When I reflect back on the value of going to college, I come up with a solid list of things that occurred outside classrooms.
An opportunity to wrestle in a Division III athletics program
An opportunity to teach kindergarteners in inner-city Baltimore
An opportunity to apprentice in a scientific instrumentation development group
More and more, I am coming to think that one really shouldn’t go to college because classes are offered. Just maybe you should go because the courses that are offered are mostly a joke; and if you are sufficiently prepared, you can probably just spend a few hours a week studying, focusing the rest of your time taking advantage of the abundant opportunities around college to find out about the limits of your physicality, humanity, and reason.
Surely, if you do happen to find an instructor that challenges you deeply as a human, by all means engage with those challenges, too A fiction and poetry instructor troubled me deeply with two lines atop of a page: “Russell Edson covets your twisted brain. Ditch physics.” I had no idea who Russell Edson was, nor why I should ditch physics, but this led me to dig deep into poetry and writing, and think about why I was studying physics. In a very different way, a professor of mathematics who taught a course I wanted to take challenged me, by allowing me to take his course without a prerequisite course. In allowing this, he plopped down a book on differential geometry and said “Do all the problems in chapters 1-12 in the first five weeks and you’ll be caught up enough to understand the last ten weeks of the course.” Little did I know that everyone else in the course was doing the same thing. As the class unfolded, I learned that all he wanted was for us to learn how to learn from a textbook on our own.
In graduate school, because of prerequisites, I had to take some rather basic educational statistics course before taking some more advanced one that I wanted to take. About a third of the way into the semester, the professor wanted to meet with me after class. At that meeting he had a point to make: that it was a disgusting waste of my waking hours to come to his class. Then he handed me the final exam to take. I never attended his class nor talked to him again. Looking back on this moment, I feel like this professor knew something that I am just beginning to fully recognize, but yet I still can’t articulate what it is.
I do, however, tell people this all the time: I took very few courses in college every semester. I took 12-13 credits, whereas many student I encounter are taking 16-20 credits. See, in my mind, if you can come in with 24 credits from AP or community college classes, you could try to graduate from your university in 3 years. Or, you could just take 12 credits each semester, and free up your time to wrestle, teach kindergarten, and work in a research group. Your courses will mean more anyway, because you’ll have the mental space and time to immerse yourself in the course that, every now-and-then, springs up meaningful. Instead, I see college students either over-whelmed with superficial engagement, or slyly admitting that most of their courses are a joke.
I’m not sure how I feel about anything that I’ve just written. My thoughts are muddled, conflicted, and unstable. Should students seek out challenging courses, or should they just take the courses they are supposed to, and find ways to challenge themselves outside of courses? Maybe I just want to remind myself of these thoughts before I embark on another semester.