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College: The biggest scam we’ll ever buy

Marc Anthony Rosa | Tuesday, December 6, 2011

We may have been fooled by one of our generation’s biggest scams. In fact, not only do we blindly accept it, but most of us will be working our way out of debt for a decade because of it. It’s a system that penalizes creativity, scatters our focus thinly between unrelated errands and unashamedly conditions us to believe that a few people can tell us how smart we are.

The scam I’m talking about is college. On the surface, college inhales untrained minds and churns out well-respected mid-level managers, galvanized by proud relatives and anticipative parents looking to reshape adequate parenting into something employable. The stuff of dreams. But the reality is that college might be a waste of time and energy. And what’s worse is that we idealize this experience as the final frontier for a better, happier, more creative life.

Rest assured I absolutely love Notre Dame. I love my curriculum, I enjoy my major and I adore my professors. But I absolutely hate, abhor and despise school.

For the past four years of our lives, we’ve lived in a system where genuine learning takes a back seat and most of our energies are spent figuring out what efforts yield the best grades. We spend each weekday traveling to multiple classes, sitting in lectures, reading unrelated textbooks and then we complete assignments and prepare for exams in scattered bursts. Students can barely remember what last month’s tests were on, but can accurately tell you what words teachers circle when awarding A’s or if exams are built around practice tests for courses taken two semesters ago. Somewhere in between, we sleep, eat, make friends, do resume-boosting extracurriculars, figure out who we are and try to have fun. Instead of a four-year experience where we master our majors, what we get is 48 months of moderately-managed cramming split between heavy drinking and applying for stepping-stone internships. College isn’t so much a learning environment as it is a highly-fragmented to-do list.

And, while the education experience is up to students, the actual practices and learning points reinforced are completely out of our hands. We can learn all we want, but GPA is the end-all on how well we understand material and, subsequently, prepare around it. How we learn must conform around a pre-determined, intentionally limiting structure and someone must tell us exactly how well we know the material before moving on. I have zero say in just how much I “get” something because my success is evaluated around a rigid grading rubric cemented in 2006. And it’s retention, not comprehension, that’s evaluated on a percentage scale, like I’m some sort of battery with an exact percentage of knowledge accumulated. I can read multiple books about a subject, but if I didn’t remember the exact name of the cat involved in American court case from 1799 about property taxes for an exam, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t master the material. It’s the Pavlov’s Dog psychology experiment, where students are conditioned to memorize bolded words and last paragraphs of assignments in order to prove material competence to someone else.

Of course, it’s easy to be sarcastic about college. It’s such a multifaceted institution that any pissed-off student can list off arguments against it. We may not remember all of the details from every lesson plan, but we are retaining far more than we’d like to believe. College is a place where students experience different subjects, build terabytes of genuine knowledge and discover academic passions. We mature socially and emotionally, thanks to the countless roommate, dining hall and inter-class social situations that occur at any particular moment. To throw away the value of a college degree is to disregard the thousands of subtle skills and philosophies that transformed the high school graduate we no longer recognize in ourselves.

But these benefits cannot completely justify a system where creativity and genuine learning isn’t properly rewarded. And in the real world, its creativity and independent thinking that separates the Steve Jobs, the Alexander Flemmings and the Adam Smiths from the rest of the pack and actually drive the world forward. Unfortunately for us, college has no objective way to reward our out-of-classroom learning, and more often than not, punishes us for pursuing it. Every day, we face a complex trade-off between the major philosophies of how we consume our education. And each time we choose to master an exam rather than a concept, we slowly subdue our inner brilliance in lieu of a well-prepared recall of class deliverables. But, the more we commit ourselves to college, the more stimuli we must manage, and it’s not easy to write off a cram session in the name of true learning when you’re scoring A’s and making parents proud.

Is college really a scam? Most likely, no. But, if we entered college with the intention of leaving as creative leaders, we shouldn’t be so quick to take our practices and ranking accolades to heart. Maybe, just maybe, the college system isn’t as perfect as we’d like to believe. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve been learning the entirely wrong lessons.

Marc Anthony Rosa is a senior management entrepreneurship major. He can be reached at mrosa@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.