Shortsighted, not curious, and proud of it!

When I first encountered this post over at Pharyngula a couple of days ago, I wasn't planning on commenting on article to which PZ referred, even though I found it as disturbing as he did, and even though I don't have quite the same compunctions about "beating up on" a student that he does. (Humiliating students and residents for stupid answers is, alas, a longstanding tradition in medical education.) After all, PZ had already taken it on, as had Super Doomed Planet, Jason at Evolutionblog, and The Uncredible Hallq. Whatever I might say today, a couple of days later seemed superfluous. But then I thought about my college days a bit and decided that my take on this, although equally scathing to the attitudes expressed in the article, was nonetheless a bit different. But first, I feel obligated to give you a flavor of why this article was so disturbing. I sincerely hope that this is some sort of satire that misfired, but I fear that it is not.

The article, written by a journalism student named Stacey Perk and published in the Daily Iowan, is entitled On schooling's useless lessons. Rarely does one see such vapidity so proudly on display in the very first paragraphs:
I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.
Like omigod! So she loves parties and hanging out with her friends but remembers nothing of those nasty classes? It gets worse, though. I thought at first that this must be some intentionally ironic or half-satirical piece, but I still don't think it is:
A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.
Let me get this straight. As a future journalist, you don't think that knowing some history is important? How do you plan on putting the events you report on in context for your readers? What about stories that involve some science? Don't you want to have a clue about what the issues are? How about math? How often do stories involve determining whether a politician's budget and tax promises add up?

Apparently college didn't bring any wisdom:
When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students' career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet.
The horror! Did it ever occur to you that perhaps by studying and committing yourself that you might raise that pesky GPA? No, it's far easier to blame the material. Did it ever occur to you that you might be put on assignments as a journalist that you fine equally uninteresting? What will you do then?

Here's a possible explanation for her attitude:
I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.
I keep hoping this is just bad satire, but keep coming back to the conclusion that it probably isn't. It's rather sad to see a future journalist fail to realize the value of a broad-based education. In fact, if any profession needs such a broad education, it's journalists!

But enough bashing Stacey. It's fun, but it's almost too easy. As Jason put it, she's just showing a bit of the petulant arrogance of youth. Life will teach her, and she will mature. Or it won't, and she'll remain vapid.

Certainly life taught me, which is my lead-in to my perspective on this issue, now that I'm over 20 years out from my college graduation. My dirty little secret is that the reason the article irritated me so is because there was probably a little bit of Stacey in me when I was in college. No, it's not the love of partying and hanging out with my friends, at least not to the extent Stacey seems to love them. (I was then, as I am now, pretty geeky and had only a relatively small circle of friends. I rarely "partied.") It was the blinkered attitude that I only needed to take classes relative to my major and career goals. It was also a bit of the same arrogance of youth that let me to take pride in being able to take the most difficult science classes and excel at them and viewing humanities courses as being somehow less worthy of my time and effort. You see, I knew I wanted to be a scientist or a physician from the very first day I entered college as a chemistry major. I also worried that, if I didn't take enough science classes or do well enough in them, that I wouldn't get into medical school or a good graduate program. This led me to be reluctant to take classes outside of my specialty, even ones that interested me. So insane was I that one year I took 17 credits in the fall semester, all but 3 of which were hard-core science classes, including graduate level biochemistry, and then did the same thing again the next semester. Talk about your lost year!

Yes, the science fascinated me, and yes I did very well in every class (well, every class other than second term organic chemistry, where I got my lowest grade ever in college, a B-; somehow my GPA survived though and they still let me get my chemistry degree). And it paid off. I got into the University of Michigan Medical School, which got around 3,000 applications every year for around 180 positions.

But by my senior year, I was starting to feel as though something was missing. I began to sense my shortsightedness, but by then it was too late to do much about it. There were only two terms left to take some nonscience classes that interested me, and that was not nearly enough time to make up for the three preceding years of relentless focus on chemistry and biology. I managed to fit in a creative writing course (the professor thought I was very good, by the way), an archaelogy course, and an English literature course. But that was it. There wasn't time for any more.

