Do you learn anything useful in college?

Photo: Dnalor 01 via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I’ve been out of school for nearly 40 years. I’ve been contemplating the value of college through the lens of my adult children’s experience. Some of the skills I learned have been useful. The content, though, has been mostly useless.

This song has been going through my head:

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”

It’s college, not high school, I’m talking about, but what did become of all the crap I learned?

I was really good at school, I got A’s in all the academic courses in college and graduate school. It was a game, and I was good at it. But did it make a difference?

What was useful: skills

I took lots of math, physics, statistics, and computer science in college and graduate school. That taught me many techniques for problem-solving. Those techniques — and that approach — have been extremely useful in my career. I am a logical thinker and a problem solver, and college trained me to do that.

I took English composition, sociology, and psychology and wrote papers. I liked writing. I like practicing it. Learning to do research, structure an argument, and write well and clearly was useful. It’s obviously a skill I have put to good use.

I learned the basics of coding. I’ve haven’t written code per se in my career, but I’ve built algorithms with all sorts of tools. That skill was helpful.

I took a speech class. That got me to understand at least the basics of public speaking, with some practice.

I learned to analyze data with statistical techniques. That turned out to be useful when I helped develop Technographics, the consumer survey data product at Forrester Research.

As a Ph.D. student at MIT, I taught recitation sections of calculus. Based on my avid enjoyment of that, MIT assigned me to teach the full calculus class in the off-semester (the only people who take the first calc class in the spring are people who failed it the first time and other assorted oddballs). I also taught calculus to naval engineering students who were much older than me, for three hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks. All of that teaching was useful in training me how to prepare and present material, including technical material. But it was never part of a class I learned — in fact, my interest in teaching was considered a weakness compared to a lesser interest in doing mathematical research.

These are all skills, not content. It’s not really a wonder I can think at all — these classes did train me to think.

What was mostly useless: content

I have never used what I learned in linguistics, sociology, psychology, or the history of science. I can’t even remember most of it.

Looking at my many math classes, the only thing I actually used later was a tiny bit of linear algebra (matrix multiplication) which I used for some modeling at Forrester. The calculus, differential equations, and analysis was useless. The many logic classes I took in graduate school have been mostly useless. The only time they were even marginally applicable was when I helped my daughter to learn algebra, calculus, physics, and a mathematical computer science class.

The statistics was useful, as I described. And I did get to use some of the physics in a couple of my jobs, working on software that dealt with equations.

I took French. That came in handy a few times speaking with French people and visiting France and Quebec. It’s also an interest I share with my wife, who is far better at French than I am.

I learned to code in FORTRAN and PDP-11 assembler language. That knowledge is obsolete.

The credential

The Ph.D. work in math got me my first job and as a credential, probably helped me get other jobs. But rapidly, my other job experience and my connections become what mattered.

What I didn’t learn but needed

I never took a business class. I never took a marketing class. I never took accounting. All of that would have been useful. But since I had planned to become a mathematician, I never even considered them. I had to learn all that on the job and there are still gaps in my knowledge.

I wish I’d taken some history. It would help me to be a better citizen.

What does this mean for today’s students?

Any knowledge you learn will rapidly become obsolete. Gathering knowledge at college probably won’t help you much. Most of what you need to know, you can learn with Google and books.

Skills are worth accumulating. Although they, too, obsolesce, you can build on them.

A lot of what students learn now is how to “work the system.” That’s not a course. But I guess it’s valuable. It’s “how you read the writing on the wall.”

Students also make connections and learn how to learn. That is useful.

Finally, consider what happens in your job interviews.

If you encounter an interviewer who asks “What do you know?”, that’s probably not a good job.

If they ask “What do you know how to do?”, that’s more promising.

I’m interested. Think back to your college years. What did you learn then that is still useful now?

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  1. Critical thinking and (the associated) knowing how to learn, are the only skills that really matter. You don’t necessarily need to go to college to acquire them though. In fact, one of the surprising things you find in life, is how many people manage to get through college without learning either.

  2. I graduated with my 1st BS nearly 50 years ago. I earned another the next yr (for a specific USAF credential) and an MBA 8 yrs later. Much later, I counseled high school seniors applying to colleges for 20 years.

    That last experienced forced me think a lot about the experienced value of a college investment, and why I thought my alma mater (a medium sized university in the Midwest of liberal arts and strong STEM) might be better for an 18-yo than a high-prestige one or a public college or small college close to home. Here’s the essence of what I came up with.

    1. At the right school, with generally smallish classes, mostly not-terrible teachers you will learn a variety ways of thinking about a variety of problems. Even though I never designed digital circuits or wrote art criticisms, the methods of thinking about those topics showed up in my analyses of business, marketing, and organizational problems. It’s not the specific facts you come away with, but the learned disciplines of how to put them in context that matters.

    2. This 18-22 yo age period is a truly unique time to experiment with new kinds of friends an social groups, trying on new activities and class subjects with little cost to either failing or dropping the activity. Young people who don’t embrace this opportunity lose some degree fearlessness in facing life’s challenges. I think it also teaches a sort of curiosity I find missing in people who didn’t take this approach (for any number of reasons, chosen or not)

    3. The value of diversity. Without trying, I learned quickly not only how differently many others grew up, but also how much I had to flex to get along, and then to lead. Especially these days, it is really hard to get outside our bubbles without college to kick it off. (And it is too easy to simply move into similar bubble at college if you don’t watch it.)

    4. You learn to mix free will with meeting deadlines and expectations, constantly. At least in my white-collar, high-tech marketing and consulting world, I’ve found, to my egalitarian disappointment, that smart people without a BA/BS simply are not as reliable as graduates. I don’t know if this causation or simply correlation, but it seems to be an accepted “fact,” and ignoring it will limit one’s job prospects.

    Out of my 4 areas of benefit, only one is about actual intellectual learning. The rest are about personal and social learning and development. I see nothing wrong or disturbing about this. Humans are complex social animals, and our brains aren’t wired to be naturally logical for a reason. “Success” at Life doesn’t seem to relate too much intellectual thinking, but more to how we use our thinking abilities (IQ, EQ, SQ, etc.) productively in a tangled web of people.

    Thanks for bringing all this up!