What’s an ed­u­ca­tion for, any­way?

Hartford Courant - - Opinion - GINA BARRECA [email protected]­abar­reca.com

My fam­ily, filled with smart, shrewd and funny peo­ple, would shrug their col­lec­tive shoul­ders and ask, “What good is col­lege?” Only my mom, who died when I was young, val­ued ed­u­ca­tion. I knew that be­cause her sin­gle am­bi­tion for me grow­ing up was that I might marry a man with a de­gree.

I ap­plied to col­lege only be­cause my high school his­tory teacher told me the place he’d at­tended on a foot­ball schol­ar­ship just started ac­cept­ing fe­male stu­dents. He thought maybe I had a shot.

When I told my rel­a­tives that I was head­ing to New Hamp­shire in 1975, they as­sumed I was preg­nant. Why else would an 18-year-old girl leave the state? “It hap­pened to your cousin,” one aunt whis­pered as I boarded the bus for

White River Junc­tion. “You can al­ways come home.”

They were skep­ti­cal about what I’d learn in some cold build­ing far away that I couldn’t learn in Brook­lyn. What was an ed­u­ca­tion go­ing to get me — ex­cept into trou­ble?

I had no idea what I wanted to do or wanted to be, but I wanted a de­gree of my own. Re­vis­ing my mother’s wishes, I didn’t just want to stand next to some­one who was knowl­edge­able. I wanted to be knowl­edge­able. Also, an ed­u­ca­tion can’t divorce you. Be­sides, re­ceiv­ing an ed­u­ca­tion is dif­fer­ent from get­ting a de­gree. A de­gree is like a wed­ding ring: It’s mean­ing­less if it’s there just for show. Like a thin piece of gold, a printed piece of pa­per — even in a fancy font — is worth­less un­less it rep­re­sents sub­stan­tial per­sonal com­mit­ment.

An ed­u­ca­tion is about learn­ing things you don’t know. Just as we need to try foods we’ve never eaten be­fore, we need to ap­proach un­fa­mil­iar sub­jects. Life’s menu can be in­no­va­tive, var­ied and de­light­ful, but with­out out­side in­flu­ences, it can too of­ten be lim­ited, bor­ing and un­ap­pe­tiz­ing.

I have a friend who pretty much eats only those things she was served in child­hood: meat, pota­toes, beans and ap­ple­sauce. She’s not ex­ces­sively fun when it comes to din­ing out.

Cu­rios­ity, like orig­i­nal­ity and de­light, has to be nur­tured. But if we keep em­pha­siz­ing the no­tions of fa­mil­iar­ity and se­cu­rity at the ex­pense of new and po­ten­tially chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, then we’ll be stuck with the in­tel­lec­tual equiv­a­lent of a 1968 Swan­son’s TV din­ner.

Au­then­tic ed­u­ca­tion de­mands that stu­dents learn and not merely that they be taught. It’s not about sim­ply of­fer­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion or data. What hap­pens in class­rooms is not the same as what hap­pens at UPS: It is not like trans­fer­ring an un­ex­am­ined par­cel of in­for­ma­tion from one per­son to an­other. It must in­clude, as all rep­utable teach­ers know, in­struct­ing stu­dents in aca­demic discipline and per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

This is one rea­son that stu­dents should be re­quired to take classes from out­side their area of spe­cial­iza­tion. Their fu­tures are un­der con­struc­tion. While they may have blueprints in place, per­haps handed down through their fam­i­lies or fan­tasies from glit­ter­ing day­dreams, there are many ar­chi­tec­tural mod­els from which to choose. That way they won’t end up with the aca­demic equiv­a­lent of a five-story one-bed­room apart­ment with no kitchen and a bath­room on the roof.

Un­able to pre­dict the in­ef­fa­ble re­sults of ed­u­ca­tion, I worry we’re defin­ing it in merely quan­tifi­able terms — judg­ing in­sti­tu­tions, sub­jects and ma­jors by how much money their grad­u­ates earn once they’re in the work­place. That’s not an as­sess­ment of a de­mand­ing course of study. That’s an as­sess­ment of who makes coin. If that’s all any­body needs know, I could have stayed in the old neigh­bor­hood. Gang­sters, af­ter all, make more money than any­body else.

An au­then­tic lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion has value of a dif­fer­ent kind: It’s a tri­umph over ig­no­rance and a re­fusal to be in­tim­i­dated by the un­known.

It’s about tak­ing a class in a cold build­ing on a quiet morn­ing and learn­ing that words, as well as num­bers, in the proper se­quence, can un­lock the uni­verse. It’s about pro­fi­ciency, of course, but it’s also about per­spec­tive.

It’s not what you “get” out of col­lege that changes your life; it’s what you’re given. You gain au­thor­ity not only over sub­jects, but over your­self.

As my fam­ily pre­dicted, ed­u­ca­tion got me into trou­ble — but it was trou­ble for which I looked, not from which I ran. That’s the pay­off.

Gina Barreca is a board of trustees dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture at Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut and the au­thor of 10 books. She can be reached at www.gin­abar­reca.com.

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