Those Late Night Dorm Conversations!

I am in awe of the romanticization of higher education in America, mainly by its alumni who are probably rationalizing an extraordinary sunk cost of money and time but also from the media (especially those pesky soft focus, all-anecdotes higher ed stories put out monthly by the New York Times which pander to its well-to-do readers with teenage sons and daughters). We hear that going to a fine college in America represents the opportunity for unblemished intellectual pursuit. The one opportunity to pursue the life of the mind with no other distractions or obligations!

Or: The late night dorm conversations about the meaning of life! This — late night dorm conversations —  may be the most overrated thing ever. Slightly inebriated 18, 19, 20, or 21 year-olds (that includes me!) musing on the Big Questions with no preparation or structure is an absolute train-wreck. Yet these situations continue to get mythologized as formative intellectual or social moments that are not to be missed.

Based on my own experiences and those of my friends (who attend every college you’ve heard of and many good colleges you likely haven’t heard of), I think people vastly overstate the existence of an unadulterated intellectual life for undergraduates in the academy. Look to the plagues of multiculturalism and political correctness (anti-intellectual currents if there ever were ones) or simply the fact that drinking / drugs, obsession with grades, and power plays in pursuit of golden internships are the primary points of interest for most 20 year-olds at even the best institutions.

This doesn’t mean college is worthless. In fact, I think college offers many benefits to undergrads, such as the networking opportunities or just the fun factor of four years of summer camp. But a truly enriching intellectual experience of the sort that’s often "remembered" by alumni or celebrated by the media — those early moments where a worldview started to form, a love for books that was cultivated — this seems less likely, unless you’re a student at Reed, University of Chicago, Swarthmore, and perhaps a couple other places whose cultures do seem to take the life of the mind seriously. In general, I think a minority of students at good colleges leave infected with a love for ideas and a majority leave with knowledge that they will probably have to un-learn later in life.

I’d rather have our colleges either be more explicitly vocational — ie, be in the business of transferring practical career skills and not talk themselves silly with phrases like "teaching our students how to think" — or actually cut the bullshit / distractions and emphasize liberal arts for liberal arts’ sake alone. Floating somewhere in the middle, as most liberal arts schools do now, appeals on the surface for those like me who don’t want the suffocating seriousness of a University of Chicago nor the mechanics skills of a vocational institute, but ultimately the ever-elusive ‘happy medium" as currently practiced doesn’t offer enough of either to seem worthwhile.

19 Responses to Those Late Night Dorm Conversations!

  1. Nick Molnar says:

    I think I have learned more in my last 2 years blogging than I did in the same time-period going to university (a good one, too).

    The university system was built in an era where knowledge was scarce and could be hoarded away in libraries, and sequestered in the minds and rants of a few professors. Now, knowledge is cheap, opinion is plentiful, and yet the system remains the same.

    Universities should probably make a shift towards practicality – teaching applicable skills. We already know how to Google things, to critically assess how reliable that information is, and to spit it back in a neatly formatted double-spaced essay. Teach me something that I can actually use.

    It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: The modern University system is perfectly designed to create a nation of University professors.

    Blogging is a great substitute for the debate and discourse of a university classroom or a late night discussion. It gives you direct access to some of the brightest minds in the world, and a sounding board of peers to bounce new ideas against. Plus, it includes the wonderful narcissism of seeing your words read (and analyzed) by thousands. That makes the university system even less relevant than before, and the role of professor even less important.

    **Side note: I am now back in school, learning applicable skills from a continuing ed department – much better choice**

  2. Franklin T says:

    I always thought it was just me who missed out.

    Aside from the good aspects you mentioned about college, I view my college years as largely wasteful.

    With what I know now, I can design a set of more engaging, rich formative experiences given the $70K in tuition and living expenses that I spent on college.

  3. Annie says:

    I’m glad you hit on the surprising “unlearning” that comes post-university. I have spent the past 3 years dissecting everything I thought I was adament about or subject that I thought I understood (just because I read a text book?)

    In just about every aspect of my life – diet, the concept of marriage, study, learning, religion, being social…and on and on – it all has been taken apart. I wanted to make sure that I had really clear, well-though beliefs and ideas, independent of what “most” people are saying or “the” textbook outlined.

    I found that the romance of undergrad AND postgrad lured me to a sense of entitlement; a certain arrogance that I felt with how “smart” I had become. The real learning, then unlearning, then relearning comes outside of any single institution. It’s in the colorful people you meet or the wild travel scenarios or the dropped friendships or the strange book recommendation that truly initiate learning and growth.

