Doug Cohen: Requiem for a college education

Doug Cohen

It is easy to be fooled into thinking that the main purpose of a college education is the acquisition of knowledge. I certainly was fooled myself.

After all, I’ve been to class, listened to lectures and taken notes. I’ve used those notes to study for tests and write papers, on which I was then graded to demonstrate how much information I acquired.

This ritual applies to nearly all college students.

But don’t be fooled. The true value of college lies in measuring up what you don’t know.

Throughout my first two years at GW, I figured I was done with a subject forever as soon as I finished a course. Like a task list, I could check off legislative politics or American drama on the list of topics I needed to learn, and then move on to conquer the next subject without looking back.

But somewhere between immigration and the short story, I realized this isn’t really how it works.

I became frustrated when I finished classes with more questions than answers – without the sense of closure I expected. It turned out that after a semester in a course, I was merely beginning to understand each topic.

But now, as I wrap up my final courses as an undergraduate, I realize that was okay.

This recognition of my academic ignorance has pushed me to continue to think and learn. It inspired me to continue to read about subjects outside of the classroom, and to attend different lectures and events on campus.

It also taught me that you can learn something from everyone – not only a professor, but also a classmate with different politics or a cab driver who’s taking you to Adams Morgan on a Friday night. I make it a personal goal to try to talk to as many people as possible, just to hear what others have to say. You never know what you can learn from a completely random conversation.

My time at college has made me realize that what I know pales in comparison to all that I still have to learn. Too much information is waiting to be soaked up and too many different perspectives are waiting to be heard.

But the most important lessons are anchored by our ignorance. So often we do things in the moment that we absolutely know to be correct because we think we know all the answers. We raise our hand in class to make a point that we know is superior. We make a decision regarding a friendship that we know is right. Or we write a column in The Hatchet and know that our point of view is just.

But we don’t know.

We look back the next day, or the next month, or even the next year, and find that we were completely wrong – painful, humbling and embarrassing ly wrong.

I cannot count how many times I’ve cringed when I looked back on a decision I made over these past four years. But I recognize that this is just an inevitable and necessary part of growing older.

Of course, this might all sound cliché to many. Yes, we can be ignorant, we make mistakes and misjudge certain things. Hasn’t this been written about so many times? Aren’t there hundreds of proverbs about this?

But this isn’t cliché to me yet. Those old sayings and proverbs didn’t have any actual meaning until I went through the painful process of learning and experiencing college for myself.

It is easy to be fooled into thinking that the value of our time at school is represented by the facts that are contained in our brains.

Don’t be fooled. It is about so much more than that. It is about the pursuit of knowledge, and the understanding that we should always continue to learn.

–The writer, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet senior columnist and former contributing opinions editor.

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