The purpose of a college education

What is the point of going to college? I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I settle into my routine of classes and labs this semester. I believe the process of teaching and learning in its pure state, when both parties are genuinely interested and passionate, is one of the coolest things in the world. That said, a lot of the ways we choose to educate students often miss this point and focus on external rewards (grades) or threats (you’re not going to get a good job unless you learn this) to motivate “learning”. I have a lot of issues with traditional methods of schooling, including grades and standardized tests.

One of my former high school teachers, Steve Miranda, has an excellent blog about education issues, and I agree with much of what he says. Earlier this month, he posted a few entries about college questioning the value of attending elite universities like Harvard, since studies have shown that they don’t increase future income. I emailed him and said that I don’t believe that impact on future income should be the evaluation criterion for institutional success in terms of educating students. Steve responded with this post saying that if the purpose of college is to have meaningful conversations with people about cool ideas, you could accomplish the same thing by working for Google for free, downloading MIT’s course content online or doing a lot of other things that don’t require shelling out $50,000 a year.

All of this is true. College is not for everyone, and many people could find betters uses of 4 years or $200,000. But I do think college has unique educational benefits that you can’t get at other places. To illustrate this point, let me walk you through a few highlights from my week here at Whitman.

On Monday, I had chemistry lab. Chem lab can be tedious, but it’s also incredibly cool. In this lab, we synthesized a compound called alum, which is made by recycling aluminum. We got to take an aluminum can, cut it up, add a bunch of chemicals, heat it, cool it and filter it, and eventually we ended up with a white powder. This lab was complicated–lots of individual steps with a serious amount of cooperation required between lab partners. At one point, I spilled our solution out of the filter, resulting in about half of our product going down the drain. But we made it through and had our alum at the end. Alum is a really cool chemical–it’s the active ingredient in a lot of antiperspirants, and it’s used as a mordant to make dye stick to wool better. At the end of lab, we used our product to dye wool red.

Monday, I also had my favorite class–step aerobics. Whitman offers a variety of one credit classes in the Sports Studies, Recreation and Athletics department, which help people like me who want to exercise but don’t have time/motivation set aside a designated period to get sweaty. My class is taught by Laura, one of the staff from the study abroad office who also happens to be an aerobics instructor. I assumed when I signed up for the class that I would have to drag myself there, but Laura is so positive and enthusiastic about aerobics that it makes me excited to go to class every day. We get to listen to techno remixes of top 40 songs while moving around and sweating, and it’s an awesome time where I can be physically present.

After these classes, I went to a meeting for Whitman Direct Action. WDA is a club which partners with a Guatemalan NGO called Semilla Nueva. We’re working on an ecostove project with them and making plans to send several students down to help start a pilot program. As part of this project, I’m participating in an independent study class where we’re going to research, design and build a model of the stove we’re planning to install in Guatemala, and also write a booklet explaining the benefits of eco-friendly stoves.

Wednesday evening, I went to our climbing wall at 6. I spent half an hour working with my fellow instructor Sophie to plan the class we were teaching together. We talked about the skills we wanted our class to learn–in this case, footwork techniques, hip twists, tying in to a rope and proper belaying technique. After we went over this, we taught an hour and a half climbing class for ten peers. By the end of class, our students were belaying each other up a vertical climbing wall, confronting their fears of heights, talking about how sore their arms were and smiling.

After climbing class, I went to our newspaper offices for production night. The Pioneer, Whitman’s newspaper, comes out every Thursday at lunchtime, which means all the editors and production staff get to stay up late on Wednesday night putting the paper together. I spent five hours writing headlines, editing articles, chatting with other staff, eating pizza and generally having a good time while learning about the mechanics of putting a paper together.

The following day, I had biology lab. I got to use a light microscope to look at slides of parasites, yeast, and a few other tiny living things. It was awesome to see cells up close, and drawing them made me think in ways I ususally don’t, since visual art isn’t one of my strong points.

After lab, I had my volunteer shift at the Co-op. The Co-op is a nonprofit grocery store operated by Whitman students which provides healthy natural and organic foods to the Walla Walla community. We sell a lot of things you can’t find in any other grocery stores–raw (unpasteurized) milk, local eggs from a small farm and meat from Thundering Hooves, a grass-fed ranch just outside of town operated by a crazy awesome guy named Joel who can rant about corporate agriculture for hours. Working here, I saw Whitman students, professors and others come in and buy food which is good for them and relatively good for the planet. I got to talk to people about local eggs, speculate about the purpose of powdered kelp (which we sell in bulk) and start research for my personal volunteer project–getting the co-op set up to accept food stamps.

Friday, I had a potluck dinner with six other people living in my dorm. We gathered in the kitchen and made food together–tacos, pasole, pesto pasta and a jicama salad. We sat together and ate while talking for about two hours about comedy, Australia, discriminatory language and the problems with Whitman’s meal plans.

So that’s my week. I learned a lot of things from each of these experiences. Chem lab teaches me patience, teamwork and critical thinking (eventually, we’ll be writing our own lab procedures). Aerobics is about self-discipline and connecting with my body. WDA will educate me about sustainable development and lets me work on a project with tangible results. Teaching a climbing class works a ton of my social skills, requires excellent communication with my fellow instructor and makes me a better climber. Newspaper production requires me to work under pressure, write well, express opinions clearly and focus as part of a team on a larger objective. Bio lab lets me see the world up close, using fancy equipment I probably wouldn’t have at home. The co-op lets me explore my food-geekiness in the company of customers who are just as passionate about raw milk as I am. Potlucks hone my cooking skills and also help me get to know my peers.

None of these activities or skill sets are unique to college. But I think that in the college experience, there’s a degree of emergent behavior. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. College is a unique environment where all of these amazing opportunities exist right outside my door. Everything I just described is at most a ten minute walk from my front door. And the environment here is such that I’m constantly immersed in cognitively challenging activities which require very different skills.

Not going to college works well if you know what you want to do with your life and can find a way to do it. If you’re positive you want to go into computer programming, work on a cool project, show it to Microsoft, and see if they’ll let you work there for free. If you want to be a climbing instructor and guide, go on a NOLS course, get an instructor certification and apply to work at a climbing gym. If you want to be a musician, start a band, teach yourself theory and work on composing music.

But not everyone knows what they want to do. I know I want to change the world, I know I’m interested in journalism, sustainable development, women’s issues and food politics. But that’s it. Nothing in there screams “career”. There are a ton of things I want to learn about–chemistry, biology, food production, rock climbing, newspaper editing, statistics, GIS software, sustainable cooking–and while I could teach myself many of those things, I couldn’t do it this efficiently and quickly without the college experience. College is a place to explore tons of interests at the same time and to do it with a support group of peers.

Steve said that there are plenty of reasons to go to college, but he didn’t think any of them were related to education. But I think there are thousands of ways to get an education. I know the kind of education I want, and I don’t see any way to do it without going to college. True, I’m here because I can meet cool people, hang out, go to parties and live on my own. But mostly, I’m here to learn in a way I don’t think I could anywhere else.