The College Years

Your editorial staff was (Were? What if the staff numbers exactly one member? Anyway:) recently enmeshed in a discussion regarding the practical job skills with which students graduate colleges and universities. The distinction is made between the two types of institutions because they are worlds apart and unto themselves, a point which became quickly apparent during the above-mentioned enmeshing: colleges are smaller (sometimes miniscule) and keen on well-rounded intellectuals, akin to cultural finishing schools, whereas universities tend toward the large (sometimes gargantuan), and are more interested in productive graduates: those who can do a job.

There are benefits and dangers to each school of thought (specifically, that liberal arts colleges turn out yuppie free-thinkers who can’t actually accomplish much but think, while universities manufacture bland worker bees who don’t know art from an aardvark). Whichever type of education is better depends entirely on the student seeking it, what he wants to do and how he best learns.

The educational component aside, there remains a different, equally important part of a college (or university) education. Academics can be come by at most decent schools. One need not attend M.I.T. to get a good handle on math. What cannot be come by is the cultural finishing referenced previously. The college years are the most formative of any graduate’s life, and the people, places and things with which they are surrounded outside the classroom will have a much greater impact on their mature identities than will whatever coursework in Renaissance masters was available.

And so the two types of education must again be compared: regardless of the type or style of education a student might be best off pursuing, in which type of place will he best grow up? Surrounded by which type of people?

As before, the answer varies by case. What’s good for the goose can poison the gander. Still, it behoves every student, when making applications, to do his best to settle on a place filled with the type of person he wants to be, who is going the places he wants to go. As John Locke wrote: “Education begins the gentleman, but reading and good company and reflection must finish him.” Matt Damon puts it more cynically, but no less accurately, in School Ties:

“The right schools, the right grades, the right friends… these are the keys to the kingdom.”

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