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The Purpose Of College Education

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I’ve always seen college as the education after high school that was necessary in order to become an adult and belong in “a society with like-minded grownups.” When I was in middle school, I secretly longed for the day when I no longer had to attend Spanish class or sit in on science lectures about cell division. I may have just matured from when I was 12, but now I wish that college was much farther away so that I can continue with the education I have now. I have so much I want to and need to learn in the next three years that I know college may not teach me.

In the New Yorker article “Live and Learn,” Louis Menand discusses several theories regarding the purpose of college — and high school in a sense. They range from ideals of competition based on meritocracy to those of education based on democracy. Theory 1 explains that college weeds out the less intelligent and provides employers with grades to judge applicants, or colleges with grade point averages to judge high schoolers. Theory 2 describes how schools are meant to expose students to material and knowledge that they can apply to whatever career paths they decide to take. Theory 3 is that school is an environment where students learn specialized knowledge for their respective careers. Over the course of the last year, I grew from a theory 3 person to a theory 2 person as I shifted from a STEM person to one that is unsure. My initial beliefs as a theory 3 person were shaped by my experiences growing up.

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I was raised in a math-and-science focused environment ever since I was young. My father has a love for math and competed at the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), so I was constantly pushed to exceed in the subject. In addition, my mother has a Ph.D. in applied statistics. My middle school, NEST+m, was STEM-oriented as well and similar to Stuyvesant. My younger sister and I do computer science outside of school, and my older sister majors in it. I go to math or technology programs nearly every summer and attend Saturday math classes. Although I first despised being forced to learn on weekends and during my free time, I, later on, began to enjoy the math problems I was solving and the programs I was coding. I viewed computer science as the career path I was heading towards and math as the tool that was going to help get me there. Because of this background, I assumed that I was a STEM person and not a humanities one, and didn’t understand why I needed to excel in history or English classes. It didn’t seem important whether or not I knew what a hyperbole or the history of the Roman Empire was. I wanted to be able to pick classes that I thought would benefit me in the long run since I already had an idea of who I wanted to be (much like the ideals of a theory 3 person).

I previously viewed my education as a means to get to the level of success I wanted to reach. Menand similarly writes that “in a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.” I was introduced to the STEM fields I am now surrounded by because they’re associated with success, money, and an abundance of jobs — this financial stability revealed a future in STEM for me. I was taught that STEM and non-liberal arts were the “better” education that would ensure me a brighter future. Similarly, “When Barack Obama and Arne Duncan talk about how higher education is the key to the future of the American economy, this is the sector they have in mind. They are not talking about the liberal arts.” I accepted this idea of a “superior” career path without venturing into other fields like social sciences. But, last fall, I signed up for the Spectator, assuming it would be a low priority commitment to try out during my freshman year. I filled out the application for the News department, passed the second round interview, and started writing my first article on Local Hack Day. As I started writing and interviewing more students and faculty, however, I began to invest more and more of my energy into my articles and started enjoying how I was spending my time. Despite how much I ended up loving the Spectator, I first perceived it as something to de-stress and enjoy, not necessarily something that would benefit me career-wise or help my future. Just like a theory 3 person, I still wanted vocational training in computer science, not humanities. But not long after I joined, the people around me noticed how my mood improved. During a violin lesson, my private teacher told me something that stuck with me: “When you talk about the Spectator, you get animated and really passionate. There’s this light in your eyes that I never see when you talk about math or computer science.” I was taken aback by her comment because I never thought that writing articles would give me so much happiness and fulfillment. My teacher pushed me to invest more in the newspaper and gain an editor position, which was something that had not come to mind until she brought it up. The people around me not only noticed how my mood improved but also how my speaking and writing improved. Just by writing out quotes and forming sentences around them, I wrote more efficiently and fluidly. By questioning interviewees, I stuttered less, made conversation more easily, and spoke with more confidence. Not only was Spectator something that I genuinely enjoyed instead of something I was taught to enjoy, but I also saw its significance in my daily life.

My involvement with the school newspaper wasn’t the only reason for this improvement. The papers I completed in both global and English helped to shape my writing, which became clearer and stronger with each project. The position papers in my global class helped me think thoughtfully about questions and find reasoning. The more creative pieces I completed in my English class helped me think more outside-of-the-box without being vague or confusing. My teachers noticed progress in my writing and I personally noticed how my communication with others changed. It was at this point that I understood the perspective of a theory 2 person: college — or high school in my case, is meant to expose students to all fields and knowledge to best prepare them for the real world and the careers they wish to pursue. High school should provide students with more experience in various subjects so that they can learn and improve academically, as well as learn about and improve themselves. Menand states, “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” High school promotes activity, pushes you to try new things, and provides opportunities that you may not have elsewhere. If I didn’t have the chance provided by Stuyvesant to write for the Spectator and join the News department, I wouldn’t have realized that I can involve activities other than STEM into my life.

I learned of my interest in humanities, and how it brought me just as much joy as my other extracurriculars. Whether or not I decide to pursue liberal arts, they are nevertheless essential to my education. Though some part of school is vocational and field-specific, it’s still a playground for experimenting with different extracurriculars, subjects, and other academic interests. For me, the different activities and classes I took during high school so far contributed to the development of my own character. The ideas and knowledge I took away from those experiences will definitely be applied to my future endeavors.

I’ve learned so much more about myself by straying away from the same activities I’ve participated in and trying out new ones offered by Stuyvesant. I don’t have to be a STEM person, in fact, I don’t need to label myself as anything at all. Similarly, although Stuyvesant is labeled and recognized as a ‘STEM’ school, its English department is incredibly strong and offers a wide range of classes and electives. In addition, Stuyvesant requires freshmen to take Music Appreciation and Art Appreciation. You can easily see that the high school (or at least Stuyvesant’s) curriculum isn’t constructed to churn out students that specialize in one field, but students that are well-rounded and knowledgeable. Instead of narrowing my future choices to just one path, I can now broaden my options to possibilities I have never considered before. By seeing the profound effect my liberal arts classes and activities have on me, my views became more open-minded to a well-rounded education. There is a reason why “students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal arts courses.” Without a fleshed out and thorough education advocated by theory 2, we may not be able to live to our full potential both academically and long term.

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