The next year, I was in medical school, and all hope of further diversifying my education was gone. Medical school is, after all, a professional school. Its purpose is to train doctors, not to provide a broad-based education. And there is so much to learn, so much information that must be mastered, that there just isn't room any more for anything unrelated to medicine. The pace is relentless, and the amount of knowledge and number of skills to acquire vast. Medical students have no choice but to develop tunnel vision. And it only gets worse during residency. True, I did go to graduate school during a break in my residency, but the focus there is almost as relentless on one's thesis project. The one good thing is that the point of graduate school in sciences is more to teach you how to think and how to apply the scientific method. Science changes so rapidly that the information we had to learn was not as important as learning how to teach ourselves, read the scientific literature, and apply it to our research. This was a relief compared to medical school, where there was a premium on mass memorization. Nonetheless, it was still highly focused, with minimal room for wandering outside of one's field.

Now that I'm on the wrong side of forty, I can't help but look back at my college days with just a twinge of regret. What I didn't appreciate then that I do now is that college can and should be one of the freest, best times of one's life, intellectually speaking. If you're fortunate enough to be able to go to college, you should take full advantage of it and not just use it to train yourself for a career, as important as that is. Regardless of what your career goals are or how rigorous your program is, in college you still have more time and freedom than you will ever have again in your life to study almost anything in addition to your future career. It's a wonderful time for experimentation and sampling of different disciplines, no matter what your major or your career goals are. You can study history, philosphy, any science, astronomy, mathematics, whatever. You can challenge your mind in ways that you never dreamt possible, if you choose to do so. But the time there so short. It doesn't seem that way at the time, when you're just leaving your teens and entering your twenties, but four years will pass almost before you know they're gone. Then it's off to either professional school, graduate school, or the "real world." Within a few more years, it's time to think about settling down, getting married, even having children. Once you've graduated from college, you'll never have as much time to explore so many different disciplines as you did in college. My biggest regret about college is that I didn't take an art class or take more literature or history courses.

College is your best chance to indulge your intellect in disciplines that you may never be exposed to again. It's your best chance to find out what really interests you. You can certainly try to do so later, but never again will you have as much time or opportunity, unless you win the lottery and can stop worrying about making a living. Never again will it be all laid out right there in front of you, ripe for the sampling. Not to take advantage of such a feast is a grave mistake. And such knowledge often comes in handy in unexpected ways. These days, I try to make up for it by indulging my interest in history and reading far more history than I ever did. Blogging may also be an expression of my desire to broaden my horizons and learn a bit about other things than medicine. Unfortunately, there is so little time. The only reasons I'm so prolific are because I'm a fast writer (at least when I'm not obsessing over the precise wording of a grant or a scientific paper I'm working on, which can lead me prodigious levels of writers' block), and because this happens to be my main hobby.

These days, I occasionally have college students majoring in various biological sciences rotating in my laboratory for credit. Some of them are pre-med students, and some want to get into a Ph.D. program, and sometimes they ask me for advice. One piece of advice I always give them is to take full advantage of their time in college by not just taking courses in biology. I encourage them to take as many courses outside of their intended field of specialty as they can fit in, the further afield from their major, the better. I tell them that there will be plenty of time to learn medicine or harder core science once they graduate to a graduate program or medical school, and there will never again be this much time or freedom to explore the world of literature, art, science, and mathematics.

Some actually seem appreciative, but some of them look at me as though I were a Martian when I tell them this.

Youth is wasted on the young.


  1. Well said. I wish I could have taken more of everything in university -- immediately upon finishing I wanted to go back and start another degree.

    The career-focused approach is not what universities are for. They may provide a path to a certain career, but that's incidental.

    In the years to come, our heroine will wonder why no one recognises her impressive abilities, and she's never selected for senior or management positions. Sad.

