We've come a long way baby, as the old commercial used to say. These days, a college experience is more likely to teach you how to drink beer until you puke and that Thomas Jefferson was a racist. I wish I could say that it was better when I went to school some twenty-odd years ago but I can't, really. I learned next to nothing of consequence at college. I suspect (as does Epstein) that few do. I'm no expert since my college experience was quite a bit different than most. I started late, attending a few classes at the community college here and there in my mid-twenties, not starting full-time until I was twenty-seven. I owned a condo and worked a full-time job simultaneously so, obviously, the "college experience", those extra-curricular activities that are now held to be so important for our tender young folk, was something I had no time for. I worked, I went to class, I studied, and I slept, for nearly five years until I graduated at thirty-one. I courted my wife at the same time but she too was deeply involved in school - she was working on her PhD at the time - while also working. As a result, the latter years of our courtship consisted of getting together on Sundays - the only day of the week we both had free during this period - at the Georgetown University library and then maybe grabbing something to eat before I dropped her off and we started the whole weekly routine over again the next morning. It was a grind but I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I did it then. There is no way I'd have the energy to do it at this age.
Many of the privileged who went to the better colleges in the first six decades of the twentieth century did so without any vocational aim in mind; already well-connected, they had the businesses of fathers and fathers-in-law and uncles and friends of classmates awaiting. Harvard, Yale, Princeton was not for them a resume item, an entree, an open sesame, For them the doors were already open. George Herbert Walker Bush did not go to Yale College because he was hoping thereby to get a job. He went to Yale College because he was George Herbert Walker Bush, and Yale - and Harvard and Princeton and a few threadneedle Ivy colleges - was the sort of place that families such as the Bushes (and Alsops, Achesons, Harrimans, Roosevelts, and the rest) sent their sones, with daughters going to Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley.
They went there, as earlier they had gone to the various Choates, Grotons, Andovers, St. Paul's, and Exeters, as part of a general program in character building. At such institutions they were to learn, presumably, that wealth and privileges had their responsibilities. Intellectual brilliance counted at these schools for less than leadership, artistic understanding for less than the development of a sound character.
So what did I learn at school? Like I said, not much. I graduated with a business degree with a concentration on information systems. The information systems courses I took were heavy on theory, light in the extreme on practice. We studied from texts, taught by instructors who were full-time professors with little practical experience, and I aced all my classes. And I understood, upon graduation, next to nothing about information systems. I was likely more confused about the field coming out of school than I was going in. I reasonably concluded that this was knowledge beyond my grasp. Sure I aced the courses but that was from sheer memorization. Actually understanding the material was a different story. When I started my first job in the field I was filled with dread that I'd fail; that all those years of grinding were for naught and I'd end up back where I started, waiting tables.
I had the same dread when I entered school - or, I should say, when I left the community college and began attending George Mason University. For some reason I had it in my head that this was a huge jump in intellectual competition, that those attending a university must be the best and the brightest. What is more, I thought, the vast majority of these students had come straight from high school, where they had also undoubtedly shined. As for myself, it had been a decade since my high school days, and high school for me consisted of beer, parties, and rock and roll (girls figured in there too but during my teen years I was deathly afraid of girls, and the prettier I found them, the more scared I was. But I spent more than a little time thinking, hoping, and fretting about them.) I rarely went to class and only barely graduated. I was also, as I walked into my first university classroom, well aware of the fact that even in my schooling previous to high school, I never had to really apply myself. Could I compete in this environment?
Motivated by fear, I found I could. That motivation would get me up at 3:00 a.m. any day that I had a test. I'd study at my kitchen table, drive to school, hit the library as it opened and study some more, go to class and open up my notes and books, and shut them just as the instructor was handing out the test. Thus did I make it through school - by sheer memorization. I forgot it all by nightfall. But memorization was all most instructors asked of you - just regurgitate back to them what they droned on about in class. Critical thinking, skepticism, argumentation, any views that went against the accepted orthodoxy - all this was absent from my college experience. They spit it at you, you spit it back, and all was well with the world.
Of course, this meant a number of my university courses were boring to a degree that bordered on torture. Mind-numbing boring; world-beating boring; boring raised to a level of grandeur. This was the point of my life in which I was intellectually inflamed by political ideas. I mentioned in one of my Bill Buckley memorial posts that during this period I'd read National Review from cover to cover. I'd study each George Will column like I was preparing for one of those tests. I was wearing out my copy of Keeping The Tablets, and memorizing passages from Burke's Reflections. I was more intellectually stimulated then than any other period of my life. So what did I do? I took some political theory courses. And what did those instructors do? Best I can tell, they tried their very best to kill my interest in political ideas dead, without any hope of resuscitation. It was about at this time when I realized that what I was learning at school was mostly nonsense, and nonsense taught by people who were, for the most part, mediocrities.
I had one outstanding professor during my time at GMU: Walter Williams, who taught me introductory macro-economics. It was a survey course with some three-hundred students in it but Professor Williams was utterly delightful while teaching us some fundamental truths. You may know of Walter Williams - he is black, conservative, writes a syndicated column, appears occasionally on television, and is a sometime substitute for Rush Limbaugh. He gave me ten dollars once because I had the best grade in the class on one of his tests - he said excellence should be rewarded. Funny, wise, always interesting, he laid a foundation for us of basic economic facts that stay with me to this day. I remain indebted to him.
But that's it. I had no other instructor other than Professor Williams who made even the slightest impression on me. Check that - I still remember a few who made a terrible impression on me. I remember one English professor who would, out of the blue, let out blood-curdling screams in the middle of class. I'm sure he explained to us his deeply thought out reasons for doing so but I can't remember what they were. The whole class hated him. What a boob.
I remember vividly walking out of my very last class at Mason. It was a night class, during the summer. I was walking to my car in the cool of the evening and all of a sudden I felt free. Free at last. I had hit, during the previous semester and the final two courses I took that summer, a wall. I was at the point where I was not sure I could continue. After five years of working full-time and attending school full-time, including summers, I wasn't even sure if I cared about graduating anymore. If I had not just gotten married, I might not have. Having done so, I really have to say that walking through the parking lot that night was one of the happiest moments of my life. Pure, almost giddy, relief.
Part of the relief - a big part - was the realization that from that day on I could read what I wanted to read. I had little time for pleasure reading the previous few years and I ached for it. For that is where I received my real education - through books and magazines. I attended George Mason University but my education came - and comes - each night when I lie down on the couch and crack open a book.