Nabokov, Me, and Getting the Real Value out of Your College Education

Every day and from a variety of angles, a college education is under attack.  There are exceptions.  The disciplines with the most obvious payback such as engineering, nursing, medicine, and accounting continue to enjoy some protection from the questions.  The assault will not stop because most people would like to have a college education and think it is an important marker on the path to success, but they also think the outcome is far from certain and that it is expensive to discover the benefit.

One of the big questions, it seems to me, is how you get the value out of going to college.  I will try to answer that question.

There is no doubt that if you take some majors, such as the ones listed above, you will receive more specific professional training.  That is excellent.  You need a foothold to get into a profession and that training can provide it.  But if you settle for that, you are far from getting the real value of a college education.  And the loss is greater if you major in a field without a tight relation to a profession and fail to get the real value.  If you do that, you’re just wasting time and money.

What IS the real value?  I would argue that the real value of a college education consists primarily in what a college education can do for your mind and your mental habits.

I still remember my first semester at Florida State University.  We registered with no advising help.  They just threw us in a room with some phones and catalogs and told us to go to work.  Somehow, I chose a course in male and female roles in American literature.

The first book we read in that class was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  If you are unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of a man (Humbert Humbert!) who is primarily attracted to females in the transitionary time of life between girl and woman.  I guess it makes him a bit like a pedophile, but not completely so.  For a teenage boy from the south with a traditional take on things, it was challenging stuff.  Now, this is not that story where I tell you how Lolita somehow liberated me from retrograde opinions or something like that.  Instead, the book and the discussions we had in class made me THINK.  I was almost as impressed with our conversations in class as I was by the story.  I am sure I owe the professor a debt because he modeled engagement with a text.

This habit of engagement increased later on as I began my major in economics.  I was fascinated by how well the things I read in my classes seemed to explain the world.  I didn’t agree with all of it, nor did my professors all agree with each other, but I developed the habit of digging into readings.  My eyes stopped floating over passages in such a way that I could say I “read” them.  I camped out in paragraphs and eased into the art of marginalia (making marks and notations in the margins of a book).  Later on, Francis Beckwith would talk to me in terms of “owning” a book.  He didn’t mean that you had paid for it.  He was talking about having read something and thought about it in a way that it stays with you and you can use it.

College, if you do it correctly, will help develop your ability to read a text properly, to think well about it, and to express your informed view about what you have read.  If you ask what’s the value in that, then college may not be for you.  But I would add that the world is full of texts.  And they aren’t just in books.  They are in speeches, conversations, handbooks, emails, songs, newscasts, and other places.  Being able to navigate them is hugely valuable.  You will be able to make a greater contribution in a wide variety of settings.  And greater contributions (rather than silence, stupor, or distracted phone play) will get you noticed.

What I am describing is a heightened form of literacy.  To go with it you need at least a base level of sophistication regarding numbers.  You should be capable of reading numbers in some of the ways you read texts.  In fact, many presentations of numbers are texts, basically.  Do you understand statistical concepts such as covariation and causation?  The world is ready to make a victim of you if you don’t.

These kinds of things I am describing — there are more, but these especially capture me — are the kinds of things you should get from college.  You should not settle for less.

What is the best strategy for getting the value I am describing?  I found that I learned the most from the professors who really resonated with me.  When you find the professor who perks your interest and who seems to have something that you would like to possess (in terms of skills and knowledge), I advise you to seek them out as a mentor.  Ask them about their education, their career, and the subject matter.  If you go to meet with them, try to have some questions in mind.  Don’t show up and then expect them to generate all the conversation.  Ask about books, essays, and articles to read.

I also urge you to develop a curriculum beyond the curriculum.  Start reading some things that haven’t been assigned in class.  Seek out a book in the library related to your subject.  Walk to where it is located.  Rather than just removing the designated book and walking back to your table or checking it out, stand there and browse the other books in the section.  Do any of them interest you?  Pull out a few of them and read the table of contents.  You might even sit down right there and read a short chapter.  This is the on-ramp to serious learning.  People who are good at learning can do a lot of great things in their lives.

This way of learning things deeply and seriously will be good for your career.  It will also enrich your life.  You will read books, watch films, see plays, think about politics, and do many different things in a way that is more meaningful and more enjoyable because you have equipped yourself to do these things better than you otherwise might have.

College is like diving into a pool.  You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you take the plunge than you would if you grab onto the board on the way in and settle for letting your lower half into the surface layer of the water.  Do it right or consider just not doing it.


2 thoughts on “Nabokov, Me, and Getting the Real Value out of Your College Education

  1. This is how you get the most out of college – by applying yourself, learning on your own, and discussing things with smart and knowledgeable people such as professors. But this raises the question – do you need college to do this? Does college help, and if so does the help outweigh the costs (including opportunity cost) of attending college?

  2. I think college clearly helps most people in the sense that most folks are not autodidacts. Most of us need structure, advice on what to read, assignments to force us to develop new skills and capabilities, a ready critic to tell us when we make progress, that sort of thing. I certainly agree that your question is a valid one, though. The calculation is closer than it was in the past, I would think.

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