  2. Hey Orac,
    Our conversation last night must have prompted that post. Yes, I, Mrs. Orac was a big science nerd who earned a Bachelor's in chemistry just like Orac (different school, different state, different year). Took all the biggies-organic chem., physical chem., plus calculus, physics, computer science, biochemistry, immunology, genetics, etc. However, I managed to sneak in two semesters each of psychology, anthropology, history, theater, art history, and political science, as well as one semester each of English and Spanish. I actually took a studio art class during my senior year! I admit that at the time I took a couple of these classes to help my killer science class GPA, which wasn't stellar, because I did have a large number of friends and didn't like to miss any of the many parties that I had the opportunity to attend. However, I took most courses because I truly had an interest in the material. At this point in my life, I have no regrets that I didn't allow myself to get a well-rounded basic college education.

    That's all.
    Mrs. Orac

  3. A very provocative post, Orac. I had the opposite experience, however. I wandered throught college taking whatever courses struck my fancy, without any plan or purpose. I graduated with an English degree and found myself completely unemployable (this was back in the 80s, when it was all about business degrees). It's been a long, slow struggle since, filled with low-paying jobs, to actually develop a "career."

    Now, years later, it's finally paid off -- as a writer, I'm an extraordinarily scarce commodity, and businesses are desperate to pay me to write their brochures and Web sites. Interestingly, many of the same companies that refused to hire me back then rely on my services now. But if I had it to do over again, I'd be an accountant so fast ...

    The moral of my story (and yours too, I think), and the one I tell to kids going to college, is to select a career and major in that area, but also choose a minor in something completely unrelated, something they enjoy. I would have majored in accounting and minored in English, and post-college life would have been much easier.

    Bryan Long

  4. As someone with a journalism degree and real-world newspaper experience, I am astonished by Stacey Perk's comments. I believe being a good journalist - especially a good reporter - requires having at least a passing knowledge of the subject material you're covering.

    You need to have a basic understanding of government in order to cover state or local affairs effectively. You need to have a basic understanding of business or economics to cover business issues, a basic understanding of science to cover science or health issues, etc.

    And I think anyone who interviews people on a regular basis should have taken at least an introductory logic class (like I did), so they can discern logical fallacies in the statements interviewees make.

    Limiting yourself to just being a "journalist" and ignoring general education is dangerous (or in Perk's case, it sounds like she wants to be a fluff journalist or columnist) because in the real world you might not be writing about your favorite subject. She might not end up writing for Glamour, but rather for a trade magazine or local newspaper instead.

    I came out of college convinced I wanted to write for a music magazine. I ended up covering local stories and state government for a newspaper. I am glad that I listened (although I didn't get a great grade) in the political science class I took. It didn't totally prepare me for the job - nothing does - but it provides a bsis for which to learn from.

    Why do many newspapers, for example, get many parts of the vaccine controversy wrong? Why do they say that thimerosal is in the MMR, or give inordinate weight to unqualified people making fallacious arguments?

    Some of that is good old-fashioned laziness, sure. A LOT of that, though, is a lack of preparedness for the task at hand. Some basic science knowledge and an understanding of logical fallacies can go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff.

  5. Vapid. What a wonderful word. Hopefully our journalism protagonist knows how to use a dictionary and not just spell check.

  6. Aw, come on. Don't the name "Stacey Perk" and the fact that Glamour pieces aren't generally written in triangular style both hint at irony?

    Or am I having one of those uncharacteristically optimistic days?

  7. I'm going to forward this post to my HS senior daughter who wants to major in pre-med. I had to take several "non-major" classes at U of M since nursing required credits in other areas--I took Spanish, Shakespeare, Mythology and really enjoyed them. Having knowledge of other areas besides your area of interest. Who knows--you might actually find that you enjoy an area that you never considered interesting before taking the class!

  8. Ron,

    While I'd like to think that this is simply an attempt at satire and irony, I'm fairly sure it's not.

