July 18, 2010

Learning Is Fun

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It was a week, maybe two, into freshman year when a random guy at a random house party told me that if I just continually used the words “problematic” and “anthropological” in class discussion I’d be guaranteed a B-plus at least. And after three years on East Hill I can confidently say that his advice is pretty much true. But that doesn’t mean you should take it.

For all the hype and horror associated with college classes — the obnoxious course titles, the intimidating track records of the professors, the mysterious nature of course numbers — the truth is that with a little savvy you can breeze your way to GPA glory. You can skip class and get the notes from a friend. You can nod off during lectures and find the PowerPoint slides online. You can copy that smart kid’s problem set. You can write a five-page essay filled with utter gibberish. You can spend four years drinking and smoking and playing Xbox without going to a single office hour. You can do all of this and more and come away with a diploma and a half-decent resume.

But all this ease comes at a steep price — about $200K and four years spent learning nothing at all.

I realize I sound like both a huge nerd and one of those administrators who gives the “each class you skip costs you $200” talk during orientation week, but before you make the long tearful trek to Ithaca this August you have to think about what exactly you are doing here. No matter what compelled you to chose Cornell — the pretty campus, your daddy and your daddy’s daddy went here, you fancy yourself a science-y sort of dude, whatever — the reality is that you owe it to yourself to learn a thing or two.

The strange games of high schoolia are over, the balls and bats put away, the playing field paved over, the scorekeeper resting comfortably. This is college. No one is counting your extra curricular activities, no one is scanning your transcript to make sure you took the maximum number of AP classes, no one is trying to decide if you’re a fully-rounded student. Even grades — the familiar pillars of your former academic life — are more or less useless. Your future employer won’t care if you got a B-minus and not a B-plus in 2000-level accounting; but she will care if you exit your four-year Ithacan adventure with little more intellectual muscle than you came in with.

This isn’t to say that you should never skip a class or two to go out drinking or you shouldn’t bust out a “problematic” when you fall behind on the ridiculously boring required reading, but now that you are no longer overachieving your butt off to get into college, school takes on different qualities. School is no longer a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. The reward of hard work is no longer acceptance into a top-tier university, but rather intellectual and even personal growth.

Hearing that you can b.s. your way through Cornell is both the best and worst piece of knowledge you could gain. It means you can routinely cut corners, slack off or tread water and still earn an impressive-looking GPA. It means you can skate by without doing the reading or going to class. But it also means you can waste four years with relative ease. It means you can comfortably miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to become whatever it is you want to become.

So here you are with a typically American dilemma — the difficulty of choosing work over laziness, hard-won enlightenment over easy stagnancy.

Original Author: Tony Manfred