Should I Go To College?

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” ~ Hannah Arendt

I received the following questions from a student in a recent university class that I taught. While adequate responses to these queries would constitute a dissertation length study, here are his questions and my brief responses.

1) What is the meaning of college?

The point of college is to help you become educated, which is good for individuals and the society of which they’re part.

2) I can learn anything on the internet, so why am I here?

Various methods of distance learning, most notably the vast store of online lectures from major universities, do serve to replace in-person attendance. I suppose the social elements of such attendance and the superior credentials of a university education offer something that online education can’t.

3) If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am because I would lack the proper discipline. So is the university now a disciplinary institution?

Your first statement provides another answer to your second question—you don’t have the discipline to be an autodidact. Your question assumes that there is something negative about the university providing a structure in which you can become educated. But that is a positive for you if you otherwise lack the discipline to learn. After all, they aren’t forcing you to attend and you are free to become self-educated.

4) If I had the self-discipline to learn on my own, what would be the point of going to university? Is it simply a qualifier for real-world employment? If so, why not just learn on my own and take a series of tests to prove my competency to employers?

If you can be an autodidact, great, except that perhaps you can’t and you won’t have the credentials you would otherwise have. So yes. universities today have been transformed in large part to technical schools that certify people for employment—business, accounting, nursing, computer science, etc. As for just taking the tests, that is an alternative model and in areas of great need—like computer science—there is a lot of this going on, and I have no problem with that model if education is just about technical training. I also don’t believe that the cost of college is justified for a lot of people.

But I don’t think that is the point of education, as I’ve argued in a recent blog post. Here is a brief excerpt.

What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to live well, and to be happy and wise. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

4 thoughts on “Should I Go To College?

  1. You make excellent points; there is little I can add, but I’ll try. I would suggest four additional benefits of college:

    1. Social
    Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

    2. Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

    I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

    3. The Hard Parts
    When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

    4. Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

    I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at http://www.erasmatazz.com. It has a surprising range of topics.

    No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

    But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.

  2. John and Chris, I have nothing of substance to add to the excellent points made by both of you in this discussion. I just have to comment that I never thought I’d find someone extolling the virtues of understanding “vector fields, divergence, and curl” on a philosophy web site! Ah, the pleasant memory of Maxwell’s equations!

  3. Another point perhaps. I think the main reason for a mandatory education is to form an educated citizenry. My only mandatory criteria for graduation from High School, in this regard, would be close to Jefferson: “no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness” and that failing to provide public education would “leave the people in ignorance” fatal to a republican form of government.

    This has been badly corrupted and unfortunately a college education (and not even all of it at this point) is almost mandatory to function reasonably effectively as a citizen.

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