Dropping Out and Finding Life
Until higher education improves, dropping out might be the right move
I’m reading a new 300-page book packed to the brim with strategies for college students to be the best college students ever. It’s actually a fantastic book that I’ll be talking about elsewhere, with useful tips for preparing study packets and taking notes in the classroom. However, as I was reading this book and scribbling my own notes on little stickies, a nagging voice in the back on my head kept thinking, “yeah, they’re not going to do that. And they certainly won’t do that.”
Yes, there are high school students who are eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters at this very minute to the country’s top colleges. They have been honed by years of elite schools and tutors to be excellent students, if not terribly interesting ones — the excellent sheep as described by William Deresiewicz. Those driven students might want to read this book to fine-tune their already well-developed tricks for committing information to memory and reproducing that information neatly in a scantron exam.
I’m certainly not knocking academic excellence. I loved college, so much that I hung around for an extra decade getting a PhD. I developed my own methods for churning through hundreds of pages of Marx and Weber and was extremely proud of my efforts. To gain entry to the best law schools and medical schools in the country, one simply must study hard and perform well; there is no other way to operate.
However, college perfectionism isn’t the only game in town. At war with this traditional ideas of college education is a growing nihilism about the whole endeavor. Students and professors are giving up on college, as we witnessed in our own home just a few months ago.
Despite having two parents with PhDs and nice SAT scores, my older son struggled at first with college. His elite public high school actually hadn’t prepared him sufficiently, so he had to catch up on the campus. He did and began to excel in his classes, but then Covid struck. He spent a year and a half watching professors give canned lectures on YouTube. It was massively depressing.
When the lecture halls finally opened and Jonah was actually able to talk to real professors again, the campus remained deathly depressing. Students wandered in and out of the lectures hall, arriving late and leaving early. Nothing mattered. With only a semester left to go and an A on his senior thesis, Jonah found it too difficult to adjust and left college. He says he’ll go back at some time, but he is impatient to start his life and work.
Faculty is depressed, but for different reasons. Dan Drezner and Tyler Cowen, professors and pundits, say their jobs have been made worse by bureaucratization, labor issues, mental health issues among the students, and more. It’s bad.
Cowen says, “Yes, American academia is in crisis. But the headlines don’t give a sense of the depth of that crisis.”
Meanwhile, there’s new AI software that can basically write your term papers for you. Viral TikTok videos show students bragging about how they don’t have to do the work anymore. There are loads of stories about incoming college freshman, who are entering college after suffering massive learning lag, who just can’t pass the exams.
A liberal arts college education was always an elite endeavor, until the GI Bill of Rights and the Baby Boomers changed things up. My father, who got his PhD from Fordham in 1966, was snapped up for a job at the City of College of New York, where he taught overflowing classrooms with the best minds in working class Manhattan. But those students, jobs, and enthusiasm are gone.
Does it matter?
My son, the college dropout, is super happy right now. He’s genuinely enjoying learning about sales and marketing at a sports apparel company, even brainstorming new product ideas with ownership. Outside of work he’s teaching himself about the Late Bronze Age collapse. Weirdly, he hated watching YouTube lectures, while taking actual college classes, but is enjoying learning about this topic on his own and passionately reciting his findings at the dinner table. Rather than studying all weekend, he and his girlfriend are taking trips, going to concerts, and enjoying life.
College has changed from my days at SUNY Binghamton. The professors and students are miserable. Students haven’t been prepared to withstand the rigors of college, so they have to read self-help guides or resort to various cheating schemes. As much as I loved the college classroom with ideas and debate, I recognize that things have changed. I am reluctantly joining the ranks of Team Dropout. It’s time for something entirely new.
Surprised that I’m not writing about Prince Harry’s new book? Maybe I will over the weekend, but I’m not in the mood today to write about someone who is that detached from reality. The leaks from the book confirm my impressions of him from the Netflix train wreck. He’s not playing from a full deck.
When the week began, I didn’t have too much on my plate, so started a light series on the blog on New Years resolutions and healthy life styles. I wrote about our Five Day Menu plan, but then a freelance project and another project heated up. I’ll finish that project next week.
We decided to be anti-social this New Year’s Eve. Steve, Ian, and I went into the city for a lovely dinner and then retired early. Pictures here and here.
Pictures: West Village, NYC, December 31, 2022