The Funny Thing about Education

I’m always amazed at how excited people get when their classes get cancelled.  Here you are at an expensive university, paying good money to get a quality education, and yet you get excited when you miss out on a chance to learn something?  Something’s not right here.

College is not supposed to be a mere extension of high-school, where you pretty much are rewarded for how well you can regurgitate information in a form that matches your textbook or your teacher’s PowerPoints.  That’s basic education, where you learn the building blocks necessary for participation in a world that revolves around knowledge.  But college is higher education, where you learn to think critically in a way that can actually advance the knowledge that’s already out there.

Think of higher learning like the Beatles thought of love: where in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.  Sure, you can still scrape by doing the minimum: signing up for the easy classes, registering for the easy major, and choosing the most lenient professors.  But in the end all you will have is a diploma and not much else to show for your four years in college besides a lot of goofy pictures of you and your friends holding solo cups and cigarettes.

My dad, a professor at Loyola University Maryland, always said that what you’re paying for in college is not the classes but the opportunity to be around a lot of smart, motivated students and professors.  Your course work and textbooks are important, to be sure, but less so than all the chances you have to engage others in intelligent conversation and to find something that you’re passionate enough about to devote the bulk of your life working on it.

The habits and relationships you make there will set the tone for the rest of your life.  Are you going to be content doing the bare minimum to get a decent grade and collect a pay check or are you going to want more?  If the never-satisfied culture of America has anything to say about the matter, you’re going to want more.  How do you get it?  By working hard to discover and self-actualize.

My system for studying was a little different than most of my friends.  Instead of cramming for tests I would take careful notes during class and while I read my textbooks.  Then I wouldn’t look at them until after the test was over.[1] That way my grade was an accurate reflection of how much of the material I actually understood.  It felt weird to study for a test that I had already taken in the beginning, but it eventually gave me a much better grasp of the material that stayed with me long after the course was over.

I’m not sure I would recommend a strict adherence to my unique policies to everyone — my GPA (a cumulative 3.5) lagged behind the 4.0s that many of the others in my advanced business program.  But I would recommend working hard to really get involved in your education so you get the most you can out of it.

There are thousands of over-qualified candidates to jobs these days with excellent GPAs.  These days, the way to get ahead is through a voracious appetite for education and self-improvement that will be evident long after your formal studies have concluded.  But you have to start cultivating that as early as possible, or overcoming your own inertia will be a difficult task indeed.  So stop celebrating class cancellations and start working on finding which parts of your schooling get your excited.  Challenge yourself and you will be rewarded, if not with a perfect grade then with a life you enjoy.


[1] I made exceptions for final exams, as these were my last chance to really see what I had gotten out of a class.  For these, I would study my notes in two hour increments starting a few days beforehand.

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