The Long Road Back

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A few days ago I returned to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where I am set to spend the majority of the next nine months filling my head with knowledge about neuroscience, physics, and economics.

As I look back at where I was this time last year, readying myself for my freshman year, I am surprised by the great number of changes that have occurred. I am no longer the starry-eyed idealist who believed he would take campus by storm and become a well-known name by Thanksgiving. Such popularity may have been enjoyable in high school, but college is not the place to gleam for such recognition. No, college is a time to aspire for something higher.

Higher education in the United States, of course, is currently a hotly debated topic. The necessity of attending a four-year institution and accruing thousands of dollars in debt is readily disputed. While I won’t address where I stand on the issue, I will offer this: the American university stands as a haven where ideas are challenged and refined, where experiences are both eclectic and exciting, and where young men and women can explore their passions and interests without bearing the full and inevitable brunt of the working world.

You blew $150,000 on an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees from the library.

Surely college isn’t the only way to attain such knowledge. Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo DaVinci, and Buckminister Fuller among many other great names in history were autodidacts. In place of formal education, they were able to learn a certain subject by teaching it to themselves and discussing the matter with others who’d done the same.

Although autodidactism has a certain lure, it fails to bring the majority of self-educators to a deep enough level of understanding about a subject. Such a level is developed only by being in consistent communication with others about the given subject– a situation once reserved only for the wealthy.

The internet is rapidly picking up the slack, but for the majority, the opportunity to converse about Kant and quarks– within the same sentence, no less– is had to come by. The university is the perfect place for those ideas to fester and grow, though certainly not the only.

Measuring one’s understanding of a subject can be thought of as having three distinct levels.

  1. The basic ability to read and learn about others’ ideas and concepts. You are able to comprehend the material so much so that it makes sense to you, but not on a deep enough level to explain or teach it to others.
  2. The ability to understand those ideas and concepts so well that you can explain them and educate others.
  3. The ability to form your own ideas and opinions as independently as possible from those you have learned. People able to accomplish this are typically what society calls ‘geniuses’– persons who know their subject so well that new ideas and concepts flow from that base and come into existence.

It is the university that stands to enlighten students to that third level of deep understanding. It is the reason why I returned to Wesleyan this fall.

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