    If you’re lucky, school teaches you HOW to learn. What you end up believing will likely be shaped, in bulk, off campus and should always be open to a steady flow of changing variables.

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    I think the reason alums look back so fondly on their dorm conversations is because of the unique emotional dynamics.

    For most people, college is the first time when they are surrounded by true peers. It’s also an opportunity to let down their guard and reveal their true selves, and be accepted for who they are.

    This is a very powerful feeling, and likely to overwhelm the fact that such conversations tend to be shallow and unstructured.

    I will also say that there are programs and schools that do provide a real intellectual experience.

    When I went to Stanford, I took Structured Liberal Education, a special freshman program where all the students live in the same dorm, and spend 4-6 hours per day in classes and discussions regard history, philosophy, and literature.

    While we certainly didn’t have the critical backgrounds we’d later have, simply focusing the majority of our waking attention and intellectual lives to the greatest works in the history of civilization, in a residential setting where the majority of other students had made the same commitment, represented a great intellectual experience.

    Certainly a disproportionate number of my SLE-mates went on to become professors and academics of various stripes.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    Also, I hope that you’re not admitting to underage drinking. That would be against the law.

  6. Q dub says:

    I agree with you on the vocational point. Liberal arts as a default path is an absolute waste when so many are graduating with zero employment prospects…and for good reason. An english lit major has no practical advantage over someone who never went to college, unless teaching english lit.

    Liberal arts can work for those who are /already/ intellectually curious, but cannot make someone so. Instead, I see liberal arts students optimizing for the easy classes, or the ones that let them sleep in until noon

  7. Brad Fults says:

    I’d caution against making generalizations about all colleges or all “good” colleges. There are plenty of students who consume the vices you list in moderation and do make time to have serious intellectual explorations. It’s unfortunate if you feel disappointed that you never had the experience you were hoping for or that the media advertises, but to say that it’s not there is simple shortsightedness.

    There are many things wrong with how current academic institutions in the US function today, but claiming that an entire category of activity is missing or fake is a foolish mistake.

    You may enjoy this essay (I did): The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.

  8. Maybe you just aren’t in the right crowd.

    I know some of the conversations I’ve had late into the night have profoundly altered some of the thinking I’ve had on some seminal issues.

    More to the point, it seems an awful lot to generalize about liberal arts colleges, Ben.

    Is there a wishy-washy component to a lot of college? Sure. But there’s a wishy-washy component to most peoples lives. College simply reflects that tendency towards mediocre that exists in many of us.

    The comment section seem more than a little self-congratulatory. Allow me to paraphrase most of them, “I was curious, but everyone around me wasn’t”. Who are you to say that? How do you know everyone’s situation?

  9. carli says:

    Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. . . going to college to “learn how to think” is a waste of time and money, in my opinion. I went to a liberal arts college, majored in, well, getting enough credits to graduate, and feel if I could to it all over again, I would do it much differently.

    If a student is one of those fast-learning, charismatic kids who can major in philosophy or Medieval studies and land a job in whatever field he chooses, all the best to him. The rest of the college populace would be wise to major in something more career-oriented (business, engineering, etc.). They can always take Philosophy or Advanced Mango Peeling as an elective–after all, there is value in studying these subjects, but there are not many calls for professional Philosophers these days.

    To me, a successful adult is one who is happy and self-sufficient. I know plenty of college graduates who are neither, and I know plenty of people who skipped higher education altogether and still manage to be intelligent, successful people.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    To be clear, my point was to point out the gap between how the college intellectual experience is often remembered and portrayed in the media, and how it actually is (from my perspective and from what I gather from my friends’ experiences).

    Of course one shouldn’t over-generalize. Of course there are exceptions, blah blah blah. I even pointed out three specific schools that I do think are exceptions! But I believe I have an informed and perspective in that I’m currently in college and have good friends at many other colleges.

    Everyone’s experience is different. But the experience that’s most commonly remembered by college-grad adults seems a minority one, at best.

  11. Didn’t Bertrand Russell say that if you could be happy without making someone else unhappy, then your life is a success?

    Advanced Mango Peeling might be a higher calling than you would think, at least as a meditative exercise.

    The on-campus drinking clubs, I mean fraternities, still cultivate the ‘romantic’ American tradition of college as a Dionysian rite of passage. If Greeks spent as much time thinking as they do drinking, they might graduate with more good feeling for intellectual pursuits, and less nostalgia for the drunken orgies of their misspent youth.

