The reasons for going to college and what you learn there

This is a draft, which I’ve written based on my memory of experiences long ago, and it’s still being revised, so bear with me. I may leave things out, get others wrong, or be out-of-date. I’m sure college has changed in some ways; I suspect it has become easier, because most people go to college now, and colleges seem to have relaxed their standards to accommodate them. I run into people with master’s degrees who can’t spell or write coherently and wouldn’t pass my freshman English course. When I went to college, most Americans still worked in blue-collar jobs, and you went to get a white collar job or into a profession. Anyway here’s what college should teach you:

  • How to think. Above all, college teaches you how to think. We have a lot of people in our country today who don’t think. Learning how to think is what distinguishes a university education from vocational training. It’s often couched in language such as “critical thinking skills” which means figuring things out at a higher level of abstraction than, say, learning to free a stuck bolt. The whole point of thinking is to figure things out correctly, come up with the right answers, and solve problems. College also teaches you how to learn, and prepares you to keep on learning after you leave college.
  • Knowledge. Closely related to critical thinking skills is knowing things. Textbooks are full of knowledge. Not just how-to, but what-is. Such as the geography of North America, or what makes a cornstalk grow. College teaches you how to find out what you don’t know — by using libraries, reference books, and so on. In any professional career, you need to know how to look things up. College teaches you this. Knowledge, of course, can be wrong or change, which is why you need thinking skills to keep up with changing understandings of facts about the world and universe around us.
  • Communication skills. Knowledge and ideas are useless if you can’t communicate them. College should teach you to write and speak. This is often combined with learning research skills. You’ll also learn how to ask the right questions, which requires background knowledge and a grasp of issues. In college, you will write term papers, which teaches you to gather, organize, and present information and data, ideas, and conclusions in a coherent and intelligible way. You’ll be taught to attribute quotations, cite your sources, use footnotes and endnotes, use and create bibliographies, and provide the authorities you’ve relied on for your facts or arguments. You’ll learn verbal skills by being called on in class discussions. Rule #1: Think before you speak. Tip: Ask yourself not whether you’ll be understood, but whether you could be misunderstood. You need to talk to other people on their level and to their understanding, not yours. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” information or ideas, but rather communicating them in ways they can follow. Advice: Consciously train yourself to eliminate “ums” and “ers” from your verbal communication; and instead of saying “huh?” ask, “Could you explain that again? I didn’t catch that,” or words to that effect, spoken politely. Writing tip: Revise, revise, revise. First drafts are hardly ever good enough. Clarify, condense, tighten, fix spelling and grammar mistakes, etc.
  • Language skills. Although closely related to communication skills, I put this in a separate category, because it’s essentially vocational training for communicating in writing or verbally. This involves spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary, etc. This is important; if your language skills suck, that detracts from your credibility. Use language with precision. Don’t guess or assume word meanings; get a dictionary and use it. Good colleges make freshman English mandatory (and hard), or at least they used to when I was in college. Sign up for a class taught by an instructor you’ve heard horror stories about. A tyrannical freshman English instructor is not to be avoided but sought, because she’ll cure your bad language habits and you’ll come out the other end a far better writer and speaker, up to the rigors of a professional life, if you survive. Here’s a trade secret: You get good at vocabulary, word meanings, spelling, and grammar by reading a lot. Seeing how good writers use language teaches you to use language well. Here’s another: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; get White’s “Elements of Style” or some other good style book (I’m unsure what they use in colleges today; if you don’t know, ask your English instructor which one she uses.)
  • Meeting expectations. In college, there will be more work, and the grading will be harder. Classes typically meet two or three times a week, there’s a lot of reading and preparation in between, and you have to manage your schedule to get it all done. It’s hard, and that’s the point; it’s boot camp for the work world. In college, you put responsibility on yourself; when you move into a career, you’ll be expected to take responsibility. After four years of college, it should be second nature.
  • How to behave like an adult. This sounds like a strange skill to teach college students, but for younger students (age 18-21) it’s part of a proper college experience, and learning it is essential because you won’t get or keep an adult job if you’re still acting like a child. Most freshmen have just left high school and are still in the process of transitioning to adulthood. That process should be completed by the end of freshman year. A good instructor will throw you out of class for coming in late, talking, flirting, or not paying attention. Skipping class is a bad idea because there’s often material in lectures or class discussions not in the textbook that you’ll be asked about in exams. There’s no parental oversight anymore, you’re on your own, and whether you do assigned reading, prepare for classes, show up for lectures and classes, and turn in papers on time is up to you. I knew professors who would refuse to accept a term paper dropped off one minute past the deadline. My freshman biology professor told our lecture section, “The only excuse I’ll accept for missing or being late to an exam is death — yours.” Apparently being in a hospital in a coma didn’t count. What’s the point of this? Employers want people who are reliable and can be counted on. Your college experience should make you one. You want to attend a hard college, and take hard courses from tough instructors, because it prepares you better for demanding job assignments. Formality tip: Don’t worry what the instructor’s title is (i.e., professor, associate professor, assistant professor, or instructor); just call them all “Professor” unless they tell you otherwise. They’ll love it, and sucking up to the people who control your grades isn’t a bad idea (but don’t overdo it).
  • Intellectual discipline. Intellectual discipline is disciplined thinking. It’s using thinking skills and knowledge to reach conclusions through a reasoning process. It’s not being mentally lazy. It’s achieved with self-discipline. Get in the habit of fact-checking and looking things up. That’s what reference materials are for. Avoid assuming, jumping to conclusions, or knee-jerking. It’s being open-minded, not dogmatic, and willing to change your mind based on new information or better understanding of old information. It’s appreciating that knowledge and understanding evolve, and accepting that the changing nature of knowledge and understanding doesn’t make the products of thought processes illegitimate or invalid (as uneducated rabble seem to think). It’s admitting and correcting mistakes. It’s curiosity, continuing to learn (sometimes called “lifetime learning”), has ethical and moral dimensions, and a good judgment component. All of these things make you a thinker, and render your thinking useful, productive, and trustworthy.
  • Academic specialties. What I’ve written is what’s called a “liberal education,” which gives you the basics of learning how to function in settings were thinking is required. Sometimes people who don’t know any better sneer at liberal arts degrees. To put this to rest, Howard Schultz of Starbucks has a B.A. in communications, Michael Eisner of Disney a B.A. in English literature, and John Mackey of Whole Foods a B.A. in philosophy; I could go on, but that makes the point. There’s nothing wrong with trade schools, but people who only know how to weld metals or fix pipes aren’t going to design jet fighters or come up with a nuclear deterrence strategy. They aren’t going to occupy C-suites, either. A college course in “basket weaving” is no joke if you become an archaeologist and use what you learned in that course to interpret artifacts from a 10,000-year-old midden to shed light on a vanished culture before some peasant bulldozes the site to build a cow barn on top of it. Some people may not want that knowledge, but others do, and respecting each other is how we all get along together. We can have archaeology and cow barns. Also, what seems like useless or esoteric knowledge frequently turns out to have practical applications and/or leads thinkers to useful insights.

