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Lessons From Higher Education

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Many of the Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) deadlines are little more than a week away from today. For many high school seniors, November 1 is the beginning of that great adventure known as The College Quest. Seniors around the world are poised to submit their EA/ED applications with a mix of anxiety and hope. Many others will be entering their quest on or shortly after the New Year. That group may also include those EA/ED applicants who were either deferred or denied in mid-December.


One common thread permeates these applicants: they are all new to college. Higher education will be a much different experience for them compared to what they've experienced in their previous years of schooling. In addition to college's heavy academic work, social interaction and knowledge acquisition, other elements will come into play to make the years ahead a once-in-a-lifetime experience on multiple levels.

Of course, I've been through that experience and have had many decades since to reflect upon what it all meant to my life. If you'll indulge me, then, I'd like to offer some thoughts to those of you who, by this time next year, will be fully engaged in your college experience. Perhaps by the time you've graduated (or even sooner), you'll have learned the lessons I did.

The great American songwriter (and lyric poet), Paul Simon, wrote a song entitled Kodachrome. One of the lyrics that I've always remembered 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 talking about college. The Big Conversation these days seems to be about 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 of $300,000 or more, if you're 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 of the military, where highly desirable skills can be obtained, along with a certain degree of risk. There's a lot to consider.

The Value of College

From my point of view, though, college is worth it, on numerous levels. Plus, the return on investment pays lifelong dividends. Accordingly, here are two aspects of college that have served me well throughout my life:

1. I learned that 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 Forrest Gump outlook on life. (I was already hooked on chocolate.)

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 recently completed a detailed survey of Zen Buddhism in Religious Studies 3, I was able to much more greatly appreciate the details of this lavish TV 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.

2. I learned how to think and write critically.

This relates, inversely, to Simon's lyrics where he says that high school nearly derailed his ability to "think at all." In recalling my high school days, 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 where we were to read and write about Jacob Bronowski's Science and Human Values: The Abacus and the Rose. After some professorial briefings on what to expect in Bronowski's work, I dug into the text, formulated my thinking, and got out my Smith Corona portable typewriter.

I entitled my essay, Brains, Bombs and Beethoven and got an A+. My professor was a real stickler for brevity and focus, so that "A" was more than gratifying. My thesis was something along the lines of: "No matter how wonderful, beneficial, or revolutionary a scientific advancement is, human nature 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 that speaks to the intent of the author's point. 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.

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

If the time and money I spent 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. 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 and I became aware of an expansion of my thinking process. The stimulation of an intellectual environment can have a dramatic effect.

College changed me in multiple, positive ways. If you're wondering if all that stuff you're learning now is causing you to have thinking difficulties, then you might want to think about your coming higher education vs. Kodachrome. In my view, college wins every time!