Preparing for College

What I Learned in College

The great American songwriter (and lyric poet), Paul Simon, wrote a song entitled Kodachrome. One of the lyrics that I'll always remember and think of often goes:

When I think back

On all the crap I learned in high school,

It's a wonder

I can think at all.

And though my lack of education

Hasn't hurt me none,

I can read the writing on the wall.

I learned a few academic things in high school, but the thrust of my education during those years was mostly social and athletic. What did I learn from the academic spectrum? Well, I learned a little bit about writing and the proper use of the English language. I also recall some handy, everyday applications of plane geometry, which helped me when I played pool with my buddies.

Now I'm sure that I'm skipping over some important high school book learning that has become part of my life. I'm no doubt overlooking that because I've come to take it for granted over the decades. So, let's just say that I'm not quite in Paul Simon's mindset about being fortunate to have any intellectual reasoning skills remaining.

But, I'm here today to talk about college. The Big Conversation these days seems to be tilting toward the value of a college education. That's easy to understand in light of the cost of higher education. Some private school, four-year degrees can cost upwards to $300,000, if your fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to come from a so-called “full-pay" family. Even public universities have long ago entered the category of hard to afford.

Thus, high schoolers and parents today are weighing the return on investment of college. That's fair enough. They look at the overall expenditures, both monetary and extra-financial, and say, “Why not consider a trade school of some kind that can teach a specific skill that's immediately applicable in the job market?" Or, they might counsel their child on the advantages (and risks) of the military, where highly desirable skills can be obtained, along with a certain degree of risk. There's a lot to consider.

From my point of view, though, college is worth it, on numerous levels. Plus, the return on investment pays lifelong dividends. Accordingly, I thought that I would tell you one person's story about that … mine. Today, I'll mention two aspects of college that have served me throughout my life. My discussion may spill over into a Part II on this topic, but I'll try to be succinct. Right.

– First up, I learned that's it's a much bigger world out there than I had imagined.

If you're coming from a huge metropolitan area, such as New York City or Los Angeles, your world is already pretty big and complex. If you come from a small, cloistered community, as I did (my home town had about 65,000 residents when I graduated from high school), you may have a kind of Forest Gump outlook on life. (I was already a chocolate freak.)

The classes I encountered in college opened my eyes to things I never knew existed. For example, during my sophomore year, I had Anthropology 8: History and Archeology of South Central America. That was one of the core requirements of my liberal arts degree. During those 10 weeks (we had 10-week terms back then at Penn State), I learned about ancient civilizations, their cultures, and the artifacts that they left behind to tell their tales. I was greatly intrigued by this information. The systematic way in which my professor presented all of it, along with his revelations about the rich inventory of information resources, has over the years helped me to understand many other cultures throughout the world.

Sometimes we tend to think of our universe as a tiny local one, consisting of only what we currently know about the places we've been and the people we've met. The world has much to offer and Anthy 8 helped stretch my provincial thinking. I've always been grateful for that.

Another mind-expanding course I had was Religious Studies 3: Introduction to the Religions of the East. This class was even more mesmerizing for me. It just so happened that not long after I completed this class, the famous TV series, Shogun, debuted to high critical praise. As described in Wikipedia …

… Shogun is loosely based on the adventures of English navigator William Adams, who journeyed to Japan in 1600 and rose to high rank in the service of the shōgun. The miniseries follows fictional Englishman John Blackthorne's transforming experiences and political intrigues in feudal Japan in the early 17th century …

Since I had not long before this premier completed a detailed survey of Zen Buddhism in Religious Studies 3, I was able to much more greatly appreciate the details of this lavish production. I was also able to sound quite authoritative about some of the more arcane details of what was happening on the screen. The point, however, was a greatly increased horizon of knowledge and experience about the goings on in a larger world, a world much larger than the one from which I came. This awareness has been a highly valuable tool for me during my life.

Okay, so college stretched my mind to envelope a larger world view. Obviously, there were other courses that contributed to my intellectual expansion, but time and space here prohibit me from blathering on about those.

– Next, I learned how to think and write critically.

This gift relates, inversely, to Simon's lyrics where he says that high school nearly derailed his ability to “think at all." In thinking back to myhigh school days (or “daze" as I like to refer to that period of my life), I have difficulty coming up with an example of genuine critical analysis and exposition. I'm probably overlooking an instance or two, but one would think that something would jump out.

As for college, though, this is easy. I can cite numerous examples. One of the most prominent is from a Humanities literature course (my memory fails me as to the exact course name), where we were to read and comment, by extended essay, on Jacob Bronowski's Science and Human Values: The Abacus and the Rose. After some professorial briefings on what to expect, I dug into the text, formulated my thinking, and got out my Smith Corona portable typewriter.

I entitled my essay, Brains, Bombs, and Beethoven. I was elated to get an A+ on it from my professor, who was a real stickler for brevity and focus in both analysis and the written word. My thesis was something along the lines of: “No matter how wonderful, beneficial, or revolutionary the scientific advancement is, (w0)mankind will find a way to turn it against civilization." Example: nuclear power.

From my first days in college, my professors kept insisting that we think critically and look beyond the obvious, to discern evidence, empirical and otherwise, that speaks to the true intent of the author's or circumstance's consequences. Along with being told to use our brains to discern subtle shadings of meaning, we were constantly being judged on our ability to express our thoughts in a clear, logical, and — above all — correct written manner.

How has this training helped me across my life? Let me count the ways.


I've rambled on enough for now. Let me recap quickly, though.

For me, college was definitely worth it. I leaned a lot, much more than the two points I've highlighted above. Regarding return on investment, I'll make an analogy.

If the time and money I spent in and on college had been a stock-market-like investment, my portfolio would be overflowing today. As a young man in high school, during my later teens, I was distracted by many post-adolescent dynamics. That's where the “social" and “athletic" forces came into play. I have to admit that “social" largely equated to “the opposite sex," trying to acquire and figure them out. The athletic component cross-pollinated with the social aspect because I sure met a lot of interesting female tennis players.

Anyway, once I got to college, I continued my athletic pursuits along with a few social applications. The main thrust, however, came from my intuitive realization that I was becoming more mature (it was about time!) and I became aware of a kind of dim dawning of my thinking process (recall the opening of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey?) When the sun of my intellectual process finally got above the horizon — somewhere during the second half of my freshman year — I came to embrace the feast of learning that lay before me. That was quite a four-year meal.

As I said, there may be a Part II on this topic, as I ponder it in coming days. If so, you'll be the first to know. In the meantime, know this:

College changed me in multiple ways. If you're a high school student who's wondering if all that stuff you're leaning is causing you to have thinking difficulties, then you might want to think about higher education … and Kodachrome.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.