To All The New College Students: Relax, You Already Had Your ‘Trial By Fire’ In High School

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I would like to take this time to share a few words of wisdom with all of the high school grads who are just about to start their first semester at college.

Now, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard all sorts of highfalutin things about how great and wonderful and important college is. In fact, that’s probably been drilled into your head since you were in preschool. Everything – the math camps in elementary school, the afterschool science tutoring in junior high, all of those advanced placement courses in high school – has been a prelude to you enrolling in college, which in turn, signifies that great leap into true adult independence.

College, you’ve been told, will make you into a full and complete human being. Once your four years are up, not only will you will be an intellectual juggernaut well-equipped to go out there in the world and make tons of moolah doing whatever you want to, you’ll also have all the cerebral tools you’ll ever need to be a crusader for social justice. Not only are you going to wind up smarter than everybody else, you’re going to wind up more culturally cognizant and morally principled. Like the Army, this whole university thing is designed to make you “all you can be.”

Well, kids, I hate to break it to you, but all of that stuff isn’t exactly true. For one, there’s really no guarantee that your bachelor’s degree in the fine art of Hungarian yodeling or feminist ornithology of the 18th century will be enough to score you a job as VP of Google. In fact, that hard-earned B.S. in Sri Lankan haikus or abstract macaroni art of the 1920s probably won’t be enough to score you any kind of job you couldn’t already get with a GED (although the non-college-attendees working beside you at Best Buy won’t be able to brag about owing $125,000 in student loan debt, though.) Secondly, it’s still pretty debatable whether any college anywhere can guarantee you a truly enlightened sociocultural experience. Oh, you’ll have plenty of lectures about the joys of multicultural education and why colonialism was the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of humanity and hear at least 9,543 guest speakers talk about social inequality using the same slight variations of the Hegelian dialectic, but instead of actually grasping the nuance of other cultures, all you’ll probably learn is how to be more paranoid about offending people. And thirdly, it’s really a stretch to say four years at college necessarily makes you a more empathetic, open-minded and ethically upright person. In fact, considering all the dummies you’ll have to work with for group projects and all the last-minute essays and research papers you’ll have to write with Wikipedia as your only source, I’d argue that college actually molds you into being a more misanthropic individual who feels far less ambiguity about taking short cuts and gaming the system to achieve personally beneficial outcomes.

But the one that I contest the most is the idea that college represents some sort of “trial by fire” that shapes you into a 100 percent fit-for-social-independence adult. Now, that may have been the case 50 years ago, but trust me, college today ain’t going to make you anything you aren’t already are by the end of high school. Indeed, it’s arguable that high school does a better job of shaping you into a socially-responsible adult than college, for several reasons.

First, colleges are, by design, synthetic environments. Don’t let the term “public university” fool you, because those places remain locked in their own egocentric bubble, far removed from anything at all that could be considered “the real world.” While universities will go on and on about how much they value diversity, the reality is that high school is a much, much more diverse environment, as it forces people of varying social strata – and cognitive capabilities – to interact for the first, and only, time in their lives. You go to college, and you’re immediately lumped into a group of similarly-minded people, all pursuing the same career aspirations. In high school, you have to take the same math classes and eat at the same dining hall as people who will go on to burn down trailer parks and get sent down the river 40 years for trafficking heroin. It’s literally the only point in time and space in which people who own yachts, people who live in slums, people with borderline genius IQs and individuals with severe learning disabilities are guaranteed to interact – in short, it’s the sort of trans-class social experience colleges could only dream about providing.

Secondly, you learn way more about yourself as a high school junior than you will a college junior. By the time you’ve knocked out half your degree credit hours, all you can really think about is getting all your ducks in a row to graduate – you get so caught up in the technocratic web that instead of questioning whether your long-held virtues and values are legitimate, you just try to retain as much stuff your professor tells you will be on the mid-term as humanly possible. You don’t even have the time to mull whether or not what your instructors are telling you is a bunch of malarkey … you just digest it, pack it in the back of your skull, spew it out on the Scantron sheet and completely forget about it two weeks after the final class meeting. Whatever thoughtful, critical self-introspection you’ll be doing will have to take place subconsciously, while you’re skimming text books probably written by the professor him or herself and working part-time as a server to keep from starving to death.

