There’s a meme that keeps popping up that says “hmmmm … and yet another day has passed and I did not use Algebra once … very interesting.”
Oh, but we Americans do have a strong anti-intellectual strain in our collective DNA. Never mind that anytime we cross a bridge or travel through a tunnel or, for that matter, drive to the grocery store we depend on bridges and tunnels and roads that someone designed using math we find incomprehensible.
I once asked a bright young civil engineer I know what he was doing and he allowed that he was designing a parking lot. It never occurred to me that you had to design, let alone engineer, a parking lot. You level the ground, throw on some asphalt, add some striping and, voila, a parking lot.
“Ever been in a parking lot when it rained?” the engineer asked. Turns out, the intelligent application of a few engineering formulas has a way of keeping your feet drier when you step from your car during a storm.
He didn’t learn those formulas in high school.
All across the country students recently have returned to their colleges and universities. While it’s been decades since I sat in a classroom, I’m willing to bet students still whine about the general education curriculum they are force-fed the first couple of years of college. I certainly did.
Of course, the grumbling can extend well beyond students’ dorm room grouse sessions and to the kitchen table of the parents who pay for all that higher education, as in, “Will any of those classes help the kid get a job?” That concern has been voiced by some columnists and some television talking-heads — mostly of a conservative bend — who question the need to require college classes such as philosophy and art. Students, the critics declare, should concentrate on classes that present a possible return on the considerable investment a college education represents.
To some, college is a big waste of time and money although even this narrow view of higher education ignores the lifetime earnings potential of college grads verses those with less than a diploma.
There are ways around some of these costs besides trying to find used books and buying Top Ramen by the case. Community college is an excellent choice for many. Online classes are coming into vogue, although I have reservations.
The idea that the experience of taking a class by sitting alone in front of a computer is the same as sitting in a classroom and facing a challenging professor seems so foreign. I can’t fathom what it would have been like taking American historiography by computer, not being questioned face-to-face by a professor and fellow students. That pressure was one way to drive home the issues under discussion. It helped train the mind for the “real world” days ahead. Oh, and the experience was a great way to focus the career decision-making process, as in, “I was going to be an ichthyologist until the science got in the way.”
Very few of the kids I knew in college came out of school with the degree they started out pursuing. A few did, among them the girl I married (although during her teaching career she migrated from English to special education) and a former roommate who parlayed his science degree into a highly successful hospital pharmacy career.
Still, it’s a rare 18-year-old who can say with certainty, “Yeah, I think I’d like to be being a philosopher for the next four decades.” Most of us bumble around until we hit upon something that feels right.
To that majority, I’d suggest trying to enjoy those required general education classes. Years later you may not remember the Flaubert or Faulkner you read, or how to use trig to figure the height of a flag pole, or the chemical sequence of the Krebs cycle, but it is enough for most of us to know these things exist and that the world is considerably more complex and interesting than we ever imagined. And, it’s valuable to have practiced finding reliable information.
“The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits,” says Eric Johnson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he provides guidance to underprivileged students.
Attending college is a privilege, not a right. It requires an at least passing number of brain cells, perseverance, a willingness to delay at least some types of gratification and, swallow hard, money or at least the willingness to endlessly pester the school’s financial aid officer. It behooves all who are blessed with the college opportunity to drink deeply of its benefits. You don’t want to go into the worker-bee part of life thirsty.
Contact Eric Grunder, former opinion page editor of The Record, at email@example.com.