education, personal, philosophy

The value of a four-year college

Three weeks into my symbolic logic class, I realized I didn’t belong.

It certainly seemed like a good idea to take it. I was a philosophy major, and I had aced logic. Loved it. Breezed through it.

I slowly realized that my classmates were all math majors and engineers. Somehow, word had gotten out that this was essentially a math class masquerading as a philosophy class that they could take to fill that social sciences requirement.

The professor would stop, apologize and talk very slowly when he mentioned something philosophical. “OK, this is what Immanuel Kant said about logic — that’s Kant, K … A … N … T.” Then he surveyed the class to make sure we all were familiar with mathematical induction. A couple of us said we weren’t.


So here it is:

\forall P.\,[[P(0) \land \forall (k \in \mathbb{N}).\,[P(k) \Rightarrow P(k+1)]] \Rightarrow \forall (n \in \mathbb{N}).\,P(n)]

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been there. But it was too late to drop the class. I had to muddle through, knowing I had as much chance of getting correct answers as Chris Farley on a Japanese game show in that SNL sketch that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise awful season.


I somehow made it out of there with a C+, which was either divine intervention or a “gentleman’s C.”

So when people question the worth of a four-year residential college experience, I sometimes look back upon this class and wonder what I gained from the experience. Did my advisers and the Duke course catalog fail me? Should I have known better? Or was it good for me in the long run?

Perhaps I would’ve been better prepared if I had taken another class. But after acing calculus in high school, I placed into Calculus II at Duke. My instructor struggled with English, and he didn’t take us through all the material that wound up on the exam. Got a C in that one, too.

The same semester I struggled with symbolic logic, I followed some advisers’ recommendations and took philosophy of law. I wasn’t officially pre-law — at Duke, you didn’t really declare such a thing — but I was taking classes that would, in the view of the pre-law advice folks, prepare me for law school. I was cruising to a B or B+ in that class until I spent all my time at the end of the semester trying to teach myself enough symbolic logic to pass that class. I wound up with a B-.

So these classes pretty much stopped my late surge to graduate cum laude. Yes, I was close, despite all those nasty classes and my ill-advised decision to take an art history class that met right after my PE class. I somehow finished just above the middle of my class. Perhaps it was because I was sober.

(Friday night, in fact, I thought of the supposedly mandatory “alcohol survival” session attended by me and tens of my freshman classmates, as if I needed tips on dealing with the effects of the wine at church. I was thinking of it because I was in a supposedly mandatory coaches’ meeting, along with at least 20% of the other coaches. I never learn.)

The bigger impact of that philosophy of law class, though, was that it convinced me not to go to law school. I was bored to tears.

In retrospect, law would’ve been a better career for me than journalism. But I was lucky that things worked out to some extent. I’ve been to four Olympics and a Women’s World Cup. I’ve met famous people and even befriended a couple of them. And I met terrific co-workers, one of whom I married. That might not have happened had I gone to law school or, as the music faculty would’ve loved, gone to grad school in music, where I was making good grades and getting pegged as the next PDQ Bach. (He’s kind of the Weird Al of classical.)

I should say Duke didn’t really help me, career-wise. The university launched a Career Center during my time there, and I duly stopped by to talk about my decision to go into journalism.

So I’m planning to send clips out to various newspapers.

Oh … great! Yeah … um … that sounds like a good idea.

Thanks, dude.

Late in my senior year, when I realized I had no employment lined up and had been passed up a couple of internships, I learned that some information on journalism careers was stored in the political science department. A small box of index cards had contact information that, in the pre-Web days, was not otherwise available. Great.

So I’d have to say Duke let me down on several levels. But I have to take some of the blame myself. I was perfectly content to take an intellectual buffet.

To some extent, that should be encouraged. Young adults need some freedom to explore.

But I wonder if universities have erred too far toward freedom. Maybe a few more classes should be required, not just the horrid writing course Duke requires in the first semester. (That was my lowest grade — C-. The next semester, I purposefully forgot everything that grad student tried to tell me, went back to my old writing style and made an A in an English seminar. I still think I should dedicate one of my books to that teacher.)

Duke science majors made fun of some of classes like “Chemistry and Society,” a chemistry class geared toward humanities and social science majors. But I took that class, and it was terrific. I got a broad overview, not the details you get in the general chemistry classes. Besides — we all did chemistry in high school. Once you get past that, there’s little reason to put future engineers and future political scientists in the same class.

Meanwhile, math and science majors fulfilled their “social science” obligation in the aforementioned symbolic logic, a math class with a philosophy label.

And responsibility for such things really does fall back onto the school. I had no way of knowing I’d be beating my head against the wall in symbolic logic. I should’ve been told statistics would be much more practical than a second semester of calculus.

I can’t say any class is a total waste of time. I like to think of my education as “batting weights for the brain.” Wrestling with difficult concepts and abstractions can make the typical day-to-day work problems seem simple by comparison.

But a few more practicalities wouldn’t hurt. Maybe offer more broad survey courses to fill field of study requirements — a general history of philosophy rather than something specific, economics for personal and political literacy rather than future policy wonks.

Short of a curriculum overhaul, let’s get back to the question I’ve danced around long enough: Was it worth it?


Even with today’s technology, what else would I do? Stay at home for another couple of years and take classes online?

College is supposed to broaden the mind. You meet people who are a little different. You explore. You try new things, and they don’t have to be alcohol-related.

Before I went to Duke, I had never met a gay person (that I knew of — in retrospect, yes I had) or a Muslim. I had stereotypes that needed deflating.

I met great people — and learned how to deal with some obnoxious ones. I tested my intellectual limits. I had the best journalistic experience of my life, running a good daily newspaper with smart people I both loved and couldn’t stand (sometimes the same people).

In this day and age, where people hide behind anonymous online personas and fail to relate to each other, shouldn’t more people have this sort of experience.

So let’s fix the advising and maybe the curriculum. Let’s make it affordable. Maybe encourage exchanges for one year so people can diversify their experiences.

And move “symbolic logic” to the math department. Doesn’t matter if Kant and company had interesting thoughts on it. Greek philosophers invented a lot of mathematical concepts, too. Must have had a good college experience. They had togas, after all.


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