Thirdly, most colleges don’t really stress the whole “personal responsibility” thing anymore. A lot of times, they’ll put you on a fixed class schedule, so you really don’t have to worry about what courses to take and when. As long as you’ve got the money, they’ll give you a nice place to stay on campus, with a whole bunch of amenities and utilities you don’t have to pay for. Some even give you a meal plan, so you never even have to find food on your own. There’s such an emphasis on collaboration that you never really “learn” how to be self-sufficient; so, in many instances, you actually walk out of higher education being more dependent on the assistance and coddling of others than when you first arrived on campus.

But the biggest problem with college is how it seems to deadbolt your brain shut instead of opening it up to new possibilities as promised in the brochure. Now, not all colleges are guilty of this, but there’s no denying that tons of universities across the country seek to mold your worldview a certain way. That means they want you to discard competing hypotheses and completely avoid mulling the possibility that alternative perspectives not only exist, but might have some granule of validity to them. As a result, tons of college grads go out into the real world completely resistant to anything that dare criticize whatever ideology they’ve been taught is the social gospel. This is a sharp contrast to the mentality of the high school graduate, who enters the waiting world with a healthy sense of uncertainty and skepticism. Heading into college, kids are open to new ideas and willing to challenge their opinions; for whatever reason, however, they seem adamantly opposed to considering different perspectives or questioning their own assumptions upon exiting it.

Of course, none of this is to say you shouldn’t go to college, or that college isn’t worthwhile. Indeed, pending you keep your mind open and you do more studying than partying, you might actually learn something and walk out with a diploma and a more certain sense of self setting you up perfectly for professional and financial success in “the real world.” But just in terms of sheer developmental experience, I still think high school is more beneficial than college.

College just feels more insulated and safer and prone to groupthink. High school, conversely, feels like some sort of post-apocalyptic Mad Max souk, where all the dredges of society are forced to intermingle. In college, you only feel as if you are seeing an idealized version of the world, a sanitized, exquisitely trimmed and painted facsimile of the greater culture; in high school, it’s practically a Thunderdome for every conceivable subgroup of human being you can think of, with all of the rips and tears in the fabric of society visible for all to witness. Despite the prevalence of cliques and other in-groups, you still feel more like an individual in high school – by the time you make it to college, no matter if you are the football quarterback or the president of the Minecraft club, you still feel like just another factory-made product, another nameless, faceless customer in line at Starbucks. If the professors and administrators in college disappeared, college would just be a bunch of kids with their headphones on trying to turn the Wifi back on; meanwhile, if the adults disappeared from any high school in America, absolute totemic anarchy would reign.

A lot of people talk about the fraternal and sororal bonds of college. That might be true, and it might not. That said, I nonetheless feel a greater kinship with the kids I graduated high school with than anybody I met in college. Even though we were in the same location and doing more or less the same for four years, I just don’t feel like me and my college friends “overcame” the same struggle or fought through the same challenges. We were just people who shared a couple of classes and have the same school listed on our Facebook profiles, but me and the people I went to high school with? Even if I didn’t talk to them, I know what kind of environment they had to put up with 40 hours a week for four years. I know for a fact they saw the same ghastly sights I did, ate the same stomach-souring foods, smelled the same unsanitary bathrooms, had the same dispassionate teachers, read the same antiquated textbooks and worked just as hard as I did to escape the same suffocating intellectual and physical environs and get their “real lives” rolling.

And as much as we hate to admit it? Going through something like that is unquestionably a greater real-world “learning experience” than anything an institute of higher education could ever offer us. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

James Swift is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter.

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