Does College Make You Stupid?


Red Berries - IMG_4552 sHere’s an equation for you: Tanking economy + overpriced colleges + online education = more college dropouts. Today, thousands of college-aged students are opting out, or dropping out of college.  And with heroes like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who can blame them? The “UnCollege” experience, as outlined in Alex William’s recent New York Times article, allows these students to conduct self-directed learning over the internet, and on the job.  A love of learning should be the outcome of any educational program, so I’ve no issue with the do-it-yourselfers. Maybe sitting in lecture classes makes you stupid, unable to seek knowledge in more interactive and personal ways. I’m also for on-the-job learning. I did that myself, jumping into TV production right out of college and getting my School of Hard Knocks MBA by launching and managing three small businesses starting at age 23.

But I’m also torn about the idea of missing out on college. For me, the experience was so much more than classes. It was learning how to get along with roommates, having out-of-class debates with professors, and lasting experiences and friendships through extra-curriculars. Not to mention a great network of people to know after graduation. Even if the internet had been around back then (computers were in their infancy–by my junior year we could play Pong), I’m not sure I would have had the skills and knowledge to search the web properly, or make a rational plan for acquiring the things I needed to know. Not that my college course selection didn’t have a certain randomness to it. Along with social pressures not unlike today’s, what with choosing classes that your friends liked.

Watching my kids manage technology, I’m in awe of this digital native generation that knows its way around these devices and the internet. Maybe they can self-educate.  Oh, wait. They are playing another round of Madden instead of doing their homework. Maybe not.

The problem is, faced with all this technology, many schools aren’t helping kids make choices. My high schooler is typical in that his school bans the use of iPhones, laptops and the like during class time. Shouldn’t his teachers be embracing these technologies and integrating them into the classroom? Isn’t the Smart Board so, um, yesterday?

So I’m worried about a generation of digital natives without filters or true internet research skills, who then opt for self-teaching instead of college.  What strategies do they really know to determine what’s good and bad information? Can they make productive plans about what knowledge to acquire about which subjects? Do they understand who is behind the information they see? Do they have the basic cultural competencies to have decent conversations about books and films and ideas?  Maybe more than I realize.  They certainly know enough to be cheating in record numbers. I just watched a one-hour documentary “Faking the Grade” that taught me ways to cheat in school I hadn’t even considered—though the technologies involved are often ones I use all the time to make videos.

So this all makes me wonder: Can the do-it-yourselfers get the same benefits as those who go to college? Are they more self-directed as learners? Maybe these kids don’t feel the pressure to cheat as much as the ones trying to get into/succeed in college? Or maybe they just cheat in different ways? 

I’ve no answers, only questions. Interested to hear your thoughts.

6 replies
  1. Ingrid Sojit
    Ingrid Sojit says:

    Hi Amy. I think of my college experience as irreplaceable. I was taught how to learn. In my history classes I was taught how to be a historian, not just “about” history. The same applies to other subjects. I developed critical thinking skills that have lasted me a lifetime. As I go through life I know that it is because of my undergraduate background that I can distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, methodologies, paradigms. I did attend an excellent graduate program after college, but those first four years had done more for me than what came later. The problem is that I attended an elite research university of the highest level. My college education may be nothing like what people are receiving at other, perhaps equally expensive, institutions. Yes, technology can be incorporate into a modern classroom. What can’t replaced is being taught how to think by some of the most important thinkers of your time. Socially, in my own case, I may have been better off out in the non-academic world. A liberal free thinker in many ways, I am a staunch conservative when it comes to college education.

    • amy's brand buzz
      amy's brand buzz says:

      Well you are definitely a free spirit, Ingrid, so it’s interesting you are a “conservative” on college attendance. I have to agree; my own experience was also irreplaceable. When that same experience costs more than double today, though, I can certainly see how some students would look elsewhere. The fee structure is an unsustainable business model for colleges, in my opinion. Don’t get me started on the tenure system and its impact on costs! Another blog post perhaps…

  2. Laurie Miller
    Laurie Miller says:

    As a consumer of higher education for 10 years myself and a dispenser of such for the last 20 years, I am, of course, and advocate of college education. But it is not for the reason most people assume.

    I am a lover of the traditional lecture, lab, recitation, dorm living, club joining American education system, finding in it all the benefits Amy outlines above, and I am also a lover of learning, of intellectual curiosity. Thus some of my most memorable learning experiences came outside of the classroom because of ideas planted within me inside the classroom: comments or challenges made by my professors or manifested in class discussions that served as catalysts for inquiry.

    Inspiring curiosity and cultivating solid analytic skills that can be applied in various fields in various ways is what education should be focused as since we are preparing students for futures with jobs and daily live experiences that we cannot predict.

    In this light, knowing how to use any information gathering tool efficiently and judiciously is what should be taught in college. In addition, because there is so much information out there specific to nothing and/or specific to a particular field of inquiry, education also needs to model how people within particular fields view the world and access it.

