Last month, I received an official paper emblem attesting to my academic worthiness. Congratulations were exchanged and I added a Bachelor's degree to my resume. But after all the pictures were snapped, mortar boards thrown and celebratory statements made, I wondered to myself: What is the real significance of this meritorious document we call a diploma?
Generally, a diploma demonstrates the completion of courses deemed necessary to prove mastery in a field. Mine was broadcast journalism, so I loaded my transcript with a sea of communication-heavy classes. There were the occasional deviations, but for the most part, I knew who I wanted to be. Think Asian version of Christiane Amanpour. If that didn't work, Katie Couric or Barbara Walters will suffice. It only seemed appropriate, given the fact that my childhood was influenced more by Peter Jennings than it was by Barney or Sesame Street. The resonating voices of newscasters, which made regular appearances at the dinner table, were somehow more reassuring to my toddler ears than the words of Mr. Rogers.
Despite my desire to shine as a jet setting international correspondent, I knew that learning about other fields would be helpful. After all, skilled journalists are defined as much by their ability to communicate as they are by the amount of cursory knowledge they can spout on cue about a newsworthy subject (which these days could be about ANYTHING). Therefore, you must know a little bit about everything. To this end, I took a few engineering, education and business classes. Still, my stubborn mind was set on the land of war zones and cross-cultural conflict.
Before I could worry about losing my life on the front lines, I had to survive the oft-times more vicious battle in the newsroom. There were news egos to slay, words to cut and ignored pleas for more air time. The ultimate mission: pack some crisp writing, captivating images and clear sound into a neat 1:30 package before the ticking time clock goes off and... boom, you're on! News can be as real as real gets, but more often, it's a performance. I rehearsed my reporting lines, crafted words in news lyric and framed visual shots like a Picasso (okay not quite, but my point being that videography is an art).
In essence, this is what I learned in school. I learned to broadcast. Knowledge eluded me, but I got others to spill knowledge (on camera, of course). My accomplishments were few, yet I knew everything about other people's accomplishments. l learned to concoct bits of reality for others, but could barely construct my own reality. My life was a vicarious one.
I'm appreciative of what I've learned through others in college. While I rarely lingered after class to talk to professors, I did talk to people. I came across these people while covering stories for my TV news shifts and pursuing story leads. Often, the leads were dead ends, but I still learned lessons as far-reaching as the diversity of these characters. A migrant worker confessed that his daily worry is not about how little his hourly wage is, but whether he can even land one of these low-paying tomato picking jobs due to the seasonal freeze. Meanwhile, in what seems like a world away, our generation of college students pits itself in a race against time, the central dilemma being, "Too much to do, too little time." We all inhabit the same sphere, but lead such different lives. One group suffers from lack, the other from excess.
This is perhaps the greatest lesson college has taught me: complicated subjects require multi-faceted perspectives. I cannot conduct a research study nor can I balance a budget, but after talking to the right people, I can write about the findings while incorporating different viewpoints. I can talk to strangers, communicate and simplify.
Do I wish I learned more during college? Of course. I wish I sharpened a more analytical mind and knew more about the classics. I wish I could devise a scientific experiment. I wish I could talk at length about philosophy, the Battle of Normandy or the theory of relativity.
But more than any of this, I wish I could explain why. Why now that I've passed a supposed major milestone in life with "flying colors" and am endowed with certain skills, I'm still so damn confused.
Here is where my commentary turns slightly sour. Our society places so much hope in the higher education system as a vehicle for success, but realistically, does it do any more than permit our entrance into the white-collar workforce? I am nothing but a young dilettante who possesses little in the name of experience and a lot in the name of mere observing. But I feel the need for a candid discussion about college, which enlightens in so many ways yet fails at resolving the most critical question of self.
College claims to be a time when students find themselves. But I only find myself lost in a sea of discordant talk. I'd argue that other people feel the same. In fact, few people my age know where their true interests lie. We can't possibly. We're young and haven't experienced a whole lot of anything to know ourselves with certainty. I'm not asking for college to answer the age-old question of self, but I do think it could provide more mechanisms to uncover it. For instance, most students, including myself, approached college in a focused, targeted manner: find a field, land a job, end of mission.
But when the singular mission is accomplished, too few can adequately answer why such route was taken. Why are we studying this certain field? Why do we believe the things we believe? We should be required to develop and defend our decisions and value systems as individuals. I think we'd be surprised to discover that when the majority of students are asked, "Why do you as an individual believe this?" a stuttering "because... " trails into a vacuous stare.
I can't speak for all, but there are many people graduating from college who don't know what they're doing, nor why. We are filled with knowledge, but devoid of an understanding of ourselves and how our knowledge can be applied in a way that simultaneously fulfills our individual passion and contributes to societal improvement. We hold the world in our hands, but a lack of self-awareness may be our Achilles' Heel.
College would do its tuition-paying customers a favor by not solely focusing on hard facts/skills. They are important, but an even greater need exists in helping students develop soft skills: an understanding of themselves so they can own their beliefs, how they align with the world and its changing sphere. We need to make factual knowledge applicable to real life by discussing the implications of modern events. Ask what lessons we can draw from the latest patterns of the world. Powerful married men knocking up other women. The economic crisis. Libya. The digital media revolution. By answering these questions, we will cultivate a generation that possesses a lot more than skill, but something far more powerful: CONTEXT. Students will be able to answer the larger question of "why," in addition to the "what" and "how."
I speak in the abstract, the hypothetical and of course, I'm probably placing too high an order on the old college yard. After all, it is just college. We are 21 and 22-year-old kids, and no matter the extent of our schooling, we are still beginners in every sense of the word. Who says we're supposed to know everything about ourselves? A few college semesters can't possibly accomplish that lifelong quest. But in the name of progress, I suggest that colleges work on laying a firmer foundation for reflection, inquiry and contextualized decision making.
I venture to say that the undergraduate diploma, as it stands, is not a huge measure of worth. Don't get me wrong, I applaud every single graduate for making it. Statistics are on our side. We're going to make on average 84 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. But aside from possessing more money and maybe a few more obscure facts, we are not necessarily any more capable or prepared for the school that really matters: reality.
My diploma says I know a little about a lot, but not a lot about anything. Essentially, I know nothing. I emerge from college, freshly equipped with a paper that should render my knowledge valuable to the world. I'll apply this knowledge in hopes of showing the world what I've got, but more likely, the world will show me what it's got. The real education begins now.
By Lynne Guey for NextGen Journal.
NextGen Journal is a national website for college students. We spotlight the voices of our generation on topics ranging from dorm life to Darfur, and from climate change to Kid Cudi; we provide fresh reporting, insight and analysis on the latest news that matters to you; and we gather the most important content from across the web. We'll save you some time, help you make sense of what's going on and finally bring your voice into the conversation.