by William Lloyd Stearman, PhD



    If you have limited finances, as do most people, and there is not a reasonably good local public high school for them to attend, it makes more sense to invest in a good private high school than in college because high school is the most important phase of one’s education, as I discovered by teaching college for sixteen years. Some of the top universities, including Ivy League ones, often shortchange lowerclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) by assigning graduate students as teaching assistants, substituting for professors who are caught up in their own writing, speaking, consulting, etc. Many professors, especially the more ambitious ones, consider teaching lower classmen a bore and a waste of valuable time. (Here, I must confess that I considered myself blessed that I only taught upperclassmen and graduate students.) I had many students in my graduate program who had graduated from top universities tell me that in some courses the only time they had seen the professors they had had was at the opening session of the course. (At Georgetown, however, all professors were required to teach all their classes or be represented by another professor in their absence.) Before signing up for any course, students should determine whether or not the professor is in the habit of teaching the course or turning it over to a TA.
    Often lowerclassmen stand a better chance of being taught by PhD–equipped faculty members in a good (and far less expensive) community college than in a regular university, even in the best ones. This is an option that should be considered, especially since it is usually easier to transfer to a college of one’s choice as an entering junior than to be admitted as a freshman, as long as the student has received good grades in serious, academic courses. A lot of money would be saved in this way. Having headed a graduate program at Georgetown for two years, I was often appalled at how many frivolous courses were listed in undergraduate transcripts from even the best universities. Would you believe Frisbee 101 and Frisbee 102 for six credits in a top university? (I’m not making this up.) And these credits had cost a pretty penny. I strongly advise parents of college or college-bound students to allow their offspring their choice of a major (within reason), but I would insist on approving all the courses they take to avoid wasting money on relatively useless, albeit “fun”, courses. If they want to take a course in, say, film appreciation, I would say, “Fine with me, but you pay for it.” Generally avoid paying for any course that has the word “studies” in it. These are usually subjective, somewhat superficial, and often polemical in content. (A notable exception, however, is Georgetown’s Russian Area Studies Program that I headed for two years and that was introduced long before the recent rash of trendy, politically correct “studies” courses.)

    In any case, parents working with college counselors, should ensure that their offspring are taking courses leading to a degree.  Of course, students should also work with counselors to ensure they get the courses they need. I know of some students who have wasted years by not being organized for and focused on graduation requirements. If there is any chance at all they might be interested in going into, for example, medicine, any science, engineering, or geology, it is of prime importance in the first two years to take all the math and science that are prerequisites for these majors. If, by the junior year, they decide on a purely liberal arts major, they usually can still graduate in four years. -However, without the lower classman prerequisites, anyone going into the non liberal arts majors cited above will need five years or more, with its attendant extra expense, in order to graduate. I also strongly recommend that students try to meet with their professors from time to time to discuss how they are doing. In financially supporting a college education for their offspring, parents are buying a product. They should ensure that they’re getting their money’s worth, which all too often is not the case. If students being supported in college rebel against this kind of parental intrusion, you might suggest that they drop out of school and start flipping hamburgers at some fast–food franchise. Another name for this approach is “tough love.” Graduating from a top “big name” university will certainly help with getting one’s first job or so, but after that, increasingly, job experience is what counts and it matters less and less where one went to college. I find it noteworthy that the present CEO of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, Robert J. Stevens, graduated from Slippery Rock (PA) [now] University which we used to joke about (only) because of its comical name.

I would strongly advise anyone, who cannot initially decide on a major, to major in English with a minor in a “practical” program such as computer programming or business administration. If you know for sure that you want to go to law school, by all means major in English and minor in history with a pre-law course or two. In fact I would strongly suggest that everybody take as many English courses as they can fit in, especially those that require a great deal of writing. Public speaking courses are also useful, as well as participating in debating teams. Unless you are dead set against going into any field mentioned above which require math and science courses, then by all means still try to work them in where feasible. These courses would in no way