I’m reading a new 300-page book packed to the brim with strategies for college students to be the best college students ever. It’s actually a fantastic book that I’ll be talking about elsewhere, with useful tips for preparing study packets and taking notes in the classroom. However, as I was reading this book and scribbling my own notes on little stickies, a nagging voice in the back on my head kept thinking, “yeah, they’re not going to do that. And they certainly won’t do that.”
Yes, there are high school students who are eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters at this very minute to the country’s top colleges. They have been honed by years of elite schools and tutors to be excellent students, if not terribly interesting ones — the excellent sheep as described by William Deresiewicz. Those driven students might want to read this book to fine-tune their already well-developed tricks for committing information to memory and reproducing that information neatly in a scantron exam.
I’m certainly not knocking academic excellence. I loved college, so much that I hung around for an extra decade getting a PhD. I developed my own methods for churning through hundreds of pages of Marx and Weber and was extremely proud of my efforts. To gain entry to the best law schools and medical schools in the country, one simply must study hard and perform well; there is no other way to operate.
However, college perfectionism isn’t the only game in town. At war with this traditional ideas of college education is a growing nihilism about the whole endeavor. Students and professors are giving up on college, as we witnessed in our own home just a few months ago.