Danville Express

Living - November 2, 2007

The 411: College - a time to indulge in learning

by Katharine O'Hara

Amid the mounds of college mail I receive every day (most of which gets recycled or sits in an ever-expanding pile on my desk), I happened to pick up and read one of the more interesting pieces of college propaganda I've sifted through lately. The pamphlet, entitled "The Usefulness of Uselessness," was from Swarthmore College and was written by T. Kaori Kitao, an art history professor who once taught there. The piece offers an interesting perspective that I think sheds some light, especially for those students about to enter college (and their parents), on the real purpose of a college education in this day and age.

The perceived purpose of a college education in this country is to train students in a specialized area in order to prepare them well enough to eventually have a career most likely in the field they studied. Parents who send their kids to school, some for as much as $50,000 a year, understandably want to see their children fulfill this path and become "successful." However, as with most contentious issues, it is how you define your terms that makes all the difference. Most might define "success" as attaining fame or financial fortune, or being an expert in a particular field. Less often the first thought that comes to mind when one thinks of success - but as Kitao argues, the most important - is mere personal fulfillment and contentment with what you do, regardless of how much money or fame comes with it.

"Fulfillment counts the most in the long run because it rewards our life rather than just providing us with a career and a status," Kitao says.

Instead of simply sticking to the subjects (notably math and science) that are perceived to bring them the superficial definition of what the majority calls "success" (especially if these subjects are of disinterest), students should pursue and even major in the subjects they are already passionate about, or even those they are curious about but have had no prior experience with.

But, when students decide they want to major, say, in the humanities - philosophy, classical language, art history, music, etc. - they are often met with distaste and anxiety by their parents, because these fields don't seem like subjects that have practical application or promise financial stability in today's world. However, Kitao goes on to point out that it is not the specific content of the courses a student takes in college that matters, so much as the process by which a student learns that content: by critically thinking and constantly inquiring. After all, there are only so many cold facts and rote details a person can retain. The student can then apply the skills acquired during the process of learning and understanding, to anything they do in any aspect of their life. Learning, as Kitao puts it, becomes a habit.

Instead of preparing students for a specific job, the purpose of a college education is simply to teach them how to learn, how to think critically and creativity - assets that will last a lifetime. These assets are the true abilities that will eventually lead them to land a career and be successful at it.

Statistics show that a large portion of college graduates don't actually end up even going into a career in the field they majored in. After all, eight courses in a particular subject (the number of courses required to fulfill most major requirements) is certainly not enough to provide one with enough in-depth knowledge to be fit for a job in that field. Additionally, in our ever-changing world wrought with innovation and progress, it is becoming increasingly more relevant that the coming generations not be specialized. Rather, tomorrow's workers need to be creative and able to think on their feet so as to quickly apply their insight to up-and-coming industries inconceivable a decade ago. To use an example described in Christopher Caldwell's New York Times article, "What a College Education Buys," the inventors of Google for instance "could never have been trained to (build up the company), because neither the company nor the idea of it existed when they were getting their educations."

It is important to remember that the subject students choose to major in during college really is not all that relevant. When it comes time to choose, whether at the beginning or halfway through their college education, both students and their parents should approach the decision with the knowledge that their choice most likely will not affect the career they eventually go in to, or determine how much money or fame they will eventually acquire. College is the most selfish time in a person's life, so why not indulge in learning and experiencing anything and everything you desire? In the end, it is by a wide range of experiences, and learning how to learn, that we attain relevant knowledge and find true, long-lasting fulfillment.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.


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