There we were sitting in the conference room. My ivy league director sat at the right, tall and thin, dressed in pressed khakis with a Tar Heel blue dress shirt. No tie. With a white mustache, untucked collared shirt and khaki shorts along with his trademark pulled-up-to-the-knees black baseball socks sat a tenured and scholarly professor at the left, among other educators. We were the search committee in charge of a large, hulking mass in the middle of the table, a box full of 35 resumés sent from people all over the country with a singular objective: to win the University of Missouri Director of Jazz Studies position.
Of course, we started by discussing. What is our ideal candidate? Will they have academic teaching experience? Will they have a real-world background? Will they compose for the big band?
Finally, we decided we were open to many options save one strong preference: they needed to have a doctorate in music. So we started sorting resumés. Who had sent us all the requested materials, the video, the press kit, the cover letter? Did someone send us an album as well? We sorted and prodded, picked and chose, and hummed and hawed. It was a long process with multiple levels of analysis and lots of red tape, naturally. I learned that people often look completely different on paper than they do in action. However, the thing that will stay with me the rest of my life happened at the very first meeting.
The initial sort was underway and we had the doctoral and non-doctoral candidates organized. There were still many eligible applicants, so we got picky. Anyone that was young and had a doctorate straight from their master’s straight from their bachelor’s was immediately billed as “too green.” They got the ax, and that day I realized that even in academia people must have some credentials, some street smarts, some sort of recognition that exists outside of the university setting.
Going to college is a privilege, there are billions of people who will never have the opportunity. It is a place where you can have the freedom to make mistakes and learn without grave repercussions. You will find insulation and support from a community of people that want you to succeed. The beauty of it all lies in the fact that going to school is never enough. It is simply the beginning.
There is one big problem with educational culture today: it breeds academicians who do not assume responsibility for their own learning.
I argue that the moment someone begins to get old is the moment they stop learning. You may have wrinkles and big ears, but if you maintain curiosity in life, you will not fade. The university educational system castrates this learning process by spoon-feeding students data and information, facts to memorize, tests to pass. The end result? We have a sterile regurgitation of compelling facts disconnected from useful application. Students need more projects, hands-on work, and presentations if they are truly going to learn. Make them teach the classes. This is why school is bad for you, yes you. It perpetuates learning for the sake of a bastion of intellect rather than the purpose of applicable intelligence. It manufactures students hypnotized by their teachers, taking their position as gospel when in fact many solutions may exist! Most dangerously, it puts your mind on auto-pilot to expect others to teach you how to think.
In 2007, my humanities professor at Oral Roberts University, Jayson Larremore, gave us an assignment to watch the Al Gore documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” We watched the ice core samples from Antarctica and the immaculate computer-generated graphs. I was convinced global warming was a big problem. Even so, we still had to write a paper on what we thought of the movie. Did we agree or disagree? Did we find fallacies? What did we think and why? This was the first time in my life that someone concretely demonstrated to me the excercise of critical thinking. Once I began examining the presentation and the evidence, the answer I was so convinced of became less clear. I owe Prof. Larremore a great debt, not because he taught me about global warming, but because he helped to me think for myself. It was by far the most valuable lesson I got out of ORU in my four years there.
A good way to learn is to ask questions. At the moment, the question is, “why are you going to school?” If it is because everyone else is, or you want a good degree, or your parents insist, consider the impact your position may have down the road. Is it worth the debt? Is it worth the tradeoff of leaving the real-world experience? How will you use this education to get ahead?
When I was working on my master’s degree, I relied heavily on my music teachers to tell me if I was playing out of tune, if my style was bad, and if my technique was sloppy. I listened to them because they were my teachers. It was my job to gain from their insights so I listened to them intently. In fact, I listened so intently that I forgot to take ownership of my own two musical ears. I just figured if I tried to do what they said, things would work out. These days, I learn by watching talented musicians on YouTube in half the time. I must listen. Then I experiment. Of course I question. But in the end I apply. I still have teachers and mentors. But they are guides, not gospels. If you still haven’t decided what you’re going to do with that phat education you’re chasing, don’t waste the time sitting in a classroom. Hit the streets. Take on the real world. Read your own books. You really will learn more, faster, about what you want out of life.