coming with a “research question”, reviewing dozens of academic papers, coming up with a thesis, and then writing a 30 pages long paper explaining it seemed quite formidable to me. To make a long story short, I finally submitted two seminar papers, one of which I am extremely proud of, and the other one was “OK”.

When I completed the study plan we agreed on, I submitted a request to the Open University administration to receive my BA certification. “You are missing 6 academic credits” was their reply. How could that be? After all, I put together the plan with the help of an academic advisor… Further investigation uncovered some “fine print” that stated that if my other degrees were in a different field (e.g. science, economics…) then I would have to take extra credit in Humanities. “It’s just two more classes” begged my friendly academic advisor, “just take them”. But I felt too indignant about it.  I had a “Deal” with the university and they broke it. After some back and forth, realizing the university wouldn’t budge, I remembered I took a class in History and another one in Modern Art in a community college in California. Fortunately I managed to obtain the transcripts for those classes, and the university administration reluctantly agreed to acknowledge them and apply them to the missing credits.

I uttered a big sigh of relief: my studies were now formally completed, and I should receive the coveted BA degree. However not just yet…

A letter from the university showed up, stating that indeed I met all the academic requirements for a BA in Humanities, however there’s this little thing about tuition. If I would pay an extra 3,000 NIS, they will be delighted to send me my degree. After digging further into the matter, I learned that in addition to “academic credits”, there were also “tuition credits”, and earning a BA requires that you achieve both. Turns out that I was missing two “tuition credits”… Sometimes you simply can’t win fighting bureaucracy. Sure, they gave me credit for my two foreign classes, but I still had to pay for two extra classes.

At that point I asked the fateful question: “Can I take two extra classes, rather than just pay for a degree I never really planned for?”. After some checks, the answer was “Yes, you can take two extra classes, and the tuition you pay will balance the score”.

It was back to scanning the course catalog, looking for two classes that might interest me. Another philosophy class? Nah, I had plenty of those. An Art class? Same thing. What about History? I already took Chinese, Western European, and Muslim history – so what’s left? Then it struck me: Rome! I was fascinated by the Romans as a child, and this would be a great opportunity to formally study the history of the Roman Republic! It was a no-brainer.

But what about the second class? I re-read the course catalog: Math, Economics, Computer Science, Psychology – no, no, no and no. And then it hit me: Biology!!! Here’s a topic I knew virtually nothing about. I studied Electronics, Computer Engineering, Business, Philosophy, History and Art – but never biology. Well, it’s about time I did.

I signed up for the “Intro to Biology” class and looked forward to be introduced to a whole new world. Actually, it isn’t new at all… It is the world we all live in.

I showed up enthusiastically to the first class session, and felt like I was hit by a brick wall. Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Enzymes, Cells, Genes, DNA, RNA, Mitosis, Meiosis, T-Cells, B-Cells, Neurons, Axons, Synapses, etc, etc etc. What on earth did I get myself into? It felt like I was caught in an avalanche of thousands of names, parts, processes and who knows what.

After the second class session I called the administration for help. “S.O.S, I need to cancel this class!!” The response was surprising: “You could”, they said, “but you will be charged a penalty that amounts to half the tuition, and you’ll still need to take that extra class.”

It was a no-win situation. I could either suffer through the remainder of the semester, or pay a penalty and be forced to take yet another class. I decided to suffer…

The “History of Rome” class was a true joy. I loved every minute of it, read all the class material and then some. And yes, I aced the final test!

The “Intro to Biology” was a whole different story. Every class was a bit of a torture. Homework assignments were painful, and the readings, oh the readings…

At the end of it all, I realized Friedrich Nietzsche was right: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

I can’t say that I learned Biology; there are too many details involved, and it takes years to master. But I feel I’ve gained appreciation for the complex world we live in, to the “miracle” we call Life, the intricate processes that make our body tick, and the web of ties between all living things. All the pain and suffering through this class were well worth this modest lesson.

I hope this final exam in Biology concludes my journey of obtaining a BA in Humanities. It was a degree I never really sought to obtain, but somehow I feel it taught me more than all other degrees I’ve earned over the years…