What Are We Really Learning in College?: The Subculture of Attending University in 21st Century America

Becca Katz
Nov 12, 2015 · 4 min read

You come out of high school and you know how to solve for x when y is multiplied by 80 and raised to the negative exponent and you know the inner workings of the microcells in a leaf like the back of your hand, but you don’t know how to do laundry, construct a resume or file tax returns.

^ Good.

Going into elite colleges such as USC, so many of us are equipped with the highest SAT scores, tons of AP classes and killer GPA’s stored in our back pockets, but somehow you feel less than prepared — incapable, clueless, helpless — and that grand and complex questions to life’s mysteries lie just out of your grasp.

No need to crawl back into bed and call it “quitsies” quite yet though. You have four more years to find the answers.

This is a pretty cool concept: you have these four years dedicated solely to getting your life together — learning in every which way and possibly finally figuring it all out.

And that’s not just in terms of the every day practicalities of laundry, money and work, but the real meat of higher education. You have the chance to talk about those weighty questions that can only be gleaned by the most outstanding sources and professors with PhD’s.

Isn’t that what we’re really here for?

These are probably the only years of your life in which time is on your side.

With all of this in mind, it seems that precious gift of time is being taken for granted at so many universities.

After living the life of the college student for just 12 short weeks though, I’ve noticed higher education seems to be a lot more about the “higher” and a lot less about the education.

When you hear the word “college” you generally think of the unparalleled sense of freedom, the independence, no rules, late nights etc.

I think because of this new, bright and shiny sense of freedom that young kids get when they arrive at university, things can spiral out of control.

Kids are going to be kids and kids are going to party, but the problem lies in the stigma that has become attached to what going to college really means.

This perception of the “large research university” has become so closely tied to big sports, dominant Greek life and a wild social scene that sometimes it’s hard to remember why we are really here.

So often the first question I am asked when friends and family remember that I’m a freshman in college is not about my professors and classes but rather about the parties and game days.

The real privilege of going to college has been ingrained into so many of our brains.

It’s something that’s just another step on the ladder. We’ve assumed that we’re going to attend since education was placed into our realm of thought.

Perhaps this makes the value of a college education decrease by unparalleled amounts, as it becomes closer to an entitlement than a privilege.

So many kids have expected college and no longer see it as a means of higher education but as a place where they can finally “do whatever they want.” Even those who once did understand the inherent value of college are sucked into this odd and distorted mindset.

And universities do not stop the problem. If anything they may be adding fuel to the fire — turning their collective heads to the easy access to alcohol and drugs, booming social scenes and the mindset that so many of the admitted students go into college with.

The university ends up fostering an environment that becomes more about the libations than the libraries.

College is a four-year bubble. It’s an opportunity to accumulate knowledge without facing most of the daunting pressures of the world we live in — no mortgage, no kids, no “no’s.”

But what type of knowledge are we accumulating? What kinds of people are the universities turning loose on society?

Would you rather be able to come to learn the true values of romance in our modern day society from The Wasteland of T.S Eliot or the “Wasteland” of a frat house? Do you want to graduate with your intended BA or a Masters in binge drinking?

This is not to say partying and having a social life is the problem.

The problem is the subcultures that exist within university life.

What if you enjoy going out, but don’t necessarily need nineteen beers and seventy-two tequila shots to have a good time? What if you prefer to enjoy the historical happy hour of 4 pm rather than that of 6 am?

It’s not necessarily about choosing poems over parties and books over beer every time, but it’s about realizing what these four years are intended for.

It’s about whom you want to be, what knowledge you want to carry out in the end and not just how you want to be treated by the world, but how you intend to treat the world when they finally hand you that sheepskin.

Will you be ready?

Becca Katz

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USC journalism, political science student. Investigative, political reporter. Personal essays, creative work.