Undoing College

Jason Fertig

At the moment, many college seniors are looking forward to December graduations.  For these students, this is a time for them to begin to contemplate the rest of their lives.  For me, when I look at them, I see a group of individuals who can now begin their roads to recovery.

When I was studying Aikido in Philadelphia, the black belts in the dojo used to say that when they received their black belt rank, the more advanced students would tell them that “now it’s time to start studying Aikido.”  If today’s college students treated the dojo like their university studies, they would hang their belts on the wall, never think about martial arts again, and instantly forget when they learned (if they ever learned anything in the first place).

Last month, I wrote an essay for Minding the Campus on the state of student apathy in higher education.  Yet, the current state of the classroom is only part of the apathy issue – what happens when the apathetic students graduate?  My experiences as an educator and as a mentor attest to the fact that not only do many students graduate college having learned very little of substance, they have also acquired such bad habits that the college experience needs to be undone in order for their minds to truly mature.

On that front, Hans Bader, counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, hit the proverbial nail on the head in the Examiner with his anecdote about the end product of vapid higher education:

Much of college “education” is a waste of time. I learned more practical law in six weeks of studying for the bar exam and a couple summers of working for law firms than I did in three years of law school. I spent much of my time at Harvard Law School watching “Married With Children” or arguing with classmates about politics, rather than studying (much of what I did study was useless). Even students who were high on drugs had no difficulty graduating.

(Higher education is no guarantee of even basic literacy. When I worked at the Department of Education handling administrative appeals, I was dismayed by the poor writing skills of the graduate students who lodged complaints against their universities).

I used to work for a polling firm, and found that people with a couple years of college were frequently factually dumber about the world around them, and more politically-correct, than people who had not attended college at all, in their responses to public-opinion surveys. An electrician with no college degree is far more likely to know who his Congressman is and to understand the economy than some liberal-arts college dropout.

I can build on Bader’s notions with my own example.  As part of a course on Organizational Behavior, I assign a few books from Patrick Lencioni, president of the management consulting firm, The Table Group.  Lencioni’s books are 200-page business fables in the “Who Moved My Cheese?” vernacular – short, easy reading chapters with large, arial font.  Lencioni’s fables are a good airplane read for a travelling CEO, but they hardly represent higher education.  Yet, knowing how little college students read for knowledge and pleasure, these books are a good introduction to actual reading (I need an Advil from the pain caused by writing the previous sentence).  Even when I assign these books, my students initially freak out when they see that they “have to read a book for next week.”  Who does that Fertig guy think he is?

After the shock subsides, my students blow through the assigned books and they come to class telling me that these are the first books they can remember finishing. What are these students learning during their schooling if they are not reading?

Granted, they do “read something” because they have to take tests and write papers to pass courses.  From discussions with students in my classes, I have concluded that most students are trained to key in on the boldface words in their textbooks and the bulleted statements in their professors’ PowerPoint slides. 

I would not complain if those vocabulary words at least included regression analysis or Magna Carta, but much of what students see is an applied version of the academic gymnastics that their professors perform to get published and tenured. Dissecting this nothingness that masquerades as science is crucial in understanding why students do not graduate college with a thirst for knowledge. 

For example, “theories of motivation” take up 50-100 pages in most texts dedicated to human behavior.  A popular theory contained in such chapters is Expectancy Theory – consider the Wikipedia entry for Expectancy Theory to see a good example of the jargony, dissertation-like explanation of the idea that human beings seek pleasure over pain that is similar to what students see in their texts.  Nothing says academia like using 1000 words when six will do fine. 

Furthermore, the notion that people prefer personally desirable rewards over painful experiences discounts the idea that successful people usually do the hard, unpleasant work that others will not, even when the reward is not immediate or guaranteed.  Isn’t a richer discussion about human desires more likely through reading about Adam, Eve, and the Serpent?

Thus, as I interact and advise graduating seniors, I am struck by the increasing jadedness that they show towards their educational experience.  There is no sense of accomplishment, only cries of “I just want to get done.”  To be fair, any time people spend 4+ years working on something, there is bound to be a part of them that suffers from mental exhaustion.  These students, however, are not exhausted from “working on” anything.  Rather, their state of mind is akin to how someone looks at a second slice of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner after he has already downed 5000 calories of turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, and that first slice of pie. 

The present college students’ degrees are similar to being required to eat 120 items on a buffet with only minimal guidance as to which items to eat in what order.  By item 110, their belts are undone and they can hardly walk; yet they waddle up for their final helpings.  Only Joey Chestnut would immediately run back for more after finishing.  How different would the educational part of college be if students had a well-prepared five-course meal where each item complemented the previous one?

This notion of the damaging effects of the college years is also personal.  I am not only the author of this essay, I am also a recovering client.  I cannot pinpoint exactly when the light clicked on for me, but I remember after reading John Galt tracing the dollar sign as Atlas Shrugged came to a close, I looked back over the sea of pages that I had devoured and a realization hit me – that was probably more that I had ever read in my entire life.  I did not read Ayn Rand’s novel as a junior high student; I had graduated college a few years before I decided to take the plunge into Atlas.

Today, as I look over the NAS’s recommended books for common college reading, I realize how many of those books I have not read.  Hence, I currently dedicate as much time as I can towards making up for my lost academic time.  I wonder how many new college graduates would look at that list with the same sense of regret as I do.  More importantly, how can we get students to realize that they should care about such intellectual pursuits rather than just their purchase of a credential of questionable value that will saddle them with 30 years of debt?

In revisiting my restaurant analogy, my wife and I recently ate dinner at a famous chef’s restaurant. The wait was long and the prices were what one would expect at such a place.  Yet, the food tasted mass-produced and devoid of the bold flavor that we expected.  As we walked out of the restaurant disappointed, we noticed that the wait was not getting any smaller.  We both wondered if anyone left this place satisfied with their experience – was there ever an establishment in which so many people paid their hard-earned money for such disappointment?  As we walked up the block, I noticed signs for a local university’s MBA program and all I could do was think about how much I wanted to write this essay. 

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