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The Purpose of a Higher Education

By a Student, Micah Gentzel
You are one of the millions of people this year applying for admission to a college, university, or other institution of higher learning. You will likely be asked to select a program of study on your application, which often declares a degree or set of degrees you intend to receive at the end of your college education. In fact, when talking about college to friends and family, you will probably be inclined to append this program of study to any mention of your education: 'I am going to college for architecture.'¯ 'I'm studying art history at Penn State.'¯ 'I major in game design at Full Sail.'¯

It seems harmless and perfectly normal, but you shouldn't think like that. In fact, the very idea that your degree will gift you with mastery of a single skill-set is antithetical to the concept of higher learning. College is not where you go to learn a career; it is where you go to learn how to learn.

Now, you may think 'but, high school was meant to prepare me for college.'¯ You've spent your entire childhood in primary and secondary education; surely you already know how to learn. The problem with that reasoning is that high school tells you what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it. It supplies you with a book that contains all of the answers, constructs for you sample problems, and informs the content of your exams. You have not been taught how to be an independent learner; how to teach yourself.

Did Einstein find the theory of special relativity in a textbook? No; he discovered it himself, from his own original research. Have you ever discovered something in high school that was not already discovered by someone else, and written down in a neatly-structured textbook for your intellectual consumption? Have you ever learned something that was not taught to you? The very likely answer is no, because you are not yet an independent learner. Everything you have learned so far has been made to order by the Department of Education and your local school board; much of it discovered decades or centuries ago.

College will change this, if you approach it properly.

The very first thing you must do to become an independent learner in college is to disabuse yourself of the notion that you are going to college to receive job training. You must understand that your instructors are called 'professors'¯ and not 'teachers'¯ for a very good reason'”they are not going to teach you directly in their area of expertise; they are going to make you learn the subject on your own, to a degree determined by your own interest in that subject.

In fact, obtaining an advanced degree in most fields will require you to prepare a dissertation or a thesis'”a project that can last a year or more and involves original research by yourself which advances the collective body of knowledge within the field of study. The content of your dissertation cannot be fully sourced to existing information; you must discover something new.

A successful college experience is not always indicated by a degree. A degree says only that you have been vetted'”intellectually and financially'”and that your interest in learning independently was great enough to overcome the many stresses of this years-long hardship. A degree does not make you employable, experienced, or wealthy. A degree does not make you an architect, art historian, or game designer. Only your inner desire to remain a lifelong student of the world can do that.

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