Is College A Waste of Time?


Several conversations fly into my mind, separated widely in time and space, about what college is supposed to mean and do. I remember one of the few social outings of my college years, a cocktail party with other advanced chemistry students and a few professors, where mostly everyone but me was drunk. We were at the house of a chemistry professor of Kiwi (New Zealand) origin, who was probably the drunkest of the lot.

Another chemistry professor asked me why I was in college.  I told him, with sober placidity, that I was simply doing the things I had to do before I got to medical school — medicine being my passion. He launched into a tirade about how I was in college in order to learn.  I should learn all I could about anything I could because this would be the last chance in my life to do so, before I went into that sickly-overblown trade school that is medical school, where I would be restricted to learning things that would make me more money. During my childhood, my father rhapsodized about his Harvard experience and how he wanted me to have one equally fulfilling — hopefully at Harvard. Growing up in Harvard it is not hard to generate negative feelings about perceived elitism, more financial than intellectual, dominated by a heavy veneer of snobbery, which my father joyously promulgated.

I was busy spending most of youth being overweight and thus largely a social pariah. Unfortunately, I got little recognition for these twin achievements – unlike the deliciously funny portrait of “Overweight Achievers” in Woody Allen’s film “Celebrity.”

My standard response  was that “If I were any more well-rounded, I would roll away,” something I believed to be true on philosophical as well as concrete levels. I have one luxury many of my era of training — especially physicians — do not.  I know a little about a lot of things. 

I was surprised by this, even in French medical school, where French classmates would ask me about French literature, for they had been pushed into specialization at the equivalent of late high school to early college level.  Those who had already been earmarked “scientists” did not have a lot of knowledge of the rich and delightful literature of their own country. I was reminded of this just a couple days ago, when I announced to a receptionist that the day was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and that immediately prior to the battle, Napoleon was eating strawberries, fresh from the garden, with the local Notary. A patient within earshot –amazingly enough – was a history buff. “Wow, you are one smart lady!” he exclaimed. “No,” I replied, “I just really like both Napoleon and berries.” Actually, I learned that piece of information considerably after college.  I learned it while attending medical school from a dealer in toy soldiers, a member of the Sabretache — the French national society of military historians — who was selling me a miniature kettledrummer  for the toy soldier collection of my father of blessed memory. CNN recently printed an article criticizing universities – or at least the model under which they operate.  Some clever people find college a waste of time; some don’t.  Even Harvard, which because of when it was founded (1633– Oh my God, three years before Yale) and its endowment and government grants and aura, seems to have some kind of supremacy as the “model for” for Universities.  It always seemed to me like a hierarchy maintaining its own myth and aura, and I never actually wanted to go there, at least as an undergraduate, although I looked at them when it was medical subspecialty time.

I have yet to hear anybody criticize Bill Gates for dropping out of Harvard.  I mean, he did pretty well for himself, n’est-ce pas?  It is no coincidence that the person cited who thought University useless was also an entrepreneur.  And the person who thought his MBA skills were necessary and helpful was learning entrepreneurial skills, which as far as I know, can only be found in a few specialized programs in the University, like business schools.  Personally, I would rather learn my entrepreneurial skills from an entrepreneur who has been successful, than from someone who has probably not, and who teaches at a University or business school.  Someone like Dan Kennedy.

All of this brings me to one of my favorite quotes —  this from George Bernard Shaw: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”  It is a tribute to the halo effect of Harvard that my father actually believed that this dictum originated with his music professor at Harvard, Archibald T. Davison.

One more interesting quotation about college — This time the location is the doctor’s lounge of a large Midwest hospital, where I am quietly attempting to consume a snack.  I am solicited for a question, always dangerous from people who do not know me well since they are sometimes surprised by their answers. “Hey Estelle!  My daughter wants me to send her to business school.  I want to send her to State; I hear the curriculum is good and most administrators I know went there.  She wants to go to Harvard business school! “State uses a copy of the Harvard Curriculum, like most everybody, and it is good enough, I think, and costs about a quarter of the tuition.  I think it is good enough.” I told him he was an overworked doctor and so she should send her to State.  I thought the main determinant of her success would be the woman she was or would become, not where she went to school. The poor old doctor grabbed my head in hands and surprised me more than a little by kissing me on the cheek.  He was about to invite me to his house for dinner when he decided to tell me what his daughter says. “She tells me that she will meet friends at Harvard who have more money and could become her partners.  Then, she could make more money for life.  She could maybe become one of the few girls who could be part of the “old boy” club and she would make enough money in her lifetime she could do great things.  Like take care of her parents in their old age, buy them a better house. He asked me what I thought of that and was visibly disappointed at my response. “I don’t know.” I am obviously more driven by my passion for medicine than money, at least so far.  I have made many choices for work satisfaction.  I really believe I help people, at least sometimes.  The most heartening thing I could tell him was this: “People do research and make studies on lots of things that are not science, like you and I know about it.  Most of these studies seem to be some sort of applied psychology, and their outcomes seem to be something to do with money.  If studies show that Harvard business school grads make more than others, than you got numbers.  You know what you make, then you might have an argument.” He was more concerned. “She could be right?” “Sure.  You need to know how much the difference is, and if it worth it, for the money comes out of your hide.  Maybe she can earn the difference, which may be a good idea if she wants to be an entrepreneur.” No kiss on the cheeks now.  Just a “Gee, Estelle, I knew you would come up with something.” College for social rewards, that can be turned into money?  Perhaps.  I once generated rather more anger than I expected in a soon-to-retire professorial university researcher when I told her the current structure  of the University dated from the Middle Ages, when it was the only keeper of knowledge (other than a couple of monks) and with the internet it might have limited relevance.  Change is tough.  She had trouble with the idea, for sure, and took it out on me. I was working at a Midwestern University, before I myself earned a decent computer, about transferring the first two years of medical school to computer based content.  I would be possible — at least in theory — to do the first two years of medical school without leaving your home.  I had a feeling the true motivation for this was saving a couple of professorial salaries, but the fact remains, it could be done and was on the way to being done when I left. Universities will become different. Anybody with a basically 1633 model, although somewhat modified in the last hundred years (Harvard) simply will not create the best and the brightest. That distinction may belong to those who become as well rounded as needed by doing the correct literature searches on the internet, and following them intelligently.


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