What I Really Learned in College

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I’ve written in CertMag before about why IT pros should at least consider attending a university to further their careers. (Read more about that here, here and here.) While we haven’t taken a formal editorial stand in favor of techies going to college — each individual’s circumstances are different, and it might not always be necessary — we generally speak approvingly of the positive impact these kinds of experiences can have on them.


In the spirit of encouragement, I thought it might be helpful to relate an important experience I had while I was a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (Go Vols!)


I was a history major at the time, and while I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the subject, I was uncertain as to what exactly I would do with this knowledge once I graduated.


Accordingly, I found myself taking a summer course on the Renaissance era, which I was interested in but also recognized had nominal application to the working world of today (except perhaps for the philosophy of Machiavelli). The political, economic and social dynamics of Northern Italian city-states such as Florence and Milan during the Quattrocento period of classical revival was fascinating enough, but it was unlikely to get me a job.


Toward the end of that semester, the professor — one of my favorite teachers of all time — explained what he expected us to get from his class. It came up during a review session when we were going through a high-level overview of some of the terms and concepts we would be covering on the final exam.


“Look, in 10 years, I don’t expect that you’ll drop by my office and tell me how much learning about the struggles between the populo minuto [the “common people”] and the oligarchy for control of Florence helped you out in life,” he told us. “More than anything, what I want you to take away from this class and any other class is the ability to think critically and communicate effectively, to construct an argument and defend it.”


I was surprised and delighted by what he said. Surprised because he was basically admitting to us that what he had been teaching us was only tangentially important to what we were supposed to be learning and delighted because it showed me how what I was doing would serve my own future endeavors.


It also showed me how true teachers should approach their chosen occupation. Here was someone who was telling us that his area of expertise, to which he had essentially devoted his career — was secondary to our personal development.


I received an “A” in the course mostly because of the professor’s ability to make the material exciting and my own nerdy obsession with history. But the most important thing I got out of it was that perspective on learning. Obviously, critical thinking and communication skills would serve me well in my chosen career of journalism.


I think that’s the central appeal of college for anyone, really. Few other experiences offer so many opportunities for self-improvement and self-discovery. Ultimately, what college students learn the most about is themselves.


Do you have personal experiences from your college days you’d like to share? Tell us about them at editor (at) certmag (dot) com or on our Web site’s General Discussion forum in the “stories of IT degrees wanted” thread. We’ll select a few for publication in an upcoming CertMag special feature on how technology professionals can benefit from the university experience.

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