My favorite undergraduate classes were the ones that made me feel like a character from The Secret History. Donna Tartt’s description of the elite philosophy seminar and the capers of its genius-yet-drug-addled students came pretty close to my ideal learning experience (minus the bloodshed and incest, of course).
The other day a student explained to me that, after completing a BA in psychology, she’d re-enrolled in an interdisciplinary arts program because she felt she’d “never learned to think properly.” When I asked her what she meant, she mentioned asking good questions, engaging in good critique and interpretation, making a good argument. I told her that those goals made her the poster-child for a liberal arts education.
Truth is, though, I’m not sure she’ll find what she’s looking for. Her classes are too big. Her profs (including this one) don’t have time to get to know her. Her fellow students are too focused on the bottom line: making grade x to complete degree y to land job z. Seth Godin calls this approach to higher education “buying a brand” and suggests that the trillion-dollar student debt might have been better spent on building up a work history.
The 2011 Maclean’s University Rankings argues that for a Secret History experience, you need to choose a small campus in a small town, where after-class pints with your professors and solid relationships with your classmates are still a reality. At a big, urban school your best strategy is to frequent profs’ office hours, select less popular electives (like special-topics seminar classes), and join one of the nerdier student clubs (a LARP might be overkill, but Poetry Club and Dragon Boat squad come to mind).
If James Côté‘s claim is true that “good fit” is a better indicator of academic success than any other campus comparator, then my student has made a very good first step in articulating her personal goals (and sharing them with her professor!). But she’ll need to sniff out every opportunity for meeting them, because it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.