“What University Should I Choose?”

The experience you have at university is far more important than the name that goes on your resume. A truism, perhaps, but seeing a new class decide what universities to attend (and being asked the question a number of times) made it seem worth saying.

Before one is actually at university, the things that loom large in the mind’s eye are the universities’ websites, their Wikipedia pages, their brand names and whether you know anyone there. These are the things that matter little once you’re there.

The things you will think about daily are what books you’re reading, who you’re spending time with, and what professors you’re talking to. All universities have those three things. There is less difference between them than you might think.

The differences that are worth considering are where the university is and what sense of community it has. The latter especially will define your experience.

University community should be judged not just on the superficial, but on the deeper sense of how open it is and whether or not it will let you change and grow, or if it will hold you in a straitjacket of who you once were and who others think you should be. This can be hard to discern, but visit the campus if at all possible and look for the small signs. The diversity and the differences between people can be the surest sign; homogenous campuses may not let you grow.

Most importantly, ask—and ask only of yourself—what you want to get out of university and how you want to spend four important years. Answering that question will define the experience, and even define your life, far more than whether the university starts with a Y or an H, an O or a C.

 

The Commodification of Learning

Note: I wrote this article in late 2012, in one of my final few months of high school. I originally published it on Medium, where it was widely shared. What I was getting at, really, was the value of the liberal arts, though I don’t think I fully comprehended the term back then.

You can learn a huge amount by reading a novel, examining an artwork, or watching a movie. You can usually learn a lot more by doing one of those things than you can by reading a school textbook that spoon-feeds you information.

But every day, I see people choose to read a textbook they’ve already read a dozen times over a new novel, because they can see an immediate reward for reading that book. Namely, that reward is better grades.

But getting better grades doesn’t mean you’ve learned more. Getting a better grade on a topic usually shows that you’ve trained your brain to regurgitate information on a given topic so well that your brain isn’t even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t learning beyond the point that you understood the concepts – from there, it was simple memorisation.

In other words, people choose to learn less, simply because there is a more obvious reward that society offers by reading something less insightful that they already understand to a certain extent.

I think the rewards should be given to the people who choose to broaden their minds by learning about a larger range of topics, rather than those people who devote themselves to being able to recite their textbooks.

Yet no one gets credit for reading a book that is unrelated to school. It doesn’t go on their report, and doesn’t contribute to grades. In the mental equation that all students carry out, the most obvious payout comes from continuing to read the already-familiar textbook over a new book on an entirely new subject.

This is the commodification of learning. Learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes, in the form of good grades that (eventually) are said to lead to a better job. Yet not all learning is assigned an economic value – only very specific, measurable, tangible learning that is done in a classroom is assigned this value in the form of grades.

The result of this commodification is that the incentives facing students are wrong. The incentives should be geared toward encouraging learning and understanding of a range of topics, not the recital of textbooks and basic knowledge that all high school students have. The incentives brought about by this commodification of learning lead to homogenous thinking and lack of creativity – undesirable traits in the world today.

To fix this problem, we need to either:

– Commodify the learning of everything.

or

– Ensure everyone realises that learning, in its true form, is an uncommodifiable concept.

Commodifying the learning of everything would involve giving individuals credit for the books they read, the topics they learn about, the subjects they speak on, and the artworks they create. In some ways, it’s fixing a problem by throwing more of the problem at it. But that might just work.

If everyone were to realise that learning cannot be truly commodified, then greater consideration could be given to individuals who exhibit learning beyond their textbooks. This attaches intrinsically recognisable value to all learning, without making that value economic, and thereby commodifying learning.

I don’t know which solution is better. But what I do know is that education, where it’s currently headed, shows no signs of creating broad-minded, creative individuals. And that seems a mighty big failure of twenty-first century education.

Selling the Liberal Arts

This is how the Council of Independent Colleges, an organising body for many small liberal arts colleges, describes the liberal arts:

A liberal arts education means studying broadly—taking classes in many different subjects—and building skills that are geared toward more than just one profession. By studying the liberal arts, students develop strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Liberal arts students learn to approach questions flexibly and to think across multiple disciplines. These are skills employers say they value most, even more than a specific major. In today’s labor market, career paths are changing rapidly, and graduates must draw from a variety of skillsets to adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.

I understand the attempt to appeal to what future colleges students think they should want by highlighting the liberal arts in an employment context. But doing so anchors these future liberal arts students to the idea that their time at college is about maximising their employment opportunities. Before they’ve even started college, they’ve given up on what the liberal arts are meant to be about.

Yes, this approach might succeed in attracting more students to the liberal arts; but it does so with the wrong reasons, diminishing the chance of a liberal education actually being received. For studying at a liberal arts college does not mean you are receiving a liberal education; the latter is, of course, up to what the individual makes of it.

The approach makes even less sense when, in a rather inane dialogue meant to explain the liberal arts, the same website describes liberal education as being about “the abilities or skills appropriate to a person who’s free.” Which is it? Are the liberal arts a fast-track to a management career, or about learning how to be free in a deep sense?

The confusion over how the liberal arts are sold means that most of us liberal arts students, and most of our professors, aren’t sure what we’re meant to be receiving or what to be teaching. Is it employable skills? Or how to be wise? The difference could not be more stark, and it explains why in my time at college I’ve had to do assignments ranging from an infographic (because employers love that, my professor said) to being asked to write my own eulogy.

If the liberal arts are to mean anything beyond being a new marketing strategy for small colleges, we (and I mean students, professors, and college administrators) must promise what we actually mean. Only then will students expect to have their lives fundamentally changed at college, and be open to the experience.

The Means and the Ends of an Education

When it comes to thinking about university study in the United States, the challenge seems simply to be getting in.

As admission rates get ever closer to zero percent and the process becomes ever more stressful, it’s really no wonder we begin to think the challenge of university ends once we are in. From there, just make sure you pass, develop a niche, get a prestigious internship, and all will be fine, the thinking goes.

We focus so much on the admission that we forget all about the point of it all, which is what we do once we are in. Education, then, starts to seem like something that happens to us during these four years, rather than something we grab hold of and shape.

One’s approach to university from the very first day shapes not only the four years there, but one’s entire life. That’s because education in the liberal arts tradition is, at its core, about learning how to live. It’s about learning what good and bad means to you, not the person next to you. I’ve only learned that recently, late in my time at university. And yet learning it has changed everything.

But because the admissions process has conditioned us to think of university as a competitive machine that will give us a path to a higher-paying job, we ignore what it is that university truly offers us.

Universities have all the tools necessary to learn about life and its mysteries as one wants to learn about them. But because we think the difficulty of our education has happened in the admissions process, we ignore the real effort required of us. That effort lies not in essays or assignments, but in deciding what it is that we actually want out of our time here—and then going and getting it, however tiring and difficult it at times may seem.

Admission to university is the means of an education, not its end. What a simple idea that is so incredibly difficult to keep sight of—even once one is “in”.