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The Emperor is Naked: The College Myth

A personal retrospective on my time as an undergraduate

I just received a packet in the mail from my university with details about my impending graduation. It was more of a brochure than an informational booklet, full of full-color photos and fascinating details about how excited I should be to celebrate my sudden launch into the Real World. What an achievement! How proud I should be!

But looking through the glossy magazine-style pages, I wasn't feeling it. Yes, I'll be receiving a diploma, which is evidently a valuable asset in today's society. But how valuable was my experience here? Was it really the preparation for real life everyone's been making it out to be?

Let me begin by saying that I was incredibly fortunate to receive the opportunities that I have. I'm in no way ungrateful that I was able to attend college without serious lifelong financial repercussions. I'm sure there are far more deserving people who never get to further their education because they simply don't have the resources. At the same time, as someone who's about to be spit out of the education machine, I'm beginning to doubt that the benefits of attending a four-year private university are worth their enormous cost.

If you're aspiring to be a doctor, scientist, or engineer, higher education is an obviously necessary step on your career path. But four years ago, most of my fellow freshmen had no idea what they wanted to study at college. They'd gotten in; the gates of a selective university were laid open for them. They'd worked hard in high school to meet the perceived admissions specs of esteemed institutions. Now that they were in, they didn't know precisely what they'd been working for. 

As bewildered freshmen, we were told to pursue our interests, to take classes that stimulated us intellectually. I've always been fond of the English language, so I gravitated towards literature classes. Without much deliberation, I ended up an English major. My school carries the stigma of being academically tough, but I didn't find my major particularly challenging. If you were good at writing essays, at articulating thoughts on paper, you didn't have much trouble scoring decently in English classes. 

While I've read some fantastic books in my classes over the years, I rarely felt like I was learning tangible skills. I got plenty of writing practice, to be sure, and maybe I even sharpened my analytical skills along the way. But I never felt like I was learning or producing anything objectively important. And the general air of smugness from my peers around me, the self-importance, the overwhelming sense of entitlement to their education, was stifling. I never once thought anything I was learning in class gave me the right to feel self-important or entitled. Discussing Joyce or Yeats may be personally fulfilling, but I wanted to come away with more than the knowledge that I could read and understand books. I wanted a practical way to better myself and the world around me.

I know mine isn't a universal experience. Maybe it's just a problem with attending an "esteemed" university--it turns teenagers into elitist, self-righteous young adults. I've overheard students mocking people who were unable to attend a school of similar standing. It's disgusting to realize that you go to school with people who believe they are actually more valuable human beings for having the privilege of attending a private university--especially when the education they receive probably isn't worth the resources their families put into it. 

Like I said, I'm not ungrateful for my privileges. But looking back, I realize that I could have gotten a similar (or maybe better) education from a different kind of school. Maybe a smaller, less elitist college would have been more up my alley, as a humanities major and aspiring writer. Large universities may be great for undergraduates pursuing the sciences or other disciplines that require research, but I feel they have nothing special to offer me and my ilk. And even if they're useful for some, I'm not fond of their furthering of the notion that you need to attend a "good" college in order to be "successful" in the world. From what I've gathered, smart, creative, passionate people tend to find their way whether or not they receive a bachelor's. College isn't a requisite component of a good life; friends much smarter than I am have opted out of it entirely and are doing quite well for themselves. So there: the emperor hasn't got any clothes on. You don't have to go to college just to go. And don't let anyone tell you that your experiences are less valuable for not having done so. 

(Photo credit: UChicago Maps)