    Teaching skills like these is difficult because they are hard to access and most people think they way to know if they have learned something is to be tested on it: with a traditional test, traditional grades, etc. But there is not really an easy way to access the acquisition of critical thinking, especially when you want to see if the learner can apply it in situations we cannot yet imagine (could you have imagined in 1986 that you would be able to conduct most of your daily workplace tasks on a portable phone smaller than the copy of Catcher in the Rye in the back pocket of your Levis 501s?).

    It would seem my argument is moving toward tearing down the traditional way of educating college students in the US a la the lines of the UnCollege crew, but what I am really advocating is a renovation rather than a revolution. Many of the homes in my 1950s suburbs still look the same from the outside … or at least you can see the original footprint of the homes that have been added on to … I cannot think of one that has been totally torn down and rebuilt in a manner completely different from the original. I am pretty sure that none of the homes in my neighborhood has the same kitchen sink it had when it was built, and most have new (and additional) bathrooms and basements being used as family rooms rather than simply for storage or a post WWII tiki bar. The homes have retrofitted for modern life with electrical upgrades, double pane windows, air conditioning and media connectivity. This has happened because the homes are in a comfortable neighborhood and were built well with strong materials.

    Our college education system is the same as the little suburban homes in my neighborhood: they are worth keeping but need updating. The updates our higher education system needs are numerous, but they are obtainable. If we decided to “leave the neighborhood” and trying living another way, say in an UnCollege RV that travels across the country without permanent roots, we will give up something worthwhile, comfortable and “upgradable.” Actually, I think we do more than trade a traditional way of education for an untested system. We give up the benefits of college life I think must graduates value, the thinks Amy outlined: learning not only how to get along with others but how to live within in a 10×15′ room, learning how to set your own goals and how to achieve them without live-in parental supervision, learning how to make and let go of friends, learning how to think for oneself.

    These are hard skills to master and having an established well-planned support system (read “student life” — a counseling and health center, rec sports, dorms, libraries, planned student activities with a focus on education) makes the process easier. Put that support in the same place that you put faculty members who are eager to share their love of learning and you get a good place to learn.

    It is true colleges and universities do need to do a better job of embracing information technologies, especially in terms of getting faculty and staff to use it to connect with students, but this is already happening, and it is not worth tearing down systems that have core value and proven effectiveness. We simply need to put on some up-to-date additions. If there are still learning who do better in different learning environments, great … let them drive their UnCollege RVs around the country. Having different ways of becoming educated is what we need as we move forward.

    • Ingrid Sojit
      Ingrid Sojit says:

      It was a pleasure to hear from both of you. The tenure system is absurd …. not just absurd, there’s a terrible abuse of highly dedicated young intellectuals who do the grunt work of teaching at the best university with a lack of compensation that is inexcusable. The “system” is what made me decide to leave academia for good. On a happier note. It may be worthwhile to study those colleges and universities that seem to be getting it right. After much consideration, along with unexpected disappointments, my third child ended up at Hamilton College, in Clinton N.Y. She is now in the middle of her sophomore year. This college has one of the highest rates of student satisfaction in the U.S. It is a four year liberal arts college which compensates for the fact that it is not a research university by offering students almost limitless opportunities for research internships all over the country. It is also famous for it’s ample array of study abroad opportunities. Within Hamilton itself, the atmosphere is intimate. Professors get to know their students more than I’ve ever witnessed. From personal experience, I can tell you that the financial aid program is not run in an ideal manner, but if you know what you’re doing it does work. My daughter is now planning not to be at Hamilton at all during her junior year. She wants to do a semester abroad followed by a semester long internship at a different institution in New England. When she told me of her decision I was very impressed with what she said. First, “Do you know what this means, mom?” My response, “that you’re going to have two wonderful experience that broaden your horizon ….” that sort of thing. “No,” she answered, “that’s not the point. It’s that I’m willing to sacrifice on quarter of my time in the best place I’ve ever known in my life!” Wow. Hamilton is famous for getting transfer students who are unhappy at one of the Ivy’s or other schools with a better ranking. It’s been a revelation. Like I said before, I can’t imagine a better undergraduate education than what I received, but I’m certain that I would have been happier at a place like Hamilton. I may also have had the support that I needed to make better decisions in the long run.

      • amy's brand buzz
        amy's brand buzz says:

        Hamilton is a great little college. I’m brewing a post on tenure! Think this ancient and often unfair system is helping to put research universities both out of reach financially and on poor footing educationally–at least for the undergrads. And you are so right about lack of compensation to those doing most of the teaching work. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and ideas, Ingrid and Laurie!

  3. Priscilla Stanton
    Priscilla Stanton says:

    It’s very simple. A college graduate should be able to do one thing: know what to do when he or she doesn’t know what to do.

    Because that begins by evaluating the issue and often digging deep within oneself to begin to articulate the question, and then searching for answers which often lead to more questions, and then conceptualizing the questions and your initial foray into some solutions or answers, and that’s plural because there are often many solutions which are sometimes contradictory.


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