College: Four Years of…?

Melinda, a sister of a friend over at posted a piece on “Pro: General Education,” which included this line:

“College education…is about education for life.”

I have to disagree with that statement. Even if it is revised to “College Education in liberal arts,” I would tend to disagree. While I have absolutely no clue what a liberal arts education really entails, college education in general seems to be good for one thing: a diploma. I’m a third-year senior in Mechanical Engineering. I have 32 or 33 units left to graduate, a total of 152 units taken, and I can honestly say that the vast majority of what I have learned, I learned in the first 2 weeks or less of class. Very little of it will ever help me with “life issues,” either. The only ways that I’ve learned about life through college is by living on my own for 3 years, and I could’ve done that for an awful lot less money someplace other than a college campus.

My frustration with college stems from the feeling that I’m really not learning anything useful. All of my engineering classes could easily be boiled down to 2 week seminars with a book of applications to reference, because the only things in these classes that a), anyone can ever remember a week after the class is over, and b), is actually useful, are the basic concepts. Anyone who can finish the calculus courses required for an engineering class can figure out the application of most of the concepts by simple mathematics. General Ed classes usually can’t be taught in two weeks, but oftentimes, in my experience, the required general education classes amount to either conversation material or pointless exercise to the capable student, and near-impossible hurdles to the incapable student.

If college is meant to train us for life, college should parallel life. In “real life,” the vast majority of people will do one thing during the day, and something they enjoy in the evening and on the weekend, not take their work home with them. They will be responsible for keeping themselves and their potential family fed, clothed, and housed, and they will make all their decisions on their own. Granted, many college students experience that sort of responsibility during their college career, but many do not. For many college students, even on conservative Christian campuses, college is little more than an extension of high school adolescence: our parents (or our loans) pay for the majority of our lives, and thus when we aren’t in class, we are free to misbehave in any way we so desire, and we are always free to phone home and beg for more money if we run out. The majority of what college actually trains us to do is pass classes and remain dependent, both things not likely to continue much past our final semester.

Even thought of as career training, college, or at least my college experience, is remarkably lacking. As an engineer, the number of times that I will be required to do a calculation without a book is rapidly approaching, if not already at, zero. I will have my textbooks handy, just in case I need a formula, but in the industry, I will be (and am being) trained to use the handbooks, rules, codes, and computer programs that my office prefers, something anyone with an analytical mind could do easily, which all supercedes the textbook knowledge I hopefully retain from my classes.

Not only will I rarely need the theoretical knowledge I’m being given, the odds of me remembering it all are pretty lousy. While I can’t think of a good alternative, the fact that at least 90% of college students forget the majority of their coursework before they even start the coursework for their next semester seems evidence enough to me that the system is defunct.

Unfortunately, college has become mandatory in our society. You can’t get a job without a degree, even if you have experience, as my dad has learned in his quest to find a different job. As a result, the providers of education have driven up the price of education and lowered the quality—and thus their production cost—of education, just like any good businessman would do. College generally does not prepare us for life, and the education is often of dubious use in today’s workplace, as most companies completely retrain their employees upon hiring. College is little more these days that a method to obtain a diploma, and line the school officials’ pockets with a few thousand more green slips of paper.

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