Friday, January 16, 2015

Value of College

Today, in the bookstore, I began to read William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite. I did not actually finish reading, so this is not a book review, but I want to explore some thoughts the book sparked, as well as some reflections on my college experience thus far (all four months of it).

First, I should note that a lot of people at school have panned the book and Deresiewicz, saying, "Oh, isn't he that guy that got fired from Yale and is now complaining about higher education?" That sounds a lot like an ad hominem attack to me. When my classmates mock the book, I get the sense that there's some insecurity or defensiveness lying behind it, which makes me think that some of his arguments feel threatening. Therefore, I want to take the book seriously and consider Deresiewicz's arguments with an open mind.

I should note some of my potential biases beforehand, which means that this section will sound self-centered. I'm a freshman at Stanford and most of the people I know are in engineering or earth systems or another "techie" field. What this means is that 1) the idealism has not been stamped out of me 2) I'm still very close to the high school experience he describes in the first couple of chapters 3) very, very few people I know personally will (in all likelihood) go into finance or business 4) I have no idea how things work at the Ivies and globally 5) my school is one of the ones he calls out by name at times, which means I have to watch out for the defensiveness I've seen in others talking about the book.

Deresiewicz's history of the growth of the American university system interested me because of the two opposing strands of elitism he saw: the aristocratic origins, the technocratic backlash born of the Industrial Revolution. What is the purpose of college? That question, he suggests, is getting only a garbled and confused answer from the prestigious universities.

It is also a question that I want to consider in terms of my own experience (remember: if you are a self-centered person, you are allowed to use everything as a chance to learn more about your own mind). Why am I at college?

One explanation, a strong one, is that if I did not go to college my parents would disown/kill me. I'm a first generation child of Chinese expats, which tells you a whole lot about the values with which I was inculcated. (Later, when I am a little farther away from childhood, I may tackle that topic as well.) The "model minority" story does not apply to all Asians, but the contours of it sure apply to me. Education is paramount. If you don't make good grades you are a disappointment. Be smart, keep your head down, work hard.

Deresiewicz spends a lot of time criticizing Amy Chua and the style of parenting she puts forth in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I have not read that book, but I think I should at some point because I think I'd recognize some themes from my upbringing in there. (Probably to a lesser extent; my parents are way better than some others at letting me and my sister make our own decisions about what we do. Alternately, they just taught us their values so well early on that they don't have to be tough on us now.) His basic criticism is that not letting your children have minds and lives of their own stunts them emotionally and makes them neurotic and dependent.

So maybe one reason I am at college is because I have never been brave/foolhardy enough to consider not going to college. But there's more to it than that.

I have eminently practical reasons for going to college: I want to be a civil engineer and that requires a lot of high-level technical training. Why Stanford over a public school, then, given that schools like Berkeley and Urbana-Champaign have incredibly top-notch CEE departments?

One explanation: brand name appeal. After I got into my first reach school, all other possibilities collapsed. When a big-name private university is in the picture, even a great public university like UIUC gets taken off the table. After all, isn't that what we spend all of high school working towards? The best, most prestigious university? And to have that in your hand and turn it down for something that carries less status, even if the education you'd get there would still be good enough to make you eminently competent in your profession...unthinkable.

I have to admit that my internal monologue through April 2014 was "Caltech or Stanford?" with absolutely no other schools that I got into considered. I danced around my room when I got into Caltech not just out of happiness but from relief--relief that I could go to a "ranked" school, that I would not be a disappointment, that I could walk around in the last few months of high school with the "halo effect" of a good university around me. This is true despite the fact that I have brilliant friends going to community college and I know that college admissions are a game of chance and your worth is not determined by your alma mater. My choice of school was based on prestige, to some extent.

But there's more to it than that. When I visited for Admit Weekend I fell in love with Stanford, and even though I haven't felt precisely the same way since, I know I am getting things here that I probably wouldn't get at another school. And of course, most people fall in love with their university once they are there, because every university does provide something special: the chance to be independent, to take greater control over your life choices, to meet new people and discover sides of yourself that you didn't get a chance to explore in high school.

I'm getting away from the original question: what do I want to get out of college? Status, technical competence...what else?

The chance to explore different fields, to meet people who don't come from the same background as me, to be challenged on all levels, to get knocked down a peg and fight my way back up, to figure out how to direct my own day-to-day life, to be responsible and ambitious and professional, to learn about things I did not even know existed. I think I have gotten more open-minded, more willing to admit my own areas of ignorance. In college, people are a lot more open about their passions, and being around people who are in love with their field of choice and love learning more about it is inspiring.

I read a Paul Graham essay today that asks What seems like work to other people that doesn't seem like work to you? Use it as a way to figure out what work you are well suited for. I've kind of been doing that implicitly, mostly through noting when I bite my tongue when other people complain about something that I don't mind. Staying late for Seismic, organizing my schedule, doing psets early, rehearsing field shows. If you're reading that list you may be thinking, "Wow, what a nerd," and that's fine. You probably have your own list of things you enjoy that would make people look at you strangely if you admitted it. And that's fine.

I want to discover more of those things here. I want to find out the questions that will drive me through my life. My intuition says that those questions are ones about infrastructure systems and how other issues--environmental, economic, political, cultural--connect to them.

What about ideas? Deresiewicz seems--though I cannot be sure, having only read a few chapters--to think that everyone should go back to a liberal arts education and read the classics and damn the money. Honestly, I think I could make it as a humanities major, but I don't want to leave numbers and formulae behind. On the other hand, I do think that the problem with being future-oriented is neglecting the valuable parts of the past. Startup culture is strong here and a lot of my friends are critical of it: what are you really disrupting? Who benefits from this? Is this important? And yes, my life would be impoverished if I had never read The Iliad.

I like a point that Deresiewicz made, about how the activities that are highly valued in admissions used to mean something more and are now a "rain dance." Take athletics--I've made more than my fair share of potshots at the stereotype of the hulking, dumb, party animal jock who only got in because of sports. But Deresiewicz points out that athletics used to be a way to build character and courage, and I do think it reflects poorly on me that I am unwilling to get involved in any sports or games, that I avoid places of weakness, areas where I will for sure fail before getting better (if I am patient enough to make it that far).

Likewise with "service." I love Stanford but I must never lose the ability to criticize it where it needs criticizing, and I think that a lot of the "service" organizations here take a paternalistic and, in some senses, outright disrespectful attitude toward the communities or groups they are meant to serve. As far as I can tell, it was even worse in high school; but things are not necessarily that much better here.

My goal in college is to become a competent and thoughtful and well-informed person, someone with massive gravitas, who will make the world better. What am I getting from college that I could not get elsewhere? The social-intellectual community of my hall and the various extracurrics in which I take part is, I think, the most irreplaceable. Responsibility and self-management I could have gotten by moving out to do anything; chance for intellectual fulfillment could be had at home; I don't know if I could have them both, to as great an extent, anywhere but at college.

Of course, college will not be the end of my character development. But I do know that I want to get something out of this place, that I am getting something out of this place, and maybe college isn't the right path for everyone but it is the right path for me.

(The critical thoughts will, of course, continue.)

Have a good weekend.

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