< Home

What Colleges Really Teach

What Colleges Really Teach
Published on Mar 14, 2024.

I returned to Stanford, intent on understanding this world that I had been so wrong about. While at Chicago, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I’d run away from something that made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like the people I’d met at Stanford. I felt out of place among them, a schmuck really who had believed the fairy tales that everyone else knew to be fiction. I didn’t like feeling like a schmuck.

But what I really hated was feeling like a coward. I could retreat into the protected sandbox of academia. I could join them in counting the grains of sand in a little corner of our playground. I could specialize in counting the little black ones maybe, even write a textbook on them. But once I saw how the sausage gets made, I didn’t want to be involved in making it anymore. The only reason I’d end up in academia is because I put my head in the sand, and that wasn’t good enough for me. I couldn’t just retreat from one world of games to another. No, I had to go back. I had to go find out why the world was this way, because only then could I maybe try to figure out how to fix it, and fix me.

So I went back to Stanford with burning questions. What really happened at Stanford? What was everyone there really learning? What were the classes really about?

What, really, is the point of college?

On the surface, it seems to be the transmission of information and knowledge from the people who know (the teachers) to the people who want to know (the students). It was the transference of facts and figures, of methods and tactics, a whole repository of tried-and-true techniques to learn and internalize. In short, it was supposedly about the details.

But while people learned a lot of things, and they made sure to cram it all in their heads for the time, it was almost immediately forgotten afterwards. Ask a physics major to perform a Fourier transform a few years after they’ve left college and they’ll probably be stumped. Ask statistics majors for the equation of a t-distribution, or economics majors for the equation of the velocity of money, or an electrical engineering major how a tick-tock clock works. If this isn’t something they still use in their day-to-day lives, the odds are they don’t remember.

People do remember things from college, but what they remember are usually the big, broad concepts from their introductory classes. They’ll remember Newton’s law of action and reaction, or the economic law of supply and demand, of the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance. But these are things that anyone with a library card can learn. If the point of college is to acquire mastery, it doesn’t get people past the starting line.

Maybe what college teaches are not the details – not the individual facts and techniques – but a more general ability. The ability to learn in the first place. How to apply your mind and how to think.

This is the classical argument for a liberal university education. This is what they tell you on campus tours, when every once in a while, some parent has the courage to raise their hand and ask why they should fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars. And they’re told, invariably, that a college education opens your mind. It lets you read the news in more intelligent ways. It makes you an informed citizen. Don’t you want to be sipping a latte, opening up the Sunday New York Times, and know what it all means? Isn’t that worth the price of admission?

Maybe it is, and maybe it did work that way once upon a time, when the educated classes were an aristocratic minority and they sent their sons and daughters to college to learn for themselves what the great thinkers of history had to say. The way this broad-based education is delivered usually is through a set of requirements, or a core curriculum, that every student has to satisfy. It usually covers an introductory bit of literature and history, some introductory science, maybe even an economics or social science in the mix too.

The degree of importance of this core curriculum varies from school to school. Old East Coast Ivies have some of the most stringent. Columbia’s Core Curriculum, for example, can be one-half of the average student’s coursework over their 4 years. At Harvard, it’s a third.

But in almost every college, this part of the education has been eroding. Fewer and fewer courses are required, because universities are under pressure from students and parents asking what use an English literature class will be if they are going to be a banker. How does this help them get a job?

And there, we have the core of it. College give a lot of lip service to the value of a liberal education, but ask the people who are actually going there or footing the bill and they’ll tell you the real reason – it’s to get a job.

But how does that work? If colleges aren’t actually teaching people anything useful, how come a college degree is still necessary to get a job? Some say the important part isn’t what happens at college – it’s getting in, in the first place. That sends a signal to future employers that you’ve been properly vetted, that you’re a safe hire, and they can rest easy paying you a good chunk of change every year.

But if getting into college is a signal, what is it a signal of? Well, it must be a signal of the qualities and characteristics that matter in the process of college admissions. The ability to ingest knowledge and techniques unquestioningly, to regurgitate them reliably, and, above all, to conform to the standards imposed on you by an external environment. It’s easy to see how an employer would be looking for exactly those things.

But still, things don’t add up. If you ask employers why they want to hire people from the best colleges, they don’t say “because they’re the best conformists”. They say “because they’re the smartest”. When you walk around with an Ivy League diploma, people don’t look at you as a trained showdog who can jump through hoops (even though that might be what you are). They look at you as very smart, somewhat special, and better than the rest. They look at you the way the other dogs look at the show dogs, who exchange incredible conformity and soulless repetition for the comforts of a highly pampered life.

So what is it that makes university graduates seem very smart? How do people judge this?

When I returned to Stanford, I started to pay more attention to exactly what we were learning – and exactly how other people made their perceptions of us. And what I found is that college does teach you something. It’s just not what people say it is.

What it teaches you are a very important set of techniques for speaking and presenting yourself and behaving, to give off the appearance of intelligence, while foregoing the substance. It teaches you what I call the Art of Bullshit.

Part of a series on elite universities