Today I learned…: University

  • “What is the meaning of “university” or “post-undergraduate study”?”: I was complaining to my professor about how I had to take so many courses that were honestly irrelevant to my major and that I would probably never use them in real life. He told me, “It’s not the job of the professor or the university to teach you how to get a job”. I got defensive because it sounded like a betrayal: students like me pay thousands of dollars for an education that has little to do with getting a job. “What am I paying for then?”, I asked the professor. “We teach you how to think”, he said. That’s such a cliche answer, or so I thought. Our conversation went on as he explained to me the growth in popularity of post-secondary education and how the perception of university education ended up like what it is now. Back then, before the mid-nineteenth century, universities remained unpopular – most jobs did not require a university degree and it was difficult to persuade young people to delay pursuing their careers and stay at school for another 4 years. University remained as the place for scholars to share knowledge aka for nerds and old men. After the mid-nineteenth century and the Civil War in the US, the federal government directly involved in higher education with the Morrill Land-Act. In short, states received land to build “agricultural and mechanical college”, which later developed into full-blown institutions. These institutions taught more applied skills, and maybe they shouldn’t have been called “universities” but rather “technical colleges”. In countries like Germany, after high school, most people actually choose to go to polytechnic/technical college, work for a few years and then decide to go back to university. The “prestige” of getting a university degree created a false impression and expectation of post-secondary study – universities, academic institutions, are now expected to train people for jobs. Long story short: if your goal is to get a job and learn how to operate a machine, it might be better to go to a polytechnic/technical college instead of learning the theories behind the machine in university. That said, the skills (not the content) that you learn in a university might be more transferable than the job-specific skills in a polytechnic, which will benefit you in the long run (if you actually focus on learning instead of sitting for exams). Personally, I was a bit disappointed, but now knowing this, I can adjust my expectation of my study and focus on what actually matters.

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