University of Life

What is the goal of the university education, anyway? I think it depends on who you ask.

A youngster, struggling or not, might say one of two things: either that the goal is to learn a lot of very useful information in a remarkably short time so that he [she, it] can become a fine, intelligent, upstanding member of society. Or that the goal is to learn the importance of social networking as it applies to the struggling student, and to gain experience and support in that endeavor, and to conduct the ultimate, dream project of primary research in support of brewing establishments and miniature balloon manufacturers everywhere.

A professor might profess that the goal is to nobly shape as many of the young, beer-soaked and therefore fundamentally malleable, minds as possible in as short a time as possible with the information they need to succeed in a world of cannibalistic canines, to teach them to collect thoughts from their beer-soaked minds, to shape and form into useful, cogent, coherent strings of demonstrated applied knowledge that will certainly impress their future peers if not their employers. Or he [she, it] might be thinking of his [her, its] next six months, conducting valuable primary research with marvellous Margeritae, earning his [her, its] most well-deserved tenure on a big, beautiful, Bahaman beach.

An administrator might allow (or disallow) both of these views, realizing, depending on his [her, its] point of view, that his [her, its] gainful employment relies on a steady supply of both category A and category B above. Or he [she, it] might resent every actual human point of contact as an interruption of his [her, its] most useful enterprise of filling in forms and accepting deliveries.

In the meantime, employers look on with bemusement. Yes, they want whatever risks they take on their future young employees to have a reasonable potential for success. Yes, they would like their future juniors to be able to tell the difference between a two and a seven, to conjugate a few verbs fully and correctly (or at least to be able to identify one), to be able to write their name, distinguish between igneous and sedimentary rock, and to be able to tell when the open part of the glass is at the top. Yes, they would love to be able to place letters after Junior’s name on his [her, its] business cards – because it just looks better that way. But I have seen the look on some potential employers’ faces when you cite this fact or demonstrate that knowledge with confidence and aplomb, and the implication of the look at least is that not everything that is learned in these venerable halls is for keeps. I have even been told – as a mature student – not to forget what I learned in my many years in the workplace – that much of what is learned in school can be upon graduation safely and respectfully consigned to the attics and back rooms of the mind.

If you ask me, the goal of the university education is a subtle mishmash of all the above. It’s an evil necessity. It’s a breadth-creating blessing. It’s an unmitigated joy and an unrewarding horror all at once. It’s a drag, man, but such a forward-thinking, proactive, exciting drag as to be almost redemptive. What could be better than laying yourself out for judgment forty-seven times a week? What could be more satisfying than to stick your hand up in front of three hundred young people to answer a question knowing there’s a high probability of getting it only partly right?

So what’s the goal of the university education? Life is the goal. Being prepared for ‘whatever’, and embracing ‘whatever’ as a good enough reason to get up every day, to be motivated, to push yourself, to teach yourself the fine arts of perseverance and determination. The actual subject matter in these wonderful courses is – I believe – secondary to the discipline you learn and apply in getting them done. Learning how to push through all those barriers, both external and internal, is to me the most important thing the students will ever learn here.

Why? Because that truly is a skill they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

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