This spring I gave a lecture about How to Become an Expert. College students spend their time developing expertise (in my class, about cognitive psychology). As I prepared, I started to wonder why they put in the time. A diploma? Love of learning? Because college is just what you do? I decided to ask two questions to start the day.
First I asked "what do you want out of college?"
"We want a good paycheck" is what they said. There were various answers, but they boiled down to two categories: I want to be able to get a job, and I want to be good at the job I get. No surprise there. You go to college to get a diploma, right? Maybe…
Then I asked another question. To understand it, you need to know that at Williams, where I teach, we have Winter Study, a three-week period in January when students take one course that can be about anything as long as it is taught with intellectual rigor (e.g., macroeconomic theory, beer brewing, japanese movies; I taught juggling).
I asked "What winter study class are you so glad you took? What class do you wish we'd offer?" My goal was to find out what they really want to learn, unconstrained by, well, anything really.
The answers were varied. What was striking was that none had anything to do with paychecks. At all. For example, students who travelled to South Africa or Nicaragua during Winter Study talked about gaining perspective on how fortunate their lives were (among many other things). They couldn't put into words how improtant those courses were. One person wanted a class on cars, so she would understand her mechanic. Another thought it would just be really interesting to take a course on military strategy because it had fascinated him since childhood.
In short, the students had two goals that overlapped roughly zero percent. They wanted to be able to get a good job because of grades, knowledge and a diploma, and they wanted to grow as people.
The first goal would lead them to make one set of decisions (choose courses in marketable majors like econ or premed, avoid classes that might lead to a bad grade). The second might lead elsewhere (art history anyone?).
Would they make less money, or get a worse job, if they cared less about marketability after college (I have to be an econ major, or I have to be premed) and cared more about expanding themselves as people? On the other hand, would they be worse people if they majored in econ or premed?