Friday, January 21, 2011


Looking back at my own experience, I've often thought that, like youth, college is wasted on the young. A recent study suggests I might be right:

A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

Not much is asked of students, either. Half did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.

I was fortunate: I went to a pretty good college. Elite, some might call it. There, I evolved from a kid who'd gotten good grades with no effort and no introspection, big fish, to one with at least some sense of how to think and write, and with the ability to question oneself and the surrounding world. The first, I got from English 1 - 2. The rest, mostly, from the people I met, spent hours and nights talking with, about who remembers what.

Come to think of it, I might have been in the sixty-five percent. Which is worse, in some ways.

Because here's my point: I could have learned way more. Would have learned way more, had it all happened a few years later. College opened my eyes in many ways, and my growth there was probably greater than at any time after the first couple of years of my life, when I picked up a few words and became toilet-trained. But it kills me to think in how many ways I blew it, too. For one thing, college happens at exactly the wrong time. Kids that age should be sent someplace for a year or two where they can drink, do drugs, and screw their brains out. (Lest any draw the wrong inference, when I was in college I got really drunk only one time, in the obligatory scenario: freshman gets a bottle of really bad Scotch from an upperclassman, polishes it off with a classmate, spends half the night pressing his hot cheek to the cold porcelain... and never touches a drop of Scotch again. And I didn't know people smoked marijuana until I was a senior, and when I found out I was shocked. As to screwing... I wish.)

It's more than that, though. In my senior year, for example, I took a seminar course from Henry Steele Commager, adviser to JFK, one of the great American historians. There were about six of us, sitting around a big oak table in his dining room once a week, talking about American history and things related, based on assigned books and his whim that day. How many people on the planet ever had such an opportunity? Too dumb, too intimidated, too clueless, I wasted it; of that I'm certain. How great would it be to repeat the experience now, when I know a few things more, when I'd not be shy about asking him questions, speaking my mind, wanting feedback. Professor Commager, of course, is long gone.

Philosophers, writers, scientists, artists: I took classes from them all, yet was more interested in figuring out how to get a grade than how to delve into and absorb what was there for the taking. (Attending an undergraduate-only college, there were no TAs, no professors who hid in their labs. The faculty were the teachers, the only teachers, and they taught. Or tried to.) Plus, there were parties to go to, sports to play, fraternities to join, girls to find, nights to kill with friends when, more often than not, I didn't have a date and others did. (Not necessarily relevant note: there was nothing -- nothing -- more depressing than a "mixer" at a women's college on the east coast in the sixties. At least for the socially inexperienced like me. And, no, being SB president, captain of the football team, salutatorian, and a bunch of other superficial crap did not get me laid in high school.)

Some kids -- that other half -- are mature enough, motivated enough, prepared enough to get out of it what is offered; to not get too distracted by the things that distract barely-post adolescents. In my class were guys of such brilliance that they seemed to move in separate planes; I vacillated between aspiring to it, and, when I thought it not possible, pretending they were uncool geeks.

Kids that age are assholes. I was, anyway. Which is the point. And, not wishing to sound elitist -- far be it from me -- I think the temptations are worse and sliding is easier at the huge universities most kids attend. (My college had a student body of a thousand, including all four years. First semester junior year, when my grades dropped some, coincident with finding a girlfriend who... well, anyway, I was called into the dean's office and asked WTF?)

As the article suggests, I doubt the solution -- if there is one -- lies in some sort of regulatory approach. NCLB is bad enough. Something like it would ruin college, would be my guess. In the best of all worlds, though, it seems that sending kids out into the workforce for three or four years or, maybe, some sort of community service, a corps of some kind -- or that place for drinking and screwing -- might allow the natural processes of mind maturation to take place before being offered the educational opportunity of a lifetime.

As opposed to after.


  1. Who goes to College to improve there "Critical thinking Skills","Complex Reasoning", and this thing you call "Writing"??? I went to a State School, thats probably not even the best in the State, but still produced more NASA Astronauts than the whole Ivy Conference combined, and the 2010 BCS Champions BTW.
    Best Class I took was Senior year, a 1/2 credit PE class just to make the graduation requirements, and when they charge you by the credit hour why take more than necessary?
    A PE class that was full of mostly Cheerleaders/Cheerleader wantabees, and while I don't remember any meanigful philosophic discussions, I got my money's worth outta that class..
    Nome Sane???????
    Thats Ebonics for "Know what I'm Saying?"
    Bet you didn't learn THAT at Yale...


  2. Jeez, Sid, were we separated at birth? I not only agree, but I've loudly supported the concept of a break between HS and college for at least 30 years. A couple of years of putting a roof over one's head, food in one's belly and clothes on one's back by the sweat of one's brow gives a certain necessary perspective.

    I blew my opportunity as well, a bit more thoroughly than you did, I'm afraid. Went to a bigger school; I hadn't thought of that as a factor, but you've definitely got a point.

    DrekMan wrote Who goes to College to improve there "Critical thinking Skills","Complex Reasoning", and this thing you call "Writing"???

    Obviously, not he. One wishes that a little bit of spelling had rubbed off, though. Oh, wait, that's supposed to happen by the end of middle school.


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