Are you too smart for college?

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper.

Over the course of the past week, as I begin to say good byes and good lucks to my friends graduating from the University of Chicago, I’ve been doing some thinking. Why am I going through the process of “getting a college education?” Which I suppose can be rephrased as “what is a ‘college education,’ what’s so important about it, and why do I have to pay so much for one when all I’m doing is writing papers and reading books?” This quickly degenerates into an eggheaded discussion about what, ontologically, “education” is: I am not here to have that discussion, nor do I want to have it. Ever again.

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper. It is assumed by unwitting and idealistic faculty that “critical thinking” skills, among others, are picked up along the way. However, and I am not the first to say it, the internet and its attendant social networks and carefully hidden pockets of clandestine information have fundamentally changed the way that my classmates and I undertake the learning process; to wit, it is easier to get academic work “out of the way” without much intellectual effort in order to develop other projects. In short, we’ve hacked college. Most of us “get it done,” not for its own sake–”to learn and to grow”–but to GTFO, so to speak, and, as one of my fellow economics major friends so eloquently put it, “make shit-tons of money.”

If there is one thing that this year has taught me, it is the two flavors of motivation: does one pursue a goal as a means to some other end or as an end in itself? I, personally, have been straddling both sides of this duality, but as of late firmly decided that I only get to “do” college once, and thus I will devote myself as fully to the academic portion of it as possible. However, it seems that the pedagogical focus of the “modern college experience”–building a social network and padding a resume–is, effectively and convincingly, the cynosure among business-minded students–even at the ferociously eggheaded UChicago.

Consider the following conjecture: If you are the entrepreneurial type, the type who wants to get out there and get something started, or if you believe that academia is holding you back from what you want to do, take it from someone who’s read way too much in his life: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx won’t make you successful. They will, however, help you find significance in your accomplishments. If you’re the retrospective type, one that cerebrates post hoc, you’ll be able to educate yourself later not because society is telling you to, but because you can approach that process with the same zeal with which you approach your current projects. If you have all of these great world-changing ideas, the wherewithal to see them through to execution and are willing to forego the short-term social cache of a college degree, then find an experienced mentor or two, build your network, and get cracking.

Parents often counter their college-bound teens’ assertions that many of today’s most prosperous companies were started by college drop-outs with the fact that their founders were smart enough to get into college in the first place. Bill Gates was also smart enough to realize that if he didn’t start Microsoft, somebody else would.

I’m not making any claims to being too smart for college. I enjoy academic life, and I want the social validation of a degree. I am, in fact, too cowardly to take the plunge into starting my projects in earnest now; few are willing to make that leap, and that’s the point. That said, I am currently researching options for a gap year.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

5 thoughts on “Are you too smart for college?”

  1. Great job– Nietzsche, and Marx and Smith will make you successful, if you define success to find meaning in accomplishments!

    Also, the name of your blog brings back memories; maybe those 7 odd days in our lives were a marriage of the entrepreneur and the thinker?

  2. Relevant, stirring, and thoughtful. Philosophizing is a thankless job, so here’s my thanks for doing some explanatory legwork so chaps like me who do ‘cerebrate post hoc’. That entire paragraph, by the way, gave me a wonderful feeling of understanding myself and others as I read it; great writing.

    I’m not sure why you wanted to write about this, but I’m glad you did; I think virtually anyone in our generation, station, or situation has been mulling the issues you present over in their heads silently for quite some time now. I don’t think, though, as you seem to imply, that everyone just wants to GTFO ASAP so they can make big bucks; I think it’s as much to do with the ever-increasing age of the state of ‘perpetual collegehood’ that scores upon scores of 45-year-olds on down seem to be living up here on the N. Side. The party don’t quit when college does, so why not get out so you have more money and more time to party with? It’s not like you’re going to have to be a responsible adult afterwards like those ogres back in the day used to require college grads to be.

    I think people also want to get out as fast as possible because that gigantic, Best Buy sign-sized price tag lends an air of oppressive immediacy to everything you do while registered as a student. Of course you can pay it off over time, but only if you do something logical and practical. And then there’s the job market, but we won’t discuss that. In sum, you know it’s bad when people are going to grad school largely unwillingly because they just don’t wanna go back to Paducah, not because they have any love of learning or because they got a love of it in undergrad.

  3. Colin,

    I really really appreciate the thoughtful comments and praise for my cerebration. Lately I’ve become rather disillusioned with the whole notion that college is a process of personal edification: one need not be a college student to become a “whole person” or whatever arguments college counselors/parents/college brochures make about the greatness of college.
    In light of your comments regarding the status of perpetual young-adulthood (and I emphasize “young” not w/r/t age but maturity) (especially among post-college men) I’d recommend a book called “Guyland.” It’s by an author named Michael Kimmel, and it examines this recent phenomenon of protracted adolescence among the young American male: the proclivities toward excessive alcohol consumption, the sexual promiscuity, the peer-pressure enforced notion that long term relationships in one’s early 20’s is totally verboten, and, most importantly, the disinclination to getting a “real job” out of college and taking on its attendant–gasp!–responsibilities. As I approach my 20th birthday (June 20) I’ve been ruminating, and I’m planning a post: “On what it means to be a grown-ass man” The usage of “ass” as an adjective intensifier is, as you probably guessed, deployed ironically. Glad to see you liked my comment.

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