The value of education

A reading table at the Howison Philosophy Library at UC Berkeley

The lovely windows at Howison Philosophy Library at UC Berkeley

“College is not about grades. No one cares what grades you got in college. College is about exploring. Just try stuff.” That’s what Kevin Kelly says in his book, Excellent Advice for Living. I agree! After learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, I believe the value of any further education is in using those tools to make discoveries about the life you want to live, whether it’s as a house painter, a rocket scientist, or a parent.

Education should help you understand who you want to be, not determine it – but unfortunately most education is geared to preparing students for a job. I don’t know about you, but I am not my job. I don’t think you are, either. It’s a shame that having a college degree has become such a requirement for employment, especially since it doesn’t mean the applicant will do a better job for having the piece of paper. I mean, what value is a degree if you have no context in which to think about things or to make good decisions? Including what life path you really want to take, which you might change your mind about if only you had enough other information about life before you committed yourself to it.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess, because I did spend my college years exploring. Nobody advised me to do it that way; it’s simply my nature to resist being confined by someone else’s rules. After I moved to California, started at UC Berkeley, and dealt with the few required courses that my transferred credits didn’t meet, I began exploring. I focused on philosophy, having declared that as my major (even though I was an art student at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts). Then I discovered linguistics. Wowza! Super intriguing – but even so I wasn’t willing to only stick with that subject.

For instance, I signed up for physiology of the inner ear one semester. It was way above my head but the professor bought the story that I was bound to pick up something useful if I could just sit and listen, for which I promised to write a paper at the end for a grade. I can’t remember what I wrote about, but I do remember what a strain it was to keep up and my paper reflected that. I think that was the worst grade I got at Berkeley, but it was a triumph for me!

I took a geology course and learned about the practically brand-new theory of plate tectonics, which had been defined in a series of papers between 1965 and 1967 (yes, that’s how long ago I was in college). The professor was such a gifted teacher it made me regret I wasn’t a geology major. Everyone had to do a final project for a grade, it had to be something to do with geological research. I decided to write about locating new water wells from existing well data. The professor upped the ante, by saying I had to find an actual spot in a specific area – he provided the latitude and longitude of the entry gate to the property. It was exciting to have to do my work on the ground, not just on paper, and way cool when I turned in my data and conclusion, to get an A. I had located a well site on his own property that he already knew about!

I took a class, can’t now remember what, that I went to a local grade school and got kindergarten though second grade kids to draw a pictures of adults (if you were a university student back then it wasn’t hard to get permission to work with kids). The drawing could be of a parent, a teacher, anybody they wanted, as long as it was an adult. Then I analyzed the pictures for social/emotional, physical, and intellectual development of each kid and compared that result to their physiological age. That was hardly ground-breaking work but it was fascinating to me. I still have the drawings.

Another class involved statistical data. This was back in the day when you did it all by hand (and calculators). I had to learn how to set up the test situation, how to codify the data, how to make sense of it. I gave the subjects a written story, made a video of them telling the story as they remembered it, and then analyzed their hand gestures. I can’t recall how that turned out but it was still fascinating to do. But what I really got from that was how cool computers could be. Because of that I talked my way into getting some computer time and a person to help me set up a very simple program. The stack of computer cards (yes, that’s how long ago…) was only about 18 inches tall and achieved nothing except to whet my appetite for computers. I’ve still got those cards somewhere. When I remember I have them I think they’ll be good for artwork. Maybe.

I could go on and on about the cool classes I took there and at junior colleges afterwards, but let me just say I never lost my thirst to learn new stuff. I was lucky to start out with a tolerant student advisor at Berkeley who introduced me to the concept of an independent major (thank you, Bruce Vermazen). What’s additionally gratifying is that I graduated from Berkeley with an excellent grade point average and a Phi Beta Kappa key. I had received  a most excellent education but I had no clue what Phi Beta Kappa was about, so I gave it to my mother, who is now dearly departed, as is the key.

By the way, my first job after leaving Berkeley was house painter. I subcontracted for a termite control company. Now I’m a writer, and so I need to know everything, or at least how to find out about it. That’s what a good education gets you.

Phi Beta Kappa Key for educational achievement

The quote at the beginning of this post can be found on Kevin Kelly’s blog post, 101 Additional Advices.
I really love this one: “Asking “what-if?” about your past is a waste of time; asking “what-if?” about your future is tremendously productive.”

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About lifstrand

Lif Strand began writing fiction when she was a kid. Nobody read her stories. A former Arabian horse breeder and endurance racer, then reporter and freelance white paper writer, Lif lives in a straw bale house off-the-grid and writes fiction once more--or at least whenever she’s not scooping horse poop, taking photos, or playing with fabric art.

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