On the Value of an Education

Here's a little known secret about the value of an education: as a rule, the most important part of your education is not what you learn but how you learn it. To most undergraduates (including myself when I was an undergraduate), it seems like the exact opposite should be the case. We think: "How am I supposed to get a job if I don't know how to___________ " (fill in the blank: "run this computer software", or "calculate this figure", or "remember all this stuff I'll need to know", etc.). But, in fact, beyond the basics and in most fields, much of this stuff will have changed by the time you graduate. There'll be new software, different figures that may need to be calculated, new research that may have significantly changed the field you're in. Thus, what will make you successful is having the ability to learn new material. The person who can learn the new software manual, or the new equations or the new research the fastest and the most thoroughly will have the competitive edge over others and will endure less frustration than others. So it's the skills, not the information already learned, that is often most crucial to one's future success, and not just in the job market, but in whatever one wants to do.

They key thing to understand about skills is that the more you practice them, the better you get at them. Thus, your studying in philosophy, for example, improves your study skills, which then can be applied to whatever interests you. Similarly for other skills, such as reasoning, reading comprehension, making judgments, etc.

Another point about these skills is that there is no real limit to how good you can get at them. For instance, it's common to think that reading comprehension is something that you get by the end of high school and that's the end of the matter. But that's false, as people frequently come to realize in college. However good you get, there is always more vocabulary and more complex technicalities out there to be learned.

Furthermore, different kinds of classes contribute in different ways to the development of these skills. For example, few courses can compete with a course in critical thinking or symbolic logic when it comes to the development of reasoning skills, few courses can contribute more to reading comprehension skills than courses focusing on classical literature, and few courses can contribute more to the development of writing skills than courses which require long papers. Extracurricular activities can also be very valuable here. For example, I would say that the most valuable educational experience I had in either high school or college was my participation in intermural speech and debate. The topics I debated had little to do with my major (philosophy). We debated things like military assistance to foreign countries, election reform, etc.; we had a different topic every year and no choice as to what it would be. But I put a lot into this (probably too much - it would be fair to say that I spent more time working on debate than I did on all my classes combined throughout high school and college, and I would not recommend this!), and I got a lot out of it. Early on, I overcame terrible stage fright, and this turned out to be invaluable when I began my teaching career (a possibility I had not even seriously considered until near the end of my undergraduate career). I'm not trying to boast, but I also acquired damn good research skills since a common strategy among debaters was to find obscure cases on the topic and the only counterstrategy was to get evidence on every case imaginable (for example, for the foreign military assistance topic, a case could be made for any of a thousand different weapons systems for any country in the world, and I therefore researched and learned about places like Diego Garcia and issues such as the communications capabilities of Russian ballistic missile submarines! Okay, so I'm a bit anal.).  The result was that I could spend a few hours in a library and come up with a dozen great sources of information regarding just about any topic you can imagine without even breaking a sweat. These research skills have been invaluable: my lectures for a course may well contain over a hundred source citations, and in committee meetings with my colleagues, when everyone else is speculating on what might work, I'm pulling out research proving what works and what doesn't. Again, my point is that the skills, not the subject, are what usually make the difference between success and failure in the long run.

One of the truly unfair things about life is that you can't easily see your skills improving the way you can see your stock of memorized information increasing. The result is that we are often unaware of the state of our skills. You only notice them when you need them and they are either there or they aren't. For example, when I was in high school, I took a look at one of my older brother's college textbooks and was completely lost. I looked at it again after a couple of years of college, and it seemed easy to read, and I couldn't figure out why I had originally thought it was so difficult! Of course, what had happened is that my reading comprehension skills had improved considerably, but I wasn't aware of this until I tried to use them. Another example: older people who return to college and did well when they were younger often expect it to be a breeze. Then they frequently have an enormous amount of difficulty understanding readings and studying. What happens is that when these skills are not constantly in use, they deteriorate, but we're not aware of this until we attempt to use them and realize they are no longer there.

So, on the basis of these observations, I offer some advice:

Choose your electives not by subject but by professor. A good professor can make the most boring subject in the world fascinating and, in the process, greatly further the development of your intellectual skills. The result is that, say, a business major may get more out of a class on the evolutionary development of snails than a business course. [PS - Here is some information about how not all your professors are professors.]

Seek out differing points of view when choosing classes and media in general. Isolating yourself in a bubble of like-minded people is a sure way to close your mind and turn your beliefs into prejudices. 

It is important to get required courses out of the way, and to move out of Junior Division as quickly as possible. But at the same time, taking nothing but large introductory courses tends to correlate with poor student performance. Try to take sections of required courses that have a smaller enrollment limit (as indicated in the Schedule of Classes). Also, even as a first year student, don't be afraid to take 200- or 300-level courses that have no prerequisites and that you are highly motivated to take. Many students find a course devoted to studying a relatively narrow topic in depth much more satisfying than broad ranging, relatively superficial introductory survey courses. 

Never cheat. A common excuse among those that cheat is that the courses they cheat in are not in their major, hence are not important. People say "Why do I need to take a course in astronomy if I'm going to spend my life writing computer software or being a mutual fund manager, etc.?"  From what I said above, it should be pretty clear what's wrong with this line of reasoning. The reason for taking these courses is that they help you develop the skills you need to be successful regardless of what you do, and different kinds of courses contribute in different ways to the development of these skills. Thus, I truly believe that a student who cheats literally cheats themselves out of much of what is valuable in their education. This is why my standing policy is to fail for the course any student who cheats on any assignment.

The more you put into a class, the more you get out of it, again, regardless of the subject. The more work you do, regardless of whether you need to do it to pass the course, the better your skills will get.

Get involved in one or two extra-curricular activities. At least one study has shown that such activities are strongly correlated with greater satisfaction with college life. A list of campus organizations is available here.

An education is not a thing you can get or have gotten once you graduate. Rather, it's a process that should never stop. Once you graduate, continue to pursue and learn about anything and everything. This will ensure that the skills you really need are always there for you when you need them!