Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What I Didn't Learn in College

I read a lot of things lately that question the value of a college education - or at the very least the value of a very expensive one. I had one of those, although mostly at the cost of the other students on campus, as I received close to $17k per year in need-based aid every year for four years. Despite all the money spent on me, I didn't learn a whole lot that has served me very well in the real world. In fact, it has become a family joke in the Grass Widow Household that the only truly good thing to come out of our time at Colgate was this family itself. Yes, we're that kind of sarcastic family, as if you couldn't tell already.

So what didn't I learn? And is there anything that I did learn? Let's make some lists.

• I didn't learn to be on time in the morning. Instead, after 1st semester freshman year I simply learned to avoid all classes that started before 10:30am. I really wasn't a morning person, you know, and why bother to struggle against your true nature?

• I didn't learn to plan ahead and write well. I wrote ever single paper over four years as "one draft wonders", even those of the 30+ page research variety.

• Despite the fact it was the late 1980's, I didn't learn to use computers. That is, unless you count figuring out how to use a Mac in the Computer Center to write one of those one-draft papers "learning". I really don't, since all I "learned" was to push a mouse around and "hunt & peck" type really fast.

• I didn't learn to pick good friends or make wise judgments about my social life. Husband practically fell in my lap: he moved in upstairs and was sitting on my couch one Friday afternoon. By and large, the best (aka kindest, smartest, least crazy) people I knew at school were his fraternity brothers and my freshman year roommate (who lived with me involuntarily, indeed miserably once she got to know what I was like).

• I didn't learn how to speak well, how to moderate what I was saying based on my audience, or how to read an audience and change what I was about to say in time to react to them. I was asked on maybe three occasions to stand up and give a presentation; they were rote recitals of what I had researched and I suspect didn't interest anyone else in class in the slightest.

• I didn't learn to be financially disciplined. Instead I learned how to weasel money out of my mother when I ran low.

• Finally, I didn't learn much of actual substance in the classroom. Sure, I picked up some tidbits about Mexican history and I can identify major artists post-1800. I can make myself understood in Spanish and French, I can blather on about Edith Wharton and Henry James, and I can proudly complain that I have been forced to read Moby Dick a whopping total of three times. But I didn't learn any math or science, I didn't pick up any economics or philosophy, and I never, ever met a professor who justified for me why what (s)he was teaching was important to the world, to the future or rarely, to the past.

So in those four expensive years, what did I learn?

• I learned that gin and beer make me sick when I drink them together.

• I know now that I am a very bad judge of who would make a good roommate. And, with one big exception, a good boyfriend.

• I figured out that what undergraduate professors want most in the world is to have their pet theory parroted back to them at every opportunity. This desire is greatly heightened if the professor is a Marxist or a feminist.

• I learned that unless your viewpoint matches that of your friends almost exactly, they don't want to hear what you have to say. College isn't a place for a robust exchange of ideas, in or out of the classroom. It's a place to find an audience who acts as your echo chamber, and to shut out everyone else from your life who might disturb that perfect pitch.

• I discovered that there were 18 year old people in this world who had never cleaned a bathroom, washed dishes, changed a light bulb, pumped gas, or gone grocery shopping alone. Some of them, most memorably, didn't even know how to fold their own clothes.

In the end, I discovered that all I got out of four years of my time - time very ill-spent, as I think you can tell by now - was a piece of paper covered with pretentious Latin script and my name in calligraphy. Over the years it has impressed a whole lot of people, and for the life of me I will never know why. They were four years that the locust ate: I stopped learning anything meaningful when I left for college, and I didn't start again until I began my first job the month after graduation. I suspect that if law school hadn't come along, I would be a very stupid person by this point. I certainly would have given up any pretense of higher thought process long, long ago.

And now, once again, I am looking down the barrel of a college education, although this time it is for my children and not for me. It is quite a long time coming, thankfully, but it's time to get my thoughts on the subject sorted, rather than leave it to the last minute when they are 16 and just dying to get out there like all their friends and have a meaningless, fun time for four years. Husband and I need to set expectations with the boys now, so those difficult conversations when they're 17 and the house is covered in glossy brochures aren't as hard as they might be. What will our family decide? I can't say. But I guess there is one more thing I learned from college: unless you are ready and it's the right school, it isn't worth the money.

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