College Students: Learn Things You Can’t Learn On Your Own
September 9, 2009
Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.
Back to the point:
I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.
Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals I knew to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.
Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.
And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.
Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.
What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time (and money) learning things that they can’t learn on their own.
If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.
My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.
Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.
In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:
- intellectual curiosity
- Project Gutenberg (they need your help! Donate to them now!)
- The Amazon Kindle
As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.
Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.
Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.
Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.