    I do know many people who thought this away about "general elective"-type courses in college, so it's nowhere near out of the realm of possiblity.

  9. Like you, I hope that Stacey Perks was a satire rather than a real young woman, but like you I fear the worst. It may shock her to learn that there was a time when you didn't have to go to J-school to actually become a journalist, a Bachelor of Arts Degree was enough, and a lot of the great journalists never graduated from university at all.

    The idea that she seems to be suggesting of turning high school into the sort of trade school where a 14 or 15 year-old decide on their "life path" is the very edge of absurdity. Life's a banquet and most poor bastards are starving to death, and she wants to lock the doors with everyone else on the outside with her because the menu didn't fit her diet? Amazing, but about what I'd expect from someone whose stated ambition is to writer for Glamour Magazine.

    Ye Gods and little fishes I hope this was a satire.

  10. The tone I'm "hearing" in this post and the comments, of sad "past is past, we'll never see it again, alack!" is rather cute, but off base. Me ol' Mama was booted from St. Mary's of the Woods for harboring young starlings, received her BS in sciences from NYU, raised a family for a while, went back to school, bounced around and finally received a PhD in psych at 50. It is never too late to pursue education, whether it be self taught, taken in classes at the local tech school or even in a return to school at whatever age. Providing you live through your children's teen age years, the time available for adding new courses of learning expands ten fold. True, some people will never have enough time or money to return to a University setting, but I suggest that would be due to a different set of priorities rather than a true inability. We aren't exactly rolling in dough, and in 8 years when our youngest is on his way to college (knock on wood) I plan on going back as well. So much to learn! So much to do! A life time of learning is a wonderful thing, there never has to be an end of possibilities.

  11. I had an experience pretty similar to that of Ms. Perk. I went into college knowing I'd major in History, Literature, or some interdisciplinary combination. I'd struggled with science classes all through high school, and the only college-level science class I took was a year-long Astronomy and Astrophysics sequence (which I did poorly in, but still remember a good chunk of what I was taught, so I'll chalk that up as a win). Like I figured I would when I came in, I graduated with a degree in American History focusing on the American West. I also picked up a pretty good background in Islamic history, Classical Greek history, and the intellecutal history of New England. Along the way, I also learned enough about technical theater to make me a reasonably competent stagehand, studied Old English prose and poetry (which I've largely forgotten, so chalk that up as a loss), and took a couple of Divinity School classes on the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But no science.
    After bouncing around the job market for a few years (paralegal, stagehand, museum technician, coffee monkey) and going back to grad school, I figured out I'd like to go into evolutionary paleoanthropology. So now I'm playing catch-up as I try to finish my master's degree, taking classes on Anatomy, Genetics, and Evolution to prepare myself for PhD programs. The whole process would be considerably easier if I'd used the chances I had in college to pick up on this stuff. Like you said, the arrogance of youth.

  12. Orac

    I've often thought that I am looking for a community of scholars. Like the abbey in Name of the Rose, but with indoor plumbing, none of them nasty robes, and no celebacy. College (Bates in my case) came close, but I agree it was wasted on the young. I don't want to be 18 again but I'd love to be in a place to read, learn, and not worry about money.

    Dr. Zeus

  13. I seem to hear focus being put on career development earlier and earlier in education. I can certainly recall long before high school being told I needed to go to university to "get a good job." No idea what they meant by "good."
    The penalty for not getting an education is that you remain an ignoramus. Having a well-paying, interesting job is only ONE of the benefits of being an educated person.

    In university I studied anthropology, biochemistry, drama, immunology, parasitology, physiology and virology. And some other stuff. I learned a lot of interesting things, and I now do enjoy a fascinating, fulfilling career in medicine which I wouldn't give up for the world. But I often feel the course I'm most grateful to have taken was my second-year english Drama Production class.

