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January 31, 2012

Exit interview

Savor learning for learning’s sake in college before diving into real-world practicality.

At a job interview recently, I was asked what my favorite and least favorite things about college were. If I had a few days to think about it, 20 minutes to deliver it, and a license to swear while doing so, this is the answer that I would have given:

Basically, what I like about college is the lack of bullshit and what that lack of bullshit indicates. Superficially, this sounds ridiculous—college is full of bullshit, as anyone who was unfortunate enough to read my freshman musings on Durkheim can attest to. But my limited experience with the real world worries me, because it suggests that the problem is far worse there than here.

Think, for example, of the kind of abuses perpetuated on the English language by people in the corporate world. Think of “enterprise business management professionals” or, worse, “consultants.” Think of the entire job application and interview process, essentially designed to test one’s ability to bullshit and disguise various weaknesses and shortcomings.

I am convinced that bullshit is far less common in college, especially once we leave Core classes and find a concentration. At that point, people tend to study things that they are interested in, that they care about, and while BS may rear its ugly head once in a while, what’s far more common is substantive discussion and argument. In college, it seems to me, people actually care about the papers they write, about solving problems correctly, about, in some way, shape, or form getting close to what is true and what is real.

What this lack of bullshit is indicative of is the basic fact that, in my experience, students care about their education for its own sake. Everyone naturally wants to receive good grades and attain a high GPA, but this is far from being the whole story. It doesn’t explain, for example, the fact that so many students are willing to spend hours on a single homework problem, one which accounts for something like 0.0001% of their final grade; it doesn’t explain the perfectly ordinary experience of students spending hours upon hours trying to make sense of two pages of reading, even if they are extremely unlikely to appear on the midterm.

None of this is unique to the U of C, but we’re nevertheless fortunate enough to experience it. The reason I make such a big deal about it is that the “real world” tends to view things more instrumentally. For example, I’m looking for a job now, so I can both earn a living and add to my (admittedly limited) set of marketable skills, which will in turn help me find a different job that both pays better and teaches me other, more marketable skills, and so on. Companies will or won’t hire me based on how much I help the bottom line; I’ll either be useful to them or I won’t be, and sure, maybe things like employee fit matter, but they are far, far less important than profit considerations.

College represents, to me, the final sanctuary from this reality. It’s a place where, thanks to historical circumstances, material prosperity, and a lot of good luck, we’re able to spend four years studying whatever we like (though, for what it’s worth, I recommend you take one or two stat classes while here) without too much concern for its applicability. We can afford to spend hours wondering why Tychonoff’s theorem is true while simultaneously realizing that neither our final grade nor our job prospects at all depend on it. To me, this is wonderful; I’m fairly certain the rest of my life will not be like this. My concerns will be much more prosaic. Instead of worrying about truth and meaning, I’ll worry about feeding myself, buying a house, saving for retirement. Most of my learning will be in the instrumental sense; I will read and work so I can make more money and live more comfortably, not for the intrinsic pleasure it provides.

To put it simply, I’m worried I’m never going to have the time to read Proust.

I’ve spent the last three and a half years living in the clouds—and I mean this as incredibly high praise. I’m going to try very hard to enjoy the next 15 weeks, knowing full well that a period of innocence in my life is ending and I’m not going to get it back. I find all of this rather depressing, but I take solace in the fact that I was lucky enough to experience it at least once.

Oh, and my least favorite thing? Dubstep. Seriously, people, what the fuck?

Peter Ianakiev is a fourth-year in the College majoring in math.

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