Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all- Dead Poets Society. Image source: Google Images

The purpose of a college education

Pre-graduation jitters post #4: One month to graduation. Many thoughts. Read other posts here.

“I cannot remember a single thing I learned in college, but it worked for me because what I learned was that I could make it in this world.”

That’s Dick Parson, former CEO of Citigroup and Time Warner, talking about his experience working through college as a lab assistant, janitor, and gas-pipe worker.

His first sentence “I cannot remember a single thing I learned in college” is a phrase I sometimes hear from seniors when they look back at their four years. It brought me to wonder: What is it that we walk away with after graduating from college? Is it knowledge? Soft skills? Technical skills?

Why do we go to college/university?

Do we go to college so we can find a job? The implications of these questions can be huge.

“We don’t need more philosophers, we need more welders,” said Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, in a recent debate.

It brought to light the ongoing discussion in the U.S. over the importance of a liberal arts education versus skills-based training in light of higher-education funding cuts and an economic depression. An Washington Post article points out that only “38 percent of individuals who graduated within the past 10 years “strongly agreed” that college had been worth the money.” The New York Times found a philosopher-turned-welder who touted the merits of a philosophy degree, while The Atlantic briefly explored innovative programs to combine real-world experience and a typical college education.

We complain about our education system back home, but we can’t effectively change it unless we define what we want out of a university/college education.

“It’s just for that piece of paper. It’s to get a job.”

“It’s for the credentials.”

“It’s for the network and the reading lists that prepare you for life.”

“Completing four years of college shows you have discipline.”

“…To equip you with the skills you need when you’re in the real world.”

These are some of the answers my professors told me. The underlying theme that a college education is to prepare you for a job is one that jostles me. It’s not rocket science — I knew it all along — but when taken literally, it seems to justify the rote learning I went through in Malaysia where I felt like I was just in school because I needed to be, not because I wanted to learn.

Life in school back home for me was just preparing for exam after exam, constantly memorizing and copying answers. Local college was better, but the environment still made me feel as if we were in college just to get a job, a good paying job. We shouldn’t waste our time learning things that don’t seem to matter, nor should we think about things that wouldn’t be on the exam.

I didn’t feel the excitement in learning new things. I didn’t feel passion. It was stifling.

“Is he going to test us on this thing?”

A character in the movie Dead Poets Society asked his classmates that question after an inspiring poetry lesson. He missed the point of the class as his friends chattered excitedly over the new ideas brought up by the teacher. That’s a response I fell prey to in school. Everything is, or might be, for the test ahead. If it isn’t, then there is no point talking about it.

Dead Poets Society. Image Source: Google Images

That’s why I came to the United States to take advantage of the liberal arts education. I wanted to be able to learn a topic like philosophy even though it is not directly related to my job. I wanted to have a chance to study film analysis, although it has absolutely nothing to do with my job. Same goes for Shakespeare. I wanted to think.

Do you know how happy I was when I could finally express my opinions in my homework assignments and when a debate occurs spontaneously in class? I was moved to tears when I saw students mobilize on campus for all sorts of causes, things that you don’t put on your resume, show off to your employers or just do to occupy your time.

So you’ll understand the initial resistance I felt toward those answers. Is this a cultural thing? I posed this question to more people.

“I’m from a working class family and I really admired people with a lot of knowledge. Knowledge really transforms your demeanor(气质)..you’re graceful, well-spoken and you have clear thinking.”

That’s my boss who grew up in Taiwan and moved to the United States later in life. A university education, she said, is supposed to train you to speak up and stand for your opinions. A practice she observed Asians tend to lack.

“I think university is the beginning of our self-exploration of our inner world and larger physical world out there. What I learned from university is my perspective of life. Most of all university life actually opened up my mind to the world of knowledge and ideologies.

That’s my mum, who studied to be a teacher back home.

“I wanted to become an expert in science engineering so that I can make great discoveries, but that was a dream shattered by our teaching and learning system. The problem with the universities now is that they are not producing the experts who are suppose to do the thinking for us.”

That’s my dad, who was also educated in a university back home.

They don’t deny the importance of a university education in equipping us with skills to excel in a job, but I would say their focus is not as heavily focused on that. Here’s a line I picked up from Parisa Tabriz who manages the Google Chrome security team (from Frank Bruni’s “Where you go is not who you’ll be”).

“My experience at Google has really made me question how necessary a university degree is in the first place . If you have access to the internet, you can teach a lot of this stuff to yourself.”

So maybe the purpose of a college education is to give you the soft skills that you need in life and to prompt a critical self discovery by exposing you to uncomfortable situations.

This can be through interacting with people who have wildly different ideologies from yours, witnessing hateful, offensive, controversial speech that challenge the way you think, working hard to live independently, taking a class that is not directly related to your career but expands your horizons, or doing something entirely out of your comfort zone.

“What I’m trying to get them to see is that you have some time to recognize that special combination of what you love and what you’re also good at. Taking the time to do that is very important.”
— Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have skills training and more career-focused education. We definitely should. But we shouldn’t take it too literally and forget the joy of learning and exploring. We should keep in mind that a job is not everything and that we are here to constantly learn and challenge ourselves.

Fight Club. Harsh, but it’s my favorite movie. Image Source: Google Images

This brings me back to my professors. My favorite professor, who said a college education is to prepare you for a job, also said this: “What’s wrong with being prepared for a job you love?”

I spent some time thinking about that, and I think I understand what he means now. When they said a university education is to prepare you for a job, it means the education gives you all the skills necessary to be a great employee/employer — which includes soft skills, leadership skills and a wide-range of knowledge, not just a perfect exam score and a list of extracurricular activities. I have to think about it from an American’s perspective:

By having a liberal arts education, we are forced to experiment with classes and learn things outside our major expands our horizons. By taking seemingly useless classes like philosophy or film analysis, we are challenged to be critical and structure our thoughts. By taking time out in class to have discussions and debates about current issues that aren’t going to be on the exam challenges us to think beyond the textbook and apply the concepts we learned in class.

These qualities make us a person with substance. And a person with substance can solve problems, challenge others, innovate and perhaps, find a job that he/she really wants. Maybe he/she will find their passion or goal to work toward in life, something big and important enough to carry him/her through life.

In this case, then yes, a university/college education does prepare you for a job that you love.

3 Idiots, one of my favorite movies. Image Source: Google Images

Do I love my experience here in UNC? Yes, I would say. I might have been disappointed with my major because I harbored high expectations, but that has more to do with the sequence I chose and some dissatisfaction I have with it, but overall, yes, I love having discussions in class, I love listening to my classmates’ questions, I love seeing my peers’ enthusiasm in activism, I love seeing people actively participating in controversial speech and I love being forced to reexamine my beliefs.

I think we can all have different answers as to what we think we should get out of college. My answers come from my background and the privileges I enjoy. Students with different majors and occupations will have different answers too. If you’re training to be a doctor, then yes, you obviously need all the technical skills, but maybe you can think about why you want to be a doctor. If you’re not in a liberal arts education system, your conclusions might be different from mine.

The point is that I think we should know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and college is the perfect setting for us to begin thinking about this.

I’ll end with two quotes from Frank Bruni’s book, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.”

They should be thinking more about what they’re going to do with their lives, and what college is supposed to do is to allow you to live more fully in your time. It’s supposed to prime you for the next chapter of learning, and for the chapter beyond that. It’s supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world. It’s supposed to set you on your way.
..College has the potential to confront and challenge some of the most troubling political and social aspects of contemporary life, to muster a preemptive strike against them, to be a staging ground for behaving in a different, healthier way.

As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I exist.”