Most people look at a college education as preparation for a career, participating in society as a citizen, or doing some useful thing with it. But there’s also a school of thought that believes education is good for its own sake, and worth having even if you don’t do anything with it beyond self-satisfaction. Being educated gives you the pleasure of knowing. Thinking is fun, and like all things, it’s more fun if you’re good at it. But no one should be forced to attend college; our economy should provide good jobs for those who don’t. A degree (or absence of one) shouldn’t be used to measure a person’s worth, not least because it doesn’t inform you about a person’s character, empathy, conscience, or other qualities as a human being. There are people who didn’t seek formal education but acquired knowledge through self-education. As with other things, formal training in intellectual pursuits probably will make you better at them than you would be with it; but formal education, or lack of it, neither confers nor precludes wisdom. A degree supposedly means you’ve gone through the learning process described above, picked up some knowledge and intellectual skills, and can handle complex thinking tasks. I’m unsure of how good colleges are now, or how reliable that assumption is anymore. Back in my time, illiterates and dunderheads weren’t allowed to graduate; and if an M.A. or Ph.D. or J.D. can’t spell or write a coherent sentence, I can’t help having doubts about how good his or her thinking is.

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0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Swallow right wing lies easier than fact checking or thinking for yourself. #

    Be right wing and you don’t need to think for yourself … education level has become the new political divide in America.  President Trump won voters with less than a college education, while Hillary Clinton won among voters with a college degree …

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    Certainly, college teaches you to think for yourself, but I don’t want political comments here, so I’ve moved your comment to a political post. To read it: