I love learning. The time in my life that I have done the most learning has been since graduating from college three years ago. I don’t mean learning life lessons, but reading, writing, and researching my favorite topics just to learn them. When I was in high school and college, I didn’t love learning the way I do now, but school was my time with the most readily available resources, and I’m wistful that it’s passed me by.
My Relationship with Higher Education
I attended Grove City College from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2018. Overall, you could say that my relationship with higher education was complicated at best. I’ve written extensively about how I felt left out there because I was an atheist and the college was Christian, but I honestly feel that I was failed as a student in general.
I entered college as an Undeclared major. I spent my first semester getting all of the required Christian humanities under my belt (and their subpar quality did not give me a good first impression). After that semester, I declared a major in Communication Studies with the hope of using it to become a graphic designer.
In a way, I was fortunate that a design minor actually became available during my time as a student, so I was able to declare that as my minor. The same went for my two concentrations in professional writing and business writing. On paper, it looks like I know what I’m doing.
The downside is that I was taking the classes for this minor and these concentrations when the programs of study were completely underdeveloped. The writing concentrations required no writing classes, but rather a slew of marketing classes and a single online design class taught by an English professor who does apologetics and karate on the side (who used Microsoft Publisher to make some of the most atrocious designs I’ve ever seen). Not to mention that no one in the class knew the first thing about design—and had no reason to—because they were all English majors taking a course required for their writing concentrations.
Several other classes for my major were of similar quality to this one, or almost this bad. And remember, this isn’t mentioning all of the required religion classes and especially not the elective apologetics class.
I’ve realized since graduating that my eagerness to learn independently post-college is in part my way of making up for lost time. Grove City neither encouraged me to open my eyes to the world around me, nor did it equip me to enter that world. I had to learn to do all that on my own, and I think I get back at the school a little bit every day when I learn new things without their help.
Why Go to College?
When I talk about learning in an institution or independently—and wonder if school is necessary or worth it—I’m only talking about certain circumstances. In almost every case, furthering your education is a good idea, and I’m not against it. And there’s not much of a question of whether or not it’s necessary for most career paths, especially those in STEM, because it is. I went to college with the goal of getting a degree that I could use to get a job. While I had a hard time getting hired at first (because every other applicant for design jobs had attended art school and not some schmaltzy Christian college), I did eventually achieve my goal. I feel in ways that I was robbed of a good college experience, but I technically got what I came—and continue to pay—for.
But let’s set getting a degree aside. Right now, I have a few favorite subjects to learn about, including human evolution and the history of science and of religion. I will occasionally get the desire to pursue a degree in one of these fields just to feel like I’m really—officially—learning about it. I want a second chance at an amazing college education. Plus, knowing that someone has a degree in something is the quickest way to know that that person knows what they are talking about. But then again, college is ridiculously expensive. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that this monetary barrier acts a way to delegitimize the intelligence or worth of those who simply can’t afford an education. Does this mean that only the rich can be considered experts?
Is School Necessary for Learning?
Even with the design program, I didn’t actually learn that much in my college classes. I certainly didn’t learn anything that I couldn’t have figured out on my own, and the Venn diagram of things I learned in design classes and the things I use every day in my design job overlap maybe 20 percent. Even so, I would have been fine learning that 20 percent on the job along with everything else.
In my attempt to cram an entire design minor’s worth of classes into two years (since it didn’t exist until I was a junior), I took a couple of classes online in the summer and winter. This, by the way, is how I ended up with the free time to take Apologetics class my senior year. I was still paying for a full course load, even though I had to take all these design classes that were only offered online, and they were not cheap either.
Anyways, in the place of a textbook, my design teacher just had us take a couple of courses offered on Lynda.com (which is now LinkedIn Learning). For those of us who could legitimately not afford to take an additional class over winter break, he said that we could just watch the videos on Lynda.com and save that $900. Anyone who did that learned the exact same thing as those of us who took the class, but they would not have gotten any credit, and they wouldn’t have been able to complete the design minor. Maybe they could have put “watched some Photoshop tutorials online” on their resumes, but that doesn’t sound as impressive as having a minor in design.
Now that I’m not in college, the Internet is one of the only means I have to educate myself. But why is that a bad thing? Knowing that this is what my college experience was like, is that actually any less valid than paying a buttload of money to take a class?
My preferred way to learn, though, is through reading. I know that not everything I read is on the same level of scholastic credibility, but the books I read are by the same people who teach college classes in the first place. Better yet, they’re sometimes written by the same people who also write the textbooks. (Or the researchers whose findings are being taught in the textbooks.) In a lot of classes and a lot of schools, the books I read—while not textbooks—are assigned course material. In many cases, these same people who write them also have blogs and YouTube channels.
Is the same lecture less legitimate when you’re watching it on your own time rather than watching it for class credit? I’m not saying I’m just as educated as an enrolled college student in something like paleoanthropology, but the difference in the quality of the education between a bona fide student and a leisurely student like me may not be as great as it once was. I have a wealth of information and resources at my fingertips just by virtue of having the Internet and access to books.
The Validity of Four Colleges
Lastly, I want to give you something to think about by comparing the validity of four different colleges—or “colleges”—and what it is that makes an institution legitimate.
PragerU is a YouTube channel that spews right-wing misinformation and hatred. In addition to the obvious, people dislike PragerU for co-opting the “U” as an implication that they are a university when they are not. Although this is misleading, I must ask: would we be as upset at Prager for the sly usage of the “U” if they actually published accurate information from reliable sources?
One Day University
Through several sponsorships from my favorite educational YouTube channels, I’ve heard of a number of different websites and streaming services dedicated to combining entertainment with education. There are lectures, documentaries, and even structured classes to be found on sites like CuriosityStream, MagellanTV, Speakeasy, One Day University, and more. While I have yet to try out most of these, I focus here on One Day University because of its name. One Day U advertises “fascinating talks by remarkable professors from top-tier schools.” I’m sure the only reason I haven’t heard people criticizing the possibly misleading name is because it isn’t as well known as PragerU. But assuming that this site really does have top lectures from award-winning Ivy League professors, do we have any reason to discount its credibility just because it costs $90 a year instead of tens of thousands?
Grove City College
I’ve already gone into detail on why I don’t think Grove City is a very good school, speaking from my own lived experience as a student. It’s worth noting, however, that my classmates in STEM fields have actually said that they received an amazing and rigorous education. I think I was unlucky because the design and writing programs were both brand new and were not fully formed.
Still, I don’t think the school is excused for its poor choices of professors, lazy teaching, and a generally lacking academic environment. Apologetics 101 still stands as my best example of how bad a college class can be. I’ve joked about it extensively over the years, but this was a class I paid for, at an accredited college, taught by a professor with a doctorate. It still has some of the most inaccurate information, egregious logical fallacies, and offensive misrepresentations of entire groups of people I have ever been presented with. Does this mean that information being taught at a college has no bearing on whether or not that information is reliable? With the cost of college, it’s a worrying thought.
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock is my husband’s alma mater, and it’s a secular university. John and I started dating in high school, so we witnessed each other’s entire college experiences as we attended schools that were geographically eight miles apart, but much further apart in terms of the quality in education. Since we both majored in Communication Studies at our respective schools at the same time, it’s been interesting over the years to compare what we were both taught. More times than I can count, we’ve encountered some fundamental concept central to, say, mass communication or media law, that I’ve simply never heard of. He’s always floored that none of my classes thought to mention the central concepts to our majors. I know that Slippery Rock isn’t perfect, but for this list it stands as somewhat of a control group; it’s a real university that seems to have a good quality education. To this day, I wonder what my life might have been life if I’d attended Slippery Rock instead.
I don’t really have a concrete answer to most of these questions. I’ve left them open ended as I just ponder the value of a degree, daydream about getting a second try at college, and mourn my first. At the end of the day, there is no way to guarantee that your information is accurate, whether it’s from a traditionally reputable source or not. This is why I watch YouTube video essays the same way I read, and the same way that I would attend college lectures: with a healthy mix of curiosity and skepticism.