I Love College

Many homeschoolers, understandably, are sharing this link about autodidacts vs. the formally educated.

I’m not unsympathetic to the ideas and questions in the article, most of which need to be asked. But I don’t really buy the stark contrast between the two groups, and the characterization of colleges and universities strikes right at the heart of a higher ed-lover like me.

Universities are a “sacred tomb” for knowledge? They are “arrogant and inflexible”? They are

A system that rewards those who submit to authority, and who comply with a system that is convenient for educators. . . with stuffy lectures, archaic standard tests, dusty lesson plans with blinking eyes staring back waiting for the ordeal to be finished.

On behalf of my college teaching friends and family – hell, no! My years as an instructor (in the pre-digital age) were peppered with conversations with TAs to department chairs who wanted nothing more than to excite and empower students to think and act creatively. From the young me who couldn’t wait to get to college and talk to people who built a life around scholarly pursuits – what on earth are you talking about?

And so, some random thoughts about two reasons to love formal higher education.

University libraries.

Public libraries are great, but they serve a different purpose and maintain an entirely different catalog. In any field, by the time it gets to books for the lay reader it is no longer new and may be obsolete.

I am a big fan of digitizing, as this makes my work much much easier. But so far digital searching means you find what you are looking for. You don’t find what you didn’t know you were looking for. You don’t make surprising connections beyond what some algorithm might make for you.

This is fine for people trying to learn a particular body of knowledge. It is not as good for people trying to add to the body of knowledge. Discoveries take place when a book you weren’t looking for catches your eye, or you keep going to the next article in the journal.

Diverse population.

This is a point anti-homeschoolers love to raise. “Oh, but in public schools my kids mix with such a diverse group of students.” Poppycock. By and large public school students mix with kids who live in their area, and the school is no more – and is quite possibly less – diverse than the area in which the child is already living and socializing. Our new parish is more ethnically diverse than the public schools my daughter attended.

However.

I go to a couple of our local universities and colleges on a regular basis (libraries, remember?) This is diversity. There are people of all ages, all religions, many different countries, let alone different areas of the United States. This is where different worldviews rub right up against each other, and hard questions have to be asked. (Not to mention the place where autodidacts of modest means rub up against multi-million dollar lab equipment not dedicated to a particular corporation’s bottom line.)

Is it good for an individual to be in this setting? Probably. Is it essential for a society to have these centers of diversity and questioning and large-scale experimentation? Absolutely.

The Specious Argument
But, you may say, this is not what my college was like. My college was full of drones who partied all the time and scraped by with a piece of paper they needed for a job, leaning as little as possible in the process.

For that, I am very sorry. I am very sorry that the U.S. educational landscape is dotted with universities whose sole purpose seems to be churning out pencil pushers and middle managers whose sole purpose, in turn, seems to be making sure everyone keeps thinking inside the box.

I am even more sorry that the B.A. has become a credential required for nearly every above-minimum-wage job that doesn’t require heavy manual labor. That’s stupid and wrong, and bad for everyone.

Nonetheless, thinkers and scholars and scientists and experimentalists matter. Philosophers matter. Artists matter. And so we need some centers where they can find each other and debate together and get drunk together and make accidental discoveries because of each other – because they were exposed to things they didn’t know they needed or wanted to be exposed to and therefore saw something in a way that nobody so far had thought to consider.

Of course there are solitary geniuses. But there are also places where all of a sudden there is a blossoming of creativity – in science, in art, in our understanding of history or economics or anthropology – that happened because of the lovely alchemy of people thinking and working together.

Please, my friends who love digital education, don’t dismiss the need for these places. Fellow homeschoolers, right now in universities across the country are professors who can’t wait to be supportive mentors and enablers to your creative autodidacts.

Is college necessary for everyone? No. But is it wonderful? Oh, yes.

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5 Comments

Filed under Gifted Ed, Learning Styles, Why Homeschool?

5 responses to “I Love College

  1. Molly

    I love college, too. Especially for the book, THE BOOK, the one that unlocks the key, the one you weren’t looking for, the one sitting on the shelf three down from the one you were looking for. And for the artists and philosophers and scientists and scholars being thrown together – yes, the alchemy, like you said. Not a homeschooler…… but can’t imagine the world without our colleges and universities.

  2. This is all interesting, and I could point out a lot of problems in that original article beyond what you have mentioned – but the fact is, the whole discussion is entirely USA-centric. College has become integral to your society. It is not that way in other countries. Especially not in mine! And college (university/tech) does not look that way here either. At least in the almost-decade that I spent there, I never saw anything like you described – blossoming of creativity, people working and thinking together, etc. (Lots of getting drunk though!) But I have no doubt all you say here is true for the States.

  3. Molly

    Of course what I meant was, the one that unlocks the door. Mommy brain.

  4. shaun

    Molly, my mommy brain totally followed you without question.

    Sarah, I worry about holding up my college experience as anything approaching typical — and yet it was my experience, and is available for the asking. I was a rather forceful learner — I may have mentioned that I complained to my first poetry teacher that his feedback was too general and his expectations too low. (My father the professor, on hearing that story said, “Well you’ll get an A in that class,” and indeed I did.)

  5. Yes, I think you are right – uni is what you make of it. Our culture is so laid back, but I think for the serious academics uni could be lots of intellectual fun. I wish my experience of it had been like that, and I envy you yours.

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