  14. I think there are really two sides to this. On the one hand, yes, taking interesting courses in college is a chance you may never have again. I took a course in Late Medieval Art History as a senior -- very interesting. Travel is so much more interesting when you have some sense of history, art, and literature, as well as languages.

    On the other hand, what one can hope to do is to develop a taste for new information, that you can then seek out on your own in other ways. How I wish I could have had access to the wealth of information on the internet when I was young!

  15. Wow, great comments. I'm surprised at how many premed students think they need a science major going into medical school. My major was in philosophy and I'm glad I did that prior to medical school (almost derailed me from medicine though). More than half of my partners are also non-science major physicians (breakdown excluding me: 2 psychology, 1 sociology, 1 zoology, & 1 biochem).

    Well said on getting a well rounded education. I hope I can convince my kids.

  16. It's not just intellectually lazy students who sneer at learning for the sake of learning. The sad truth is, it's an attitude that can and does get reinforced by parents, community figures and, yes, school staff.

    Case in point: a particular guidance counsellor in my high school. When the time came to fill our our option sheets for our last year, he came around to all of our classes and informed us, basically, that the touchy-feely "study what you're interested in" concept was nonsense, and that we should all be loading up on math and science and computer courses, and not bothering with arts or history or languages unless those things were directly related to what we were planning on doing next in our lives.

    Lucky for me, I had a family who encouraged me to go the opposite way. In high school, I took as many courses as I could fit into my schedule, because when else was I going to get to study things like music, or German, or creative writing, or physics, or filmmaking, for free?

    I had to load my university schedule pretty heavily with linguistics and psych courses in order to qualify for the graduate communication disorders program I'm in now. I had very little room for electives ... so I overloaded my schedule. It's one of the things I'm most glad I did. Taking that one extra course each term meant I could get English lit, western religions, classical mythology, American Sign Language ... fascinating extras that were 100% worth the missed sleep. Again, I was basically getting them for free, since all full-time students paid the same tuition regardless of how many courses beyond the minimum they took ... in fact, now that I think about it, my thought process seems to have been something like "Free courses! Woohoo!"

    With so much out there to learn about, I have trouble understanding how anyone could not get excited about elective courses. I only wish I could have taken more of them.

  17. I was an idealist in college, and took all kinds of courses that interested me, most of which had nothing to do with a specific career track. I got a B.A. in Spanish, because I happen to love the language and enjoy writing in English and Spanish. I became an "enriched individual." However, my degree has done absolutely nothing for me financially. The best I can get is $10/hr as a medical translator (which isn't even worth considering). I have stayed with writing, but most of my work has turned into freelance and project work with no health benefits, retirement benefits etc. What you do and what you love are two different things for most people, as a matter of financial necessity. Most of my friends, who majored in history, literature, art, psychology, are now glorified secretaries, administrative assistants, and clerks. Companies don't care what degree you have anymore. They want to train and mold you to fit their corporate environment. Nowadays, too much education and too much of an opinion won't get you the job. I enjoyed college, but it had nothing to do with career or financial success. It was just an entertaining break from the real world! Plus, our high school standards are so pathetic that most students spend four years in college learning what they should have learned in high school. A shame really.....

  18. To the poster who wondered that Stacey Perk is a parody: I visited the UIowa website and there definitely is such a person listed there as a journalism student.

  19. Ah... so she must be of the caliber of students that create the journalists that are the subject of a thread I started:

    I have a habit of sending journalists a link to the CDC that states "The MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal" whenever I see them write that it did:

    The last one wrote back, thanked me.. and asked "Did the MMR never contain thimerosal?"... so I asked her to actually read the CDC link I gave her.

  20. As a student at the University of Iowa I'm ashamed to be represented by someone as short-sighted as Stacey Perk. However, I would like to say that I've heard quite a bit of discussion regarding the article around campus and it seems that most people share the opinion that Perk can take her attitude elsewhere if she is unhappy with the education that she is receiving here.

  21. That's good to hear. I really wanted to think that her article was some sort of satire, but as far as I can tell it wasn't.


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