Weekly Words: College Mania

The season of college admission insanity is upon us, and it is–like fights over Huck Finn in school, or more recently the White House Correspondents Dinner–a reliable, if not particularly illuminating conversational topic. The New York Times has a “did I go to the wrong college?” piece which has the advantage of being a candid riposte to the miles of copy, and hours of agonized conversation “getting in.” (Something I have contributed my bit to alas).

Some quotes on post-secondary ed (pro and con) to add a bit of perspective (including a few from Terry Pratchett’s spoof Unseen Academicals.)

“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

“Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they’ll tell you it’s to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.”
― Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book

“Some people get an education without going to college. The rest get it after they get out.”
― Mark Twain

“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
― Herman Melville

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”
― Ray Bradbury

“And yet not a dream, but a mighty reality- a glimpse of the higher life, the broader possibilities of humanity, which is granted to the man who, amid the rush and roar of living, pauses four short years to learn what living means”
― W.E.B. Du Bois

‘Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through’. –Terry Pratchett

‘Well, for the proper working of the world, said Lady Margolotta, ‘it is essential that ring binders are important to at least one person.’ –Terry Pratchett

Finally, on the nerdy side, there is research about how college affects students, and although this does not specifically reflect on the role of college choice, it does suggest that the advice your grandmother might have given you, namely, “that it’s what you put in to once you are there that matters most, not where you go” is the right approach.  Within college differences make matter more than distinction sbetween institution. Selectivity, meh!

Some relevant bits excerpted (with my comments) from How College Affects Students,

“In our 1991 review, we found that, across all of the outcomes considered, where students attended college had less impact than either the net effect of attending versus not attending college or of differences among individuals’ experiences during college (within-college effects). The more recent evidence underlying the present synthesis reinforces this conclusion. Clearly, the 3,000-plus post-secondary institutions in the United States differ substantially in size, complexity, type of control, mission, financial and educational resources, research-teaching orientation of faculty, reputation and prestige, and characteristics of students enrolled. Yet, with some notable expectations (for instance, 2-year vs. 4-year mostly, with 2-year students showing more development) the weight of evidence from the 1990s casts considerable doubt on the premise that the substantial structural, resource, and qualitative differences among post-secondary institutions produce correspondingly large differences in net educational effects on students. Rather, the great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth, although the “start’ and “end’ points for students differ across different institutions. Consistent with our 1991 synthesis (as well as with Bowen’s 1977 review), the post-1990 research leads to the conclusion that similarities in between-college effects substantially outweigh the difference.”

(As for “college quality” )—“Aside from these small effects, however, little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige, or educational resources had any important net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values.” “…we found that attending an academically selective institution has a negligible impact on knowledge acquisition or general cognitive development.”

“Similarly, we found little evidence of any appreciable effects of institutional selectivity on academic and social self-concept, self-esteem, or other psychosocial dimensions once adjustments were made of other sources of influence. When institutional quality appears to be a factor at all, its impact is small and occasionally negative. (Including less positive dispositions towards diversity which may increase mildly as institutions become more selective.)

The last word to Robert Frost, college dropout.

“What we do in college is to get over our little-mindedness. To get an education you have to hang around till you catch on.”


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