How to Get an Education

How to Get an Education at any College or University

Thomas J. Scheff, Prof. Emeritus

If a student actually wanted to get an education, what would be the best moves? Information is cheap, but growth and understanding is hard to come by. Most undergraduates follow the path of least resistance. They get processed rather than educated. Many drop out. Most get a degree or degrees, but bored to tears and without learning much of anything. Yet there are plentiful resources in a university for the student who wants them. Relative to other institutions in our society, universities stand for art, knowledge, and freedom. The problem is to get that part, with as little contact as possible with the other part, the bureaucracy.

The first principle is to be an active student rather than a passive one. It makes all the difference in the world. Donít let yourself be drowned in mere INFORMATION. What with libraries and the Internet, information is now cheaper than dirt.

  1. Shop around for the best classes. Donít stay in a class that you donít like. Find another one to replace it.
  2. Find out who the best and worst teachers are. Some schools have a web site for that. If yours doesnít, ask around. Most universities have both excellent and horrible teachers. Try to study with the former as much as possible, and avoid the latter entirely.
  3. If a class interests you, make a beeline to lecturerís office hours, all of them. Talk to her. If possible, look up her website, and read one or more of her publications. She will be surprised and delighted. Offer free research assistance, baby-sitting or dog walking. Stick to her like glue; she is your guide thru the labyrinth. It helps enormously to have at least one mentor.
  4. Learn to speed read. Basically looking and guessing. And then looking again to check your guess, and so on. Your guessing mind is a million times smarter than your regular mind. Also speed reading encourages an active, aggressive attitude. Donít be passive, letting the words and pages roll over you. First read the bookís title, blurb (usually written in accessible English), table of contents and index. Read it backwards, upside down, or whatever, but unless itís a real treasure, not forward page by page. 10 minutes of reading this way yields more than an hour of passive reading. It also positions you into the right, skeptical, attitude toward the material.
  5. Question everything. Some lecturers try to get away with taking up the whole class time. No matter what size or type class, INSIST on asking questions. Donít yield an inch. Students have academic freedom as much as professors.
  6. Take independent studies whenever possible. Itís a way to actually get to know a professor and what she knows. Also it may be possible to avoid a particularly odious required class, by getting her to sign off that you have had an independent study class equivalent.
  7. Avoid, if possible, classes with objective exams. Look for classes that require papers that will be read and returned to you all marked up. You need to get detailed and precise feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.
  8. Writing an original paper is always a difficult task, because one has to go back and forth between content and structure. A good way to balance the two is the habit of writing one-page outlines from day one. At first they are mere guesses as to the direction you will finally take. As you become more familiar with the content, the outline begins to predict the actual paper, as well as shape it. In this way, the content helps form the structure, and the structure, the content.
  9. Avoid large cattle car classes.
  10. If allowed, take classes by examination. Reading a textbook at your convenience flex time is a lot quicker and more efficient than 20 - 30 hours of sitting on your butt real time in a class.
  11. Try to take seminars, that is, discussion, rather than lecture classes.
  12. Design your own major: an Individual Major. You need a 3.00 and plenty of chutzpah (nerve). Also TWO faculty advisors, and a good idea. For example, a truly Interdisciplinary Social Science (anthropology, communication, history, polysci, psychology, and sociology), based on courses that connect with at least one other discipline).
  13. If you canít design your own major, there is an equivalent that you can do on your own. Suppose that you take 3 or 4 classes each quarter. Each quarter, figure out which is the most interesting/important/useful for you and major in it. That is, do the maximum amount of work you are capable of, MORE than required. What about the other two or three courses? Do the minimum amount of work that will get you the grade you need. (Thatís what most students do with ALL their classes.) Over your four years, if you major in particular classes this way, you will get a real education on the cheap.
  14. You donít need a very high IQ: just respectful assertiveness. Be active rather than passive, and courteous, but RELENTLESS. You have a world to win.
  15. Firsteduc Feb. 4, 2004 869 words