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Posted at 1:55 PM ET, 01/21/2011

Everything I need to know I didn't learn in college

By Alexandra Petri

There's a new Know-Nothing Party. It's called college.

"Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," a study recently released by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia found that 45 percent of students demonstrated no improvement on measures of learning -- critical thinking, logical reasoning, and writing -- after the first two years of college, and that 36 percent failed to show any improvement even after four years.

As a recent college graduate, I remain convinced that I know everything, so this news came as something of a shock. "A study says I don't know any of the things I should know after emerging from college?" I asked. "That study should talk to my ability to turn this pizza box into a table."

Why don't we know anything?

Maybe it's because no one makes us learn. As a person who recently emerged from the vast maw of college, I can definitively say that there are up to three people on any campus at any given time who are genuinely excited by the prospect of taking rigorous courses with more than forty pages of reading per week (something the study found a third of students did not) about Great Thoughts That Great Thinkers Have Had Which Have Survived The Ravages Of Time. Instead, we sign up in droves for courses with names like Experience of the Prostate in T. E. Lawrence and The Magic of Numbers and Erotic Mollusks in The Middle West. One of these is not a joke.

So is it any wonder?

Now when questions on, well, any topics come up at cocktail parties, we nervously duck. No longer is it the excruciatingly erudite remark that made our parents quake -- who reads Sanskrit these days? Instead, it's things like, "Who wrote the Constitution?" "I don't know," we venture, "but I bet Scalia does." "What is Socialism?" "It's a word that describes what Barack Obama is trying to do to the country," we suggest, cleverly. "What's manslaughter?" "I could tell you," we hiss, "but I'd have to kill you."

We've been schooled for years in Methods of Thinking and Approaches to Thinking. This is all very well, but at some point it becomes difficult to think well unless you have anything to think about. The grasp of a few actual facts -- practical or not -- is integral to the well-formed mind. They shape our assumptions; they color our inferences; they give us things to talk about at dinner parties after someone does something embarrassing to the table cloth. What you read determines what you write. If you only read twenty pages a week about Erotic Mollusks, that's what you'll produce.

I spent four years being educated, and look at me!

According to the online commenters, I have all the writing ability of a gently used Buick. But at least I have flair and panacea, or whatever that word is for that thing I have.

True, I'm good with computers. I can type things using only my thumbs. I tweet. I know the correct time and place to use that one emoticon that looks like an angry sofa. These skills are all very well. But I could do these from a young age. College was supposed to impart something more.

And, of course, it did. Thanks to college, I know how to turn an apple into a room ornament for weeks at a time. I know how to purloin laundry detergent. I am fully apprised of the musical talents of Miley Cyrus. If you give me a keg, I know what to do to make it feel at home.

Who's Plato? Who knows! Socrates? Are you sure you're spelling that right? Aristotle married Jackie O., but did he do anything else?

And fortunately for me, there are people out there who say this is just fine. College isn't about learning, they suggest. It's about -- uh, something nebulous like making connections, or forming lasting bonds, or giving me a break after all that time I spent in high school being yelled at by Amy Chua.

Maybe that's good enough. But sometimes I feel as though it isn't. As I walk into fountains while texting, write sentences with eight semicolons in them, and leap wildly from premise to premise without any grist for my mental mill, I wonder. I learned a lot of Approaches to Things. But very few actual, well, Things. Maybe I'd be able to think better if I had something to think about.

But who cares? It's Friiiiiiiday!

By Alexandra Petri  | January 21, 2011; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri  | Tags:  college, kids these days, oops, test scores  
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From reading the description of the Magic of Numbers class, it certainly isn't a joke. The country would be much better off if everyone took that class. Innumeracy is a real problem.

Posted by: scompton1 | January 21, 2011 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe I just wasted a couple minutes of my life reading this drivel, and am now wasting more commenting on it. So you recently "emerged from the vast maw of college," eh? Too bad you didn't learn what "maw" means, or else how to avoid dopey, cliched metaphors. Oh wait, this is supposed to be light-hearted and fun? Silly me... Oh well, at least you had fun during those four years, right? Party on.

Posted by: HTW82190 | January 22, 2011 2:42 AM | Report abuse

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