    But that would be unrealistic to hope for in a closed culture of alcoholic alumni that often richly endows the portfolio of the very institution that propagates their disease.

    Funny how few medical doctors count the binge drinking of college students as alcoholism, and fewer would dare tell them that they’d be better off cutting the booze and smoking pot.

  12. I mean cutting the booze, and smoking pot instead.

  13. California Lutheran University is an example of an institution that tries to present the romantic collegiate image that Ben describes, without much substance behind that image. Cal Lutheran is a perfect example of a campus in an awkward limbo between liberal arts and vocational training, mainly because most of the students expect vocational training, while the faculty are trying to serve liberal arts. For my part, I spent four years living there, and I experienced scholastic and personal development that rivals what I could have expected from a place like the University of Chicago. Why? Because I made it happen: I made friends with the faculty and made use of the resources that were available.

  14. Krishna says:

    Guess we’ve debated this topic – relevance of structured institutional education and the skewness of its cost/benefit in a dynamic world – on several occasions before in your blog. As it keeps resurfacing here I presume the question – “do I have to go thro this?” – haunts you with each passing day.

    Why not cut the losses and run?

    You are way too resourceful to put up with mediocrity. You’re a good salesman, have great connections, love to travel far and wide, gain first hand experience and in the end you know how to chronicle it all in a book and then selling it too. There is not much more a college faculty has to offer to such an intellectually endowed individual. Your ways are tried and tested and they’ve been holding you in good stead. No need to change tack and lose momentum. Just keep improving upon it, correcting mistakes (there will be quite a few) along the way, as naturally as it comes.

  15. Jeremy Rudy says:

    Ben,

    I’d be curious to hear how you think technology might change higher education, if at all.

    Since their formation, the structure and method of colleges and universities have changed very little. Even today, with Web 2.0 being the buzzword for connecting and empowering individuals, the “sage on the stage” pedagogy has largely survived.

    The way many of us see it, institutions of higher education are bureaucratic by nature, and therefore extremely slow to change with the times. Therefore, if change is to happen, it will probably come from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

    Any thoughts?

  16. Nicole Blount says:

    As a non-traditional student, i.e. 25 and still working on my bachelor’s, I occaisonaly feel sorry for today’s “normal” college student.

    My first semester out of high school was spent at a typical four-year university where I was 1 in a sea of 250 for a single class, and the only people who spoke to you were the one’s on your floor of the dorm and maybe a classmate or two. By Christmas break I was moving home and in a Community College. I enjoyed the smaller classes and the simple fact that my instructors knew my face and name.

    Watch a movie that has any resemblence of college life and I feel that sympathy again. Its under-age drinking, pot-smoking kids who are just so happy to be away from their parents they don’t know what to do, so they end up doing everything.
    There are those who actually go to class and only party on the weekends, but by that time they have already experienced that freshman lifestyle and have begun to realize that they are actually PAYING for their education.

    Though most may not understand this, I feel that spending a year or two at a community college is the smartest thing a high school grad could do.
    They are able to experience the educational deadlines and importance, as well as begin to grasp an idea of what they actually want to major in rather than floundering in a sea of 20,000 + students; not to mention the simple fact that it is so much cheaper and they can actually learn what the real value of a dollar is.

    But that’s just my 2 cents.

  17. Ben Casnocha says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Krishna – Yep, something I’m thinking about.

    Jeremy – I have no original thoughts on how the web might affect higher ed. There’s been varying levels of hype around this, not sure how much has actually panned out.

  18. Eric Wolf says:

    Hey finally got your book and loving it!

  19. LP says:

    “This — late night dorm conversations — may be the most overrated thing ever. Slightly inebriated 18, 19, 20, or 21 year-olds (that includes me!) musing on the Big Questions with no preparation or structure is an absolute train-wreck.”

    I dunno, I guess it depends on your goals. For the intellectually-inclined, this late-night supplement to more structured day courses is often the student’s first experiment in thinking all by themselves, without the guidance of parents, teachers, or profs. Some people might think this is a pretty important step for young minds to take, even if the quality of the conversations isn’t that high. ON the other hand, if your inclination is more in the vocational line, learning how to think is probably less important than learning useful content and practical skills.

    Also: I myself took part in many of these late-night discussions, and can count on one hand the number which involved alchohol or any other drugs. I went to Scripps, so maybe this was different than your experience at CMC.

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