This is an essay from my book Create Your Career (No Degree Required) written by philosopher (outside-academia) Steve Patterson. Steve is the author of What’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin and Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge.
My shiny bachelor’s degree holds a secret: graduating from college isn’t impressive. It’s embarrassingly easy. Not because I’m smart, but because the standards are so low. For the last few semesters of my college life, I mostly wrote bullshit and got straight A’s. And after talking to hundreds of other students and professors, I don’t think my experience was unique. Here’s my story:
I went to Alfred University in Upstate New York. It’s your standard small liberal arts school. My degree was in Political Science. Lest you think this story is unique to Alfred, since graduating, my job has given me the opportunity to speak with tons of other students and professors from around the country, and the vast majority of students have shared similar stories.
The first four semesters, I didn’t really care about my grades. I started college young, and it never really occurred to me that I should try to get A’s. My goal was just to pass classes without working too hard. When Junior year started, I had a girlfriend at the time who was a dedicated student and was getting all A’s. That seemed like a good idea, so I too committed myself to getting A’s in every class.
At the time, I thought I was entering a new realm, filled with academic elite. I expected intellectual camaraderie with students and rigorous debates with professors. Ideas would be passionately challenged and defended. It was a romantic vision. And it was horribly wrong.
Instead, I found a realm of lazy students and disinterested professors. My peers were far more interested in partying than ideas, and their vision of academic success was to allot maximum time to socializing while still passing class. They accomplished this by mastering the fine art of academic regurgitation.
What is academic regurgitation, you ask? Simple: write what the professor wants to hear and how he wants to hear it. You don’t have to ideologically agree with the professor; rather, there’s a standard format for communicating that you’ve done the homework and read the assignments. It doesn’t matter if you understand the material, nor does it take much intellectual effort. Of course, communicating you’ve done the homework is quite different from actually doing the homework.
It wasn’t long before I, too, became a master regurgitant. With few exceptions, there was no reason to put serious effort into academic work if you were already getting high marks. The vast majority of students, who didn’t even bother regurgitating, did no assigned work at all, so we usually ended up going over old material every day. This punished any student who actually did the assignments beforehand. So rather than sit through a lecture repeating everything we were supposed to read, I’d usually skim over the assignments before class, picking out the key ideas which I thought would come up. That way, I could raise my hand and answer questions and act like I did the homework thoroughly. I practiced this skill often, so eventually I could parse through several dozen pages in a matter of minutes. If that sounds impressive, it’s only because I understood it as more of a science than an art.
The stimulating conversations I had hoped for never materialized. The intellectual challenge and debate between my peers was non-existent. I knew the quality of my work, my effort, declined, but my grades didn’t show it. I even got in trouble with the Alfred administration – later completely exonerated – which is a ridiculous story for another time. My romantic vision of academia died, and it only took about a semester.
I spent a semester in Washington DC at American University, and I remember taking this Russian History class. The teacher couldn’t resist incorporating Michel Foucault into her classes. I can still hear her Brooklyn accent talk about “power structures” – or as she put it, “powah structyahs”. So, what’s an A-seeking student do when asked to write every week about Russian history? Channel Foucault and incorporate vague, abstract connections into your writing. She ate it up. It was a running joke to see how much nonsense and fluff I could get away with and still receive full credit. I got an A in that class, and what did I learn? Couldn’t tell you. Something about Russian culture being ambivalent towards authoritarianism.
Or how about the class on meditation and relaxation. The professors didn’t want to stress anyone out over their grades (because that would be too ironic), so they ended up giving everybody an A. It didn’t really matter if you showed up, though I did, because you were practically guaranteed of getting an A from the start. Students were permitted to fall asleep in class – they were certainly relaxed while unconscious.
Or what about my English class, “Fiction into Film”. Liberal arts education insists you get a wide range of different classes, and it was the same story in each: lazy, uninterested students being taught by dispassionate professors. In that class, we’d read a book, then watch the corresponding film adaptation. Then, naturally as college students, we’d write. Our assignments usually required us to create abstract interpretations of the material. Students were eager to write about the sexual overtones in everything. Any whimsical interpretation went unchallenged, because after all, literary interpretation is subjective. If a student feels like Snow White is about sado-masochism, who’s the professor to disagree? There was no critical thinking, nothing but regurgitating the plot so the professor knew we read the book, then writing some fluffy nonsense about grandiose interpretations and personal feelings. And that exercise was supposed to strengthen my college education. As if creating wild meta-narratives and writing down my feelings were an employable skill. Of course, I enjoyed reading many of those books – they were really good. But I don’t need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a university for good book recommendations.
And if I didn’t need a university to recommend books, I certainly didn’t need them to teach me all the deep insights from mandatory PE classes. I spend thousands of dollars learning the rules of golf, then smacking some golf balls into a field three times a week. Not only did it cost thousands, but I got academic credit for it. As in, that work counted towards getting my illustrious bachelor’s degree.
Though it might sound silly, it was discouraging to get good grades with the amount of work I put into college. It just seemed wrong. It only makes sense in one scenario: I must have been graded in relation to my peers. With only a handful of exceptions, every student was uninterested in learning; they were focused on socializing and partying. And Alfred has no reputation of being a party school – quite the opposite. While I was a lazy student, compared to my peers, I was bookworm. No class contained more than a fraction of interested students, and professors had to teach to the middle. And the middle, by any absolute metric, was scraping the bottom. My fellow students put a tiny amount of work into their educations, and yet many of them received respectable grades.
I remember being perplexed by professors telling me I was a good writer. Then, I read some of my peers’ writing. It was abysmal. Horrible. Terrible. Shockingly bad, not just grammatically, but in terms of coherence. Conceptual world-salad was the norm, interspersed with big words. So by contrast, I understood why professors would look at my mediocre writing as excellent.
Of course, being in the Political Science department, our classes weren’t graced by large numbers of athletes. Any class heavily populated by school athletes was in an even sorrier situation. Alfred had reasonably good sports teams for being such a small school, and you could tell the administration wanted to keep them around. You could also tell their expertise was running into each other at high velocity. Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with sports, at all. But, when an institution of “higher learning” conflates athletic merit with intellectual merit, there’s a problem. I knew students who graduated without being able to write or think past a middle-school level. They masqueraded as educated students, because they were wonderfully capable athletes, which made the administration money.
With such illustrious peers, group projects were a catch-22. Either I’d have to do everybody else’s work to get a good grade, or I’d trust my peers to do their job and get a bad grade, because they were all-but-guaranteed to half-ass their work.
Now, I must give credit where credit’s due. I had probably three good classes in which I learned a lot and felt the classes were positive. One was a class in Logic, the other two were about political theory. But three classes over the span of four years isn’t exactly worth the time or money. By far, the most valuable experience I had in college was meeting my wife. We met in my last semester, and I’d endure another hundred years in school if I knew I’d end up marrying such a wonderful person.
None of this has mentioned the actual quality of what was taught. It would be impossible to quantify the amount of nonsense and error I was taught over those four years. The content was biased and wrong. For example, any time we talking about economics in our classes, nobody – not even the professor – had a clue what they were talking about. I don’t say this out of hubris. The one Economics professor on campus did not have an understanding of basic economic principles, and he has a Ph.D. I can’t entirely blame the students, given their professors lack of understanding. In the future, I will write in more detail on this site about the many inaccuracies taught to impressionable undergrad students.
I was often “that guy” in class, frequently raising my hand to challenge and correct my professors and peers. So needless to say, I wasn’t exactly the class darling. Students had no trouble dismissing my arguments by virtue of the fact that I disagreed with the professor. They were used to treating their statements of opinion as reasoned argument. Rarely did students have open-minded debate with each other – they were busy nodding in agreement about how smart they were and how much they agreed with the professor.
So, in short, I must confess to all of my future employers and readers: my college education was a joke. My degree means little more than I am patient enough to find a way to live through four years of educational farce. The really perverted thing is that my degree has likely helped me land a job. Liberal arts education might be worthless in terms of the accuracy or use-value of the curriculum, but unfortunately it still means something to future employers. I just hope they don’t read this post.
Create Your Career is currently in final edits and will be available for purchase on Amazon and Yours.org later this week.