Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thoughts on Graduation

I'm done with college. I graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Physics and Mathematics, high honors overall, honors in Physics, on May 18, 2013.

That's what it says on my diploma, anyway. (Or rather, what it will say; I haven't received it yet.)

But what's in a diploma? It's just a fancy piece of paper.

Well, I made that diploma worth something... and it isn't something tangible. It isn't a checked-off item on the laundry list of Things To Do In Life, and it isn't a portal to a well-paying job, and it isn't a status symbol to be touted in public. My diploma is only worth something to me. To me, it's proof of a real education.

Now, I have to explain what a real education is to me, and why I think it's only worth something to me. After all, an education is a stepping stone to success, right? It makes me somebody, right? I can tell people with pride, I have a college degree, I'm highly educated, right?

Before I tell you what a real education is to me, I have to provide a little context. Read on.

Once, while studying for my Physics GRE, I stumbled across a thread on the inter-webs posted by some guy who wanted to know what good his physics degree would do him. Would he be a financial success? Would he get a decent job? Would majoring in physics train him for work sufficiently? And there was a reply, very succinct, very eloquent, that summed up things perfectly. He said, No, the purpose of a college degree isn't to get a job... it's to get an education. College degrees don't directly train you for jobs, they give you an education so you can gain the skills necessary for life; a job will usually train you once you acquire it. He went on to say, engineering degrees are a little different because they're technical degrees, and so they supposedly directly train you for the workforce.

I'd always majored in physics because I liked it. I love being a student and learning things. But I know plenty of people who are getting their degrees for other reasons, whether it's money, or parental pressure, or practicality, or just because they knew it was the right next step. Those are all perfectly valid reasons. But somewhere along the way, lost in the annals of time, I think society has forgotten something: The purpose of college is to get an education.

Let me be more specific. These days, if you tell many Indian parents that your major is something like English, or Art, or Theater, or Sociology, you will get disappointed or disgusted looks and the question, "But what can you do with that? What kind of a job will it get you?" Even as a Physics major, my dad got asked that question: "What could he do with Physics?" Among many Indian parents, the acceptable path is Engineering or Medicine or perhaps Law or Business. Those are the subjects that lead directly to social and monetary success. I'm not trying to bully Indian parents, and of course not everyone exhibits this mentality. It's just an example to illustrate a point.

But the person who posted that reply is making the following point: getting a college degree at all gets you an education. That may mean acquiring writing skills, or critical thinking, or quantitative analysis, or debating and persuading skills, or social and communication skills, or things like the ability to stay focused during a long night, or the ability to plan, organize, and execute. These aren't major specific. You can learn them just as well getting a major in English as you can getting a major in Math.

Can you just imagine this idea in today's world? Majoring in something not for the content, but for the skills that studying that subject gives you? You'd think, getting a degree in Computer Science means you want to pursue computer science as a career. That may be true, but if you think about it, it doesn't have to necessarily be true. I mean, if you major in Philosophy, are you really going to be a "philosopher"? That's not a career, that's just a way of thinking, analyzing, writing, and expressing ideas. No, majoring in philosophy gives you a toolkit for viewing, interacting, and contributing to the world. You can use this toolkit to build and understand anything you want. In fact, majoring in anything should give you this toolkit.

This idea, that college is about education, not content, made brilliant sense to me: I know plenty of Physics grad students who are going to go into finance when they graduate. I know a couple Physics undergrads are going to go to medical school. And they're going to do well, but it's not because they know a lot about economics or about biology. It's because majoring in physics gave them an education, a set of skills they need for life -- and then they can go on to do anything they want.

Majoring in Engineering trains you to be an engineer (and other things of course). But majoring in Math gives you acute analytical reasoning. Majoring in Physics gives you data analysis and theoretical modeling. Majoring in English gives you critical thinking and literary analysis. Majoring in Theater gives you balance and control in social interactions. Majoring in History gives you perspective on current events with ready context. And so on. These are just examples. These skills will carry with you when you're not memorizing the metabolic pathways or the death toll at Gettysburg or the most influential Romantic artists.

When you think of it this way, you realize that your grades by themselves really don't matter at all. Your grade in a class is a letter that indicates how many answers you got right or how well you explained your thoughts on three or four assessments isolated and scattered throughout a single term, perhaps even timed to take place on a particular day, within a particular hour. Is this really indicative of how much you learned, or how well you know something? Absolutely not. More importantly, does your grade reflect the education you got from taking that class?

So when you laugh about forgetting all the dates or formulas you memorized for that test the very next day, consider that it wasn't memorizing the dates or formulas that was the point of the test. Even memorization is a skill, but that's not all you learned. You may walk away from class forgetting the content, but you don't forget the skills you learned while studying long hours. It's easy to forget this while in the middle of it all, wondering why does it really matter what year the printing press was discovered or why this essay you're writing about the political structure in Germany during the 1940s has anything to do with anything. It's clear that our education system isn't perfect -- we do end up valuing the grade as a reliable indicator of success, to some extent -- but perspective, for why education is really called education, is key to really seeing the grand scheme of things.

And it's entirely possible these days, as a bright student, to walk blindly through college, doing well, and considering high grades and the prospect of a well-paying job, a real education, and real success. I refer to this lovely comic on the dangers of going through the motions of a mechanical education. But you can still get a diploma, which is why, to me, my diploma by itself isn't worth anything to me.

To me, my diploma is proof that I spent four years sharpening my mind, my reasoning, my analysis, my thinking, my abilities to focus on a task, plan for the future, organize and accomplish goals, plunge into something completely new and grasp at least the basic ideas in a short amount of time. And it is proof that I spent four years interacting with many different types of people, learning to socialize and hold a conversation, experiencing some of the nuances, benefits, and downsides of being part of a network of people. And it is proof that I could work hard and be diligent when I needed to, and have fun and enjoy the brilliant world and the beauty of life when I didn't.

That, to me, is a real education.

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