Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What I learned in college

On last week's episode of this podcast, during a discussion on college admissions (and the complexities thereof) spurred by this book, the question of what kind of education one receives at universities came up. One of the panelists, after conceding that going to college is very beneficial for one's life (particularly for one's later earning potential), he questioned whether students actually learn anything there.

He admitted, reflecting back on his liberal arts degree, that he remembered nothing from his time spent in classrooms.

Another panelist duly identified that the onus is on the student to make the effort to learn, despite all the distractions of the larger college experience.

These two thoughts pretty well captured my take on what I got out of college.


I went to a state university that was somewhere between a community college and an expensive college. I went straight out of high school, and with my GPA I could have gotten in with zeroes on my SATs (or with my SAT scores could have gotten in with a much lower GPA); clearly I was not shooting for the educational stars. Why did I go? Because that's what you did after graduating from high school (at least where I went). At the time I fancied the notion of writing (which is what lad me into English as a major) but anyone who has done that can assure you: you do not require a degree to write; you require a degree to fall back on teaching when you realize you're not going to make a living as a writer.

I had no inclination to teach. For me, that degree became an end unto itself.

I worked close to full-time to pay for much of my own way through college, and as such I took only a part-time load of classes, and as such it took me the better part of a decade just to graduate. And long before I got that diploma I had abandoned any pretense the degree would be directly useful in whatever I ended up doing for a living, so the fact that proved to be the case was not disappointing; it was precisely as expected.

Do I remember much of anything from my classes? Very little, I must concede. In my English classes I don't think I really learned much; those merely forced me to have to put to work all the rudimentary skills I had already gained in high school. The whole reading and essay format was pretty well down before I set foot on the university campus.

However, I do believe I got some worthwhile skills from my time there. I learned how to deal with red tape. I gleaned the art of balancing multiple tasks at the same time (even if I wasn't doing a very good job at any single one). I figured out how to give the professor what he/she wanted. And most important—and I say this in all sincerity—I developed the ability to meet deadlines (even if it meant staying up all night).

The reality is that out in the so-called real world, likely you will need to put up with some BS as part of the rules someone else came up with. You'll always have more on your plate than there will be room on your plate. You'll have to be able figure out what a boss or a client wants and at least make it seem like you've given them what they wanted. And you'll have to deliver that at least as close to on-time as possible.

My degree doesn't say I know anything but I like to believe the fact that I stuck with it, without dropping out (as I was tempted to do many times), proves that I can figure out what it's going to take.

And being a college graduate is something they cannot take away from me, whether my degree ever earns me a cent or not.

However, I fully concede if I'd focused on school better I would have gotten much more out of it*. Ah, if only I wasn't so young and lacking in understanding of why I was going…

Perhaps that's really why we go.

* And undoubtedly this post would be far better written.


  1. I knew I had little aptitude for math, though I love the hard sciences. So I went with the liberal arts degree, which even back then was worthless. Since about 1980, college degrees have been more of a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval saying you are employable, then anything worthwhile in and of themselves. That's why we have the current unemployment problem - employers have figured out that college degrees are worthless, too. Now people will stop going to college and wasting their money, and hundreds of colleges around the country will close up shop. But I think that's good - there's a lot of people in college who shouldn't be there. And "education" shouldn't be a business. That's what leads to "social promotion" - colleges keeping students in school and taking the student's money, when really the students should be kicked out.

  2. Nice piece here, Doug! It's not really the classroom lessons that matter but the things you learned and the skills you developed along the way. And you're right -- the important thing is that you're a degree holder. I hope you feel proud of yourself with what you have achieved so far, because this post clearly reflects that you have learned so much in college. :)

  3. Thanks, Dolly--but let's not let word of me learning get out; I have worked too hard to develop this reputation.


So, what do you think?