College Freakonomics: Learning How to Learn and Surviving a Screw Up

Posted on January 4, 2013

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My podcast obsession recently led me to Freakonomics radio, where I clicked on the two-part “Freakonomics Goes to College.”

Part 1 was a look at how shockingly easily a college education can be falsified through online classes at for-profit colleges, or even the simple purchase of a diploma (for $180 I can get a degree from Columbia—who knew?).

Part 2, however, was one to which all of us in academia should have a listen.

The segment revolved around whether or not a college education really pays off for students and the parents who invest both time and money.

Students had mixed views. One said he thought that a bunch of people could sit around a park and talk over big ideas and accomplish far more than they did in college. Another said the current economics means a college might not lead to the best-paying job. Yet another said a college degree is what high school diploma was years ago.

And one student said it simply wasn’t worth it.

Admittedly, four years is a long time to devote to the pursuit of knowledge. Some classes and majors prepare students more thoroughly than others for the “real” world, and some students are more suited than others to academic life.

I was one of those students who knew what I wanted to be and found college to be a waste of productive working years. I became a reporter at age 18, and went to school at night to fulfill classes that would let me do the same job I was already doing during the day.

I was obsessed with grades, sure I was smarter than a lot of my professors, and did not really care what classes I took so long as they fulfilled a requirement and fit my schedule.

Now I can barely name any of my undergraduate professors and they probably can’t name me.

Hey students—sound familiar?

Now that I am a professor, my tune has changed dramatically, and I finally see college for what it is. Yes, it’s a change to learn and explore. Absolutely it will help focus your interests and teach help you craft a career. No doubt you learn subjects you didn’t even before know existed.

But one of the most important roles of college is as a venue to grow up—and screw up.

You slacked off and did barely any work in class. In college, it’s a bad grade. In the real world: fired. You talked behind your roommate’s back she found out? Better work that out as you have an entire semester yet to live together.

Partied instead of studying and now need an extension on a project. A lot of professors will hear you out and tell you why or why not your argument is sound. In the real world—the job goes to someone else and you just got derailed from the fast track.

At 18, 19 or even 20 years of age, few of us are ready to tackle the real world and make adult decisions that will impact the rest of our lives. We have to learn how to be wrong—and how to be right. We have to realize how to take and give constructive criticism. We need to learn how to learn from our mistakes without life-long ramifications.

Take chances. Screw up. Argue a point in which you believe, even if you have little basis for your opinion. That’s what college is for. And depending on your success or failure, little pieces of your childhood facade will be chipped away, until you are left with the adult that embarks on life with real chance for success.

It was only after returning for graduate school at The Ohio State University that I embraced this idea of college—a chance to learn how to learn, to stretch and expand your mind in directions you didn’t even know it could go, and to make mistakes with a safety net to catch you.

It’s a chance to challenge that which you thought you knew and opinions that you may have long held.

It’s a chance to become, rather than just be.

Welcome, my students, to Spring Semester 2013. I look forward to learning with you.

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