Campus Life

Understanding College

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What is college? That seemingly simple question can have a variety of answers -- many of them quite humorous.

The answer is what every high school student and his or her parents need to know. Thus, I thought it might be helpful to take up some space here and explore a bit of wisdom related to finding out about higher education.


In pondering who might be the most informed and articulate about college matters, my thoughts turned immediately to my namesake, Dave Barry, noted humorist, author and columnist for the Miami Herald. “Near namesake” may be a more accurate term for this Dave, since his last name is spelled with an “a” rather than my “e.”

What's in A Name?

To digress a bit, believe it or not, I have actually been mistaken for Dave Barry. Years ago, I was at a sports hall of fame dinner where former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann was the guest speaker. I was wearing a name badge emblazoned with the words “Dave Berry” and “Press,” since I was covering the event for a local newspaper.

I arrived early and one of the service staff, a friendly younger man who was tending last-minute dining-related details, noticed my badge. He paused from his duties and walked over to me saying, “I love your columns.” I thought that he was referring to my “College Knowledge” columns, which I was writing at that time for our local paper. I thanked him and shook his extended hand.

Then he said, “I also loved your book about computers and cyberspace.” That’s when I knew that he thought I was Dave Barry, since I loved that book too. I was about to correct him as to my much-less-famous identity, but I saw his supervisor heading our way, looking irritated that one of his staff was lollygagging, so I thanked him again for his compliments and told him to enjoy Joe’s speech.

Although I was amused by this event-related identity mix-up, I was more intrigued by something my College Confidential co-founder wrote about “Dave Berry.” Roger Dooley, who is now a well-known neuromarketing guru, offered his thoughts about Personal Branding: Identity Theft via Google?:

My long-time buddy Dave Berry is a funny guy. And, he’s a published author. But, he’s NOT Dave Barry, the Miami humorist who’s even funnier and has more published books. Therein lies the problem – Google thinks he is. Or, more to the point, Google thinks that anyone looking for Dave Berry must be too dumb to spell “Barry” correctly. I used to kid Dave (the one I know personally) about Google asking, “Did you mean Dave Barry?” when I searched his name. Now, Google doesn’t bother to ask …

The Dave Berry I know … wrote the book on elite college admissions. He writes a college admissions blog. He co-founded College Confidential, the web’s top college admissions community. He does high-level college counseling, and has done so for decades. Surely adding the terms “college admissions” to the search will be enough to sort out the correctly-spelled “dave berry” from the misspelled impostor, right? Well, guess again. The Miami funny guy wrote one piece about college admissions years ago, and that’s enough for him to grab the top couple of spots despite the incorrect name …

My near namesake still bests me on most Google searches about college these days. Accordingly, I thought I would defer to his search engine-optimized omnipresence and cite some of his wisdom about that question up above, inserting some of my own comments along the way, creating a kind of Dave Bearry production.

These Barry-birthed comments appear in a number of places across the web, but I found them here. So, then, Dave, what is college?

College is basically a bunch of rooms where you sit for roughly two thousand hours and try to memorize things. The two thousand hours are spread out over four years; you spend the rest of the time sleeping and trying to get dates.

Basically, you learn two kinds of things in college:

1. Things you will need to know in later life (two hours).

2. Things you will not need to know in later life (1,998 hours). These are the things you learn in classes whose names end in -ology, -osophy, -istry, -ics and so on. The idea is, you memorize these things, then write them down in little exam books, then forget them. If you fail to forget them, you become a professor and have to stay in college for the rest of your life....

I’m trying to remember some things I learned in an “-ology” course. Let’s see ... Okay, how about biology? I recall that the building blocks of proteins are amino acids. How about that?! Still thinking … Yes ... the human body is bilaterally symmetrical. One more time: Olfactory memory is the most powerful. Ha! Maybe I should be working for the Mayo Clinic.

That’s about the complete inventory of my “-ology” memories. Looks like colleges across the land are rejoicing that my teaching won’t be gracing their classrooms.

Back to the other Dave:

… After you've been in college for a year or so, you're supposed to choose a major, which is the subject you intend to memorize and forget the most things about. Here is a very important piece of advice: Be sure to choose a major that does not involve Known Facts and Right Answers. This means you must not major in mathematics, physics, biology or chemistry, because these subjects involve actual facts. ...

… So you should major in subjects like English, philosophy, psychology and sociology -- subjects in which nobody really understands what anybody else is talking about, and which involve virtually no actual facts. I attended classes in all these subjects, so I'll give you a quick overview of each

ENGLISH: This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. … Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. … So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland.

Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby-Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English. ...

This is true! Although I didn’t major in English, I took a number of English courses. In one literature survey course, we were studying Billy Budd (speaking of Melville) and had to write a paper about the author’s use of images. Even though I wasn’t yet the lunatic interpreter that I am today, I was trying to flex my “enormously creative” muscles in my paper.

One image that I targeted was Billy’s spilled soup in Chapter 10. As SparkNotes puts it: “... Billy accidentally spills his soup on the newly scrubbed deck of the mess hall when the ship lurches. In passing, Claggart notices the accident and remarks on the handsome effect of the spill and its maker. The comment elicits a chorus of perfunctory laughter from the crew, and Billy, unable to see the sour grimace on Claggart’s face when he made the comment, takes the incident as proof of Claggart’s esteem for him.” ...

In my paper, I saw the soup as a type of Billy’s spirit and soul, thrust in squandered juxtaposition with the innate and projected deception of Claggart’s nature, personified by the well-swabbed planks upon which Billy’s soup splattered. I wrote that the deck, covered by the soup, represented Billy’s desire to overcome evil by the sheer light of goodness within his heart. Granted, my analysis didn’t allude to the Republic of Ireland, but Dr. Byington must have been really sick of reading papers espousing common sense that week because my opus earned me an “A” along with a red-markered marginal comment pointing to my soup = soul revelation. It said, “Great imagery of your own!”

Getting Philosophical

Back to Dave Barry's musings:

PHILOSOPHY: Basically, this involves sitting in a room and deciding there is no such thing as reality and then going to lunch. You should major in philosophy if you plan to take a lot of drugs. ...

A friend and I were discussing our college days (I like to use the term “daze”) last week and he told me about his first and only encounter with a philosophy course. He said that on the first day of class, the professor pointed out the classroom window toward a tree and went on to say that by the end of the course, students would come to understand that that tree did not exist in reality, that it was merely the representation of the “idea” of a tree.

My friend listened politely to the professor’s profferings. Then, immediately after class, to check on the called-out tree’s “reality,” he walked outside and kicked it, immediately bruising his large toe. That’s the moment he purposed to drop philosophy and add “Touch Typing for Journalists” instead.

Keep in mind that, above, you’ve read the opinions and anecdotes of Dave Barry and Dave Berry. Trust me, there are better, more objective sources of enlightenment about the true nature of college. However, since Dave and I have both been through college, we speak with the assurance of actual “real life,” at least our own.

You’ll have to arrive at your own definition of what college is. I’m sure that your definition (and anecdotes) will be different from the two Dave Bs. But it is possible to learn stuff there and not forget it. For example, just now, I glanced at my college diploma, neatly framed and hung on my office wall over yonder. I can’t help but think it’s not really there, but merely represents the “idea” of a college education.

Hmm. Maybe I should have just gone to secretarial school instead.