by Gary Thompson
My wife and I were recently on a road trip with some friends. Our trip was organized so that we could engage in the highly, intellectual pursuit of watching the new Star Wars movie at the IMAX theater in Columbus.
On the way there, the question arose, “What did you really learn in college?” There were six of us with varying college credentials. These credentials range from bachelor through doctorate degrees from campuses including: WVU Parkersburg, Brown, University of Washington, San Francisco State and WVU.
The areas of study ranged from business through the liberal arts (Brown), to technical areas, such as building construction management, engineering and dentistry. Some of us progressed through college immediately out of high school, others took college at a more leisurely pace, not graduating until our 30s, 40s or later. All in all, we were a pretty random mix of college educated individuals on the downhill slope of middle age.
Not coincidentally, we all came up with answers that distilled to the following three ideas:
- We all learned some degree of technical skills that we could apply directly to our work environment and aide or advance our careers. Examples of this include: learning and applying modern accounting principles, learning to use specific application software used in an employment environment, such as Microsoft Project to manage the timelines and work flow of large projects, or how to fill a cavity.
- We all agreed that it was during our college years that we learned, how to learn. This is a major idea, because we were in unanimous agreement that nearly nothing we learned, before, during or after college, was absolute. The ability to learn is a critical life skill that allows us to recognize when circumstances change, and that we must change and adapt to meet the needs of the new circumstances. One of us, with a business degree, posed as an example that, while the principles of accounting haven’t changed, the methods by which it is accomplished has evolved dramatically. Gone are the days of accounting ledgers, replaced by modern accounting software. Gone too, are the days of the slide rule to perform engineering and scientific calculations, replaced again, by modern software, such as MATLAB.
- We all agreed it was a direct result of the college education we received, as widely varied as it was, that we learned how to think. This is another life skill with monumental implications. What does it mean to, “learn how to think?” This is a skill most often defined as being able to aggregate information, separate what is pertinent from that which is not and then analyze that pertinent information in order to make good, informed decisions; decisions that are based upon facts, not emotions. In the world of higher education, this skill is typically called “critical thinking.” Examples of decisions made by individuals in our group, rooted in critical thinking, included: what career goals to pursue, the right time to open a small business, when did they have the life partner and financial stability to start a family, when and what type of automobile to purchase and who to vote for in any given election.
Of these three lessons, we all agreed that the least important of what we learned in college are the technical skills directly related to a job or profession. Not that these are unimportant. These skills might help land that first job, but the second and third skills listed that enabled us to keep that job and succeed there.
Furthermore, we all agreed that the third skill, that of learning how to think, is the most valuable. We felt, by virtue of the fact that we were taught how to think, that we learned, how to learn. The ability to make good decisions, we agreed, was critical to maximizing the chances for success in every aspect of our lives.
Earlier, I stated it was not coincidental we all agreed on these three outcomes from a college education, and we all agreed as to the ranking of importance of these outcomes. The reason that I feel this was not coincidental is that, as a college educator, I consider it my primary responsibility to teach critical thinking skills to all of my students. The vehicle I use to teach critical thinking are those technical, job related skills.
In my case, how to write software, computer programs, using the C, Java, Python or any other of a wide range of computer programming languages. It is through teaching classes and using these various languages that I not only try to teach how to think, but after learning the first programming language, how to quickly and effectively learn another. That is, I try to teach, how to learn. And furthermore, I suspect that most, if not all of my colleagues, have similar goals and employ similar techniques to achieve them.
So, what should you take away from your college education? Take away a set of technical skills that will help you land a job or advance your academic career. That is the certification, that sheepskin, you will receive on the stage as you walk through your graduation processional. But, know in your mind that you will be taking away some things that are much more valuable. You will know how to learn, change and adapt to a world that is moving at an ever-faster pace. Most importantly, you will know how to think. You will have the tools to help you make the best decisions you can. And best of all, these skills will stay with you for the rest of your life, and if you exercise them, they will just continue to improve.
*The views expressed by the author of this article are not the opinions held by the Chronicle.