The only lesson college ever taught me

Looking back on my five or six years as an undergrad (a quarter of my life), I realize I don’t remember very much.  That is to say, I don’t remember certain years.  In fact, maybe I don’t remember the entire experience.  I’m not quite sure, and it’s not because I was blacked out all the time; I wasn’t.  College simply didn’t insist that I remember it.

I know I took certain General Education classes, and on good days, I can even remember the course names.  But the professors who taught them?  Not a chance.  Certain memories stick out in my mind: there was the Scandinavian Lit professor who looked like Bobcat Goldthwait, and then there was the German TA who looked like Mickey Mouse.  The rest is a haze.

I did occasionally retain certain facts: August Strindberg’s literature is depressing, but “Strindberg and Helium” is hilarious.  Reliance on digital archiving will result in a huge black emptiness of knowledge when future generations research us.  Balkan music uses additive meter.  So on and so forth.  But is my life any different now than it was before?

I took over a year of German.  I remember how to say “Guten Tag.  Ich weiss nicht.”  I took a summer-intensive of Lithuanian.  When I went to Lithuania a year later, I ran around Kaunas lost asking people, “Ar jūs kalbate angliškai?  Kur yra viešbutis?”  Everyone ignored me, but it was the only thing I could say.

Of course, there were my major studies: music composition and *takes deep breath* Central and East European Languages and Culture with a focus on Poland.  I must say I did learn and retain a lot!  I know now that nationalism is a socially constructed facade.  I have fallen in love with the works of Milan Kundera, Witold Gombrowicz, Mesa Selimovic, and other such writers I would’ve never even come close to reading otherwise.  I can even now go to Poland and impress the locals by speaking like a retarded five-year old.  And if anyone on the street were to ever ask me about Austrian influence on West Ukrainian architecture, by golly, I would have an answer for them!

And let’s not forget the value of my music education.  Thanks to my five (or six) years in college, I now know that parallel fifths result in bad voice leading.  Flute cannot play fortissimo passages in its lower range.  Liquidation and fragmentation are methods of developing a motif.  Greatness can never actually be achieved in the modern day.  So on and so forth.  Thanks to college, I even have recordings of my own work that I listen to whenever I need to remind myself I’m a composer of marginal or more talent.

But, aside from the recordings which could only have been achieved with the resources which college provided me, everything else could be learned by a book or a tutor.  Maybe wikipedia.  I suppose I could claim college didn’t teach me anything I couldn’t have learned for free online or in a public library.  Rather, I paid money to College to babysit me – to force me to learn and tell me what resources to buy at its bookstore.  Was college just an overpriced overseer of one’s own self-motivated education?  Are we hiring an institution to act as a guy with a whip chasing us around the racetrack we call academic achievement?

No.  College did teach me one essential lesson – one that I use every day: how to cope with shitty situations.  I have good memories from the last quarter-of-my-life, but I have a lot of bad ones too.  Now I see it for what it really was: a credit-free course in the Life Department.  Life 101A-Z – “Sometimes Life Sucks: Deal With It”

101A: Living in a Tiny Box with Two Other People and no Privacy
101B: How to Deal with Having No Friends, Being Alone in the Universe
101C: How to Accept Living in Filth
101D: Eating Things With Spots and Mold
101E: How to Survive Two Years with No Sleep
101F: Living in College Community Apartments
101G: Your Landlord Hates You and Wants Your Money
101H: Your Roommate Hates You and Wants Your Money
101etc. ….

This is the only course in College that ever actually mattered for me as a functioning human being, and it was well worth the tuition.  Whenever I get on a crappy bus in Bosnia with no sleep, the flu, and someone is being a dick, before I break down crying, I say to myself, “Oh, wait, I took this class in College.  It was called ‘Deal With It.'”  If it’s ever 106 degrees and I have to walk an hour to talk to a lawyer about landlord-tenant legal issues, before I flip off the sun and start throwing Molotov Cocktails, I go back to my college days and think, “Oh yeah.  ‘101M – Deal With It.'”  And nothing is ever as bad as it seems.

I see more and more people trying to get out of taking the ‘Deal With It’ series.  They go into college expecting comfort and luxury.  They feel entitled to a happy four to six years in an island paradise of educational opportunities.  On weekends, these people take their laundry home to their parents’ and eat home cooked meals.  They try to get dorm rooms with only one other roommate and a private bathroom.  They expect campus shuttles to drop them off wherever they want, and every morning, they go to class looking their best.  Maybe if they’re happy, they’ll learn more in class.

No.  College is about agony.  Class will teach you nothing.  In four years, you’ll look back and barely remember your professors’ names.  You might talk to a maximum of three people from your freshman year dorm.  Knowing August Strindberg’s plays won’t change your life.  If you’re not suffering, you’re not doing it right.  The only lesson you’re in college to learn is how to Deal With It,* and if you petition out of that course, then you’re wasting your time and money.  Put yourself in shitty situations now, and you’ll thank yourself later.

*Unless you’re studying to be a doctor or engineer


About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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5 Responses to The only lesson college ever taught me

  1. Vicky G says:

    Lol. I kind of disagree though. I loved sharing an apartment with one bathroom btwn 6 girls, I loved the freedom of college, I loved the atmosphere and the spontenaity. I loved being independant and being able to handle situations on my own and do whatever I wanted without any supervison and then learning from my mistakes.

    I think the “deal with it” phase is in middle and high school, when you yearn to be free but are suppressed by parental rules. When kids are mean, classes are hard, emotions and hormones are crazy, and you fit in nowhere…Those were my “deal with it years”, everything else is a breeze compared to that!

  2. Mark Carlson says:

    Really? That wasn’t my experience of college at all. I still think of many of my professors as people who inspired me, even 35 years after the fact. I’m having a hard time imaging your experience was quite so useless, either.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      Of course there were some professors who inspired me and still do. I suppose it’s unfair to say the experience was useless. The people who taught me valuable things and the classes I enjoyed will stick with me forever. To this day, I analyze Bach chorales for practice and study fugue subjects (Well Tempered Clavier is on my piano right now), and think of your lectures on developing motifs into pieces. I think of Professor Chihara’s orchestration seminar. My Slavic 90 class I took freshman year from Professor Koropeckyj completely opened up a world of interest to me in Eastern European studies that I wasn’t even aware at the time I would find so captivating. But that’s the thing – when I think of professors who had a major impact on me, I think of about four or five. When I think of classes that had a major impact on me, I think of about five or six (I count Music 20/120 as a single class). College was a long time, and I took a lot of classes from a lot of professors. The education that I look back and value is relatively small compared to the vast amounts of time I spent in a classroom. Half of the GEs I took, all of my German language courses, the Music History series… they didn’t stick. I can recognize names; someone can say to me “Gesualdo” and I’ll know they’re talking about a composer. But what did he compose? I have no idea.

      The main thing I suppose I was trying to get at by this entry was not necessarily that college was useless, but rather that the most important lessons in college happen outside the classroom, and more and more people seem to want to avoid that lesson – dealing with people you’d rather not deal with, pooping on unclean toilets, walking long distances for almost trivial matters, and other issues of comfort and mental toughness that turn us into functional human beings.

      But also, that’s partly why I wrote the following entry about one’s past and its struggle against irrelevance. Even the good times and valuable lessons I learned and inspiring people I met in college don’t mean anything to my present unless I actually use them and apply them to my present and future. That’s why I’m in grad school: to bring forth my past into my future.

      • Mark Carlson says:

        I think that your estimation of how much of college had impact on you pretty much reflects life in general: you learn from everything, one way or another, both from things that you are supposed to learn from (classes, etc.), and things that are just life experiences (which, I agree, are often what you learn the most from). And you learn from both positive and negative experiences, too. I bet, for example, you have a pretty good idea of how NOT to teach music history! Also, you just never know, entering into something, how much you will enjoy it and how beneficial it will be: we often happen by chance on things that turn out to be really interesting to us, as well as find that things we expect to be interesting are not.

        From my outsiders point of view, having seen students go through the experiences you write of so many times, I see it in terms of how much people change over those 4-5 years. Some people grow and become more interesting people and more comfortable with themselves, and that always seems like a good thing to me. I’m not able to say what, specifically, in their experiences led to that, but when it happens, I consider the college experience to have been a success.

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