What did you learn in college?

Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness
Published in
7 min readMay 11, 2020

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Image courtesy of Buro Millennial on Pexels

So, what did you learn in college?

If you don’t answer the question with something along the lines of how to drink beer, how to write a 20-page paper in one night, or how to gain the Freshman 15, it feels like you’re doing something wrong.

The fact that this question is nearly impossible to answer seriously indicates that the biggest takeaways from college have nothing to do with academic material. It’s like American Psychologist BF Skinner said… education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.

Besides being another checkbox on the checklist of a Good Life, college is a great time to get out of the house and learn the parts of life that you simply can’t learn at home with your parents.

Education is one of the best things you can do to develop yourself as a person. That said, higher education uses some systems that don’t make sense anymore. Especially with regards to the nebulous, incalculable, 21st century buzzword of critical thinking.

While the skyrocketing cost of college and student debt’s crushing impact on millennials is a topic for another day, I would like to share one anecdote of my own personal experience that is meant to generate conversation about critical thinking and the content of what we learn in college. Is what we learn really the best use of our time (and boatloads of cash)?

To most millennials, college is just what you do. The stigma that exists around not going to college (you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t wealthy enough) makes college seem like the only option. If you don’t go to college, there must be something wrong with you.

A continuously-increasing gap exists between those who earn Bachelor’s Degrees and those who have only a high school diploma. PEW Research Center analysis shows that millennial college graduates aged 25–32 earn about $17,500 more annually than those with only a High School Diploma.

I was fortunate enough to have the experience of going to a prestigious University to study engineering. Thanks to my parents, I was able to afford it, and I didn’t need to take on any student debt. I consider myself extremely fortunate.

To go on a deeper-dive into what really happens at a prestigious University (the University of Michigan), I would like to take you on a little tour. Note: I’m not doing this to knock Michigan (a great experience for me), but to share what really goes on behind those big, heavy wooden doors.

The first and second years are mostly pre-requisites. You are shuttled into enormous chemistry and intro-to-engineering lectures. The smaller classes are used for labs, where the instructors are GSIs, short for graduate student instructors.

Homework can be hard and time-consuming but manageable. I learned more from my smart friends than from lecture. A nearly-surprising number of people skip lectures, especially on Friday. This is nothing new since the beginning of time, but hey, when each hour of class costs a few hundred bucks, you’d think you might go, right?

The third and fourth years get real. Classes get smaller and you’re actually interested in some of them. Some professors are great; engaging, interesting, and fun. Others are literally useless theory from Professors who appear to have lost their mind. When it comes to electives, the ones in highest demand are the easiest/least time-consuming ones based on ratemyprofessor.com or what you hear from your older friends.

When you get to these years, homework can be extremely challenging. Students just like you are completely lost on the homework, which looks nothing like the lecture, and that gives you a bit of solace in the fact that you aren’t the only miserable bastard who can’t do the homework.

In some particular engineering classes, desperate students clamor to the GSIs in their office hours, hoping to be the next one to ask a question. Not all classes are like this, but there are a few where you take one look at the homework and feel like throwing your hands up in the air and going home.

You don’t go to office hours to learn the material; you go to office hours to get your homework done. You learn how to plug-and-chug, and if you know how to plug the numbers in correctly, you can do well on the exams. You are better off studying the exams of the previous classes and hoping that the Professor was just too lazy to change the questions.

All around office hours you hear rumors about someone who has the solution manual. The professors give this homework from the book, but can often change a few numbers around, just to see who they can trick.

On one occasion, my thermodynamics professor began class not with an introduction to the Carnot Cycle, but with an alarming discovery. On last week’s homework, over half of the class got the same answer. The same wrong answer. The solution manual had a typo and gave the wrong answer… an answer of 0.01 instead of 0.1, exposing all those who used the solution manual (or copied someone) to get the answer.

The result of this dishonesty rippled throughout the department. The professor from another engineering class (who I believe was dating the thermodynamics professor) at the time gave us a long, stern lecture about Honor Code violations and about doing the work ourselves.

The Engineering School takes Honor Code violations very seriously. I’m talking about strong disciplinary action/expulsion for cheating. I’m not sure what happened to those half (I was no saint, but I was not one of them), but that day, a lot of people got the shit scared out of them.

Here I was, thinking that I was one of the worst students, not knowing how to do the homework every week, but at least I made an effort by going to office hours and trying to learn how in the hell that stuff worked. I quietly celebrated my complete obliviousness to the fact that I wasn’t a complete idiot at thermodynamics.

The homework was not hard because students were lazy. The homework was hard because the critical thinking required to complete the problems was not accessible by most people. Many of us sat in office hours, often for hours at a time, only to have a handful of correct answers to show for it. I will never forget the dread of going to office hours for ME 211 Statics on Thursday morning/afternoons, typically for the whole afternoon, stumbling through the homework, whose completion was fully dependent on getting help from the GSI or someone smarter than me.

I was an average student in this environment. Nobody ever bugged me for the answers to the homework, but I was there, at office hours, each and every week. I tried hard, at least until I realized that I needed to nag someone to help explain it to me. Some moments were more like here, just write this down and I’ll explain it later, I have to get going.

This isn’t some 2nd-second rate engineering school… the University of Michigan tied for 5th best engineering school in the country per US News and World Report. For in-state students, it costs over 30,000 dollars per semester (including room/board and other expenditures), and for half the class to carelessly use the solution manual or copy someone else, all in an attempt to deliver the correct answer… who do you feel more sympathy for?

If half the class is willing to dishonestly complete the homework, is that a reflection of them, or the system? Are kids these days simply getting lazier, or are they realizing there are other ways to not spend hours and hours working on problems they will never apply in their life?

I’ll never use this in my life, why do I need to know how to do it? is a common justification for giving a poor effort to various subjects in school. Well, it develops critical thinking skills is the stereotypical response to that.

Sure, it also helps to put a band-aid on a shotgun wound. Why should I think critically about something I will never use, instead of thinking critically about something I will use?

As an engineer, instead of learning thermodynamics, I should have been learning about injection-molding plastic. Or metal stamping. Or how 3D printers work. Why should I have spent my time learning about double-pistons? Five years after learning how to plug-and-chug numbers into problems of double-pistons I am here teaching English in a foreign country. Oh well. At least now I know how to make friends with the right people and think critically.

As times have changed, much of education has not. Students are shuttled through the same classes our grandparents went through. Engineering students take the same classes as an era when engineering drawings were literally hand-drawn and statics problems needed to be calculated by hand.

I wouldn’t take back anything from my college experience. Everything I learned (and forgot) has taken me to this exact point where I am in life and has put me on a trajectory where I am creating the life I want for myself. It’s hard not to look back and think that if I had replaced Differential Equations with anything practical I’d still have the same life I have now, I might have enjoyed more, and learned something I could be excited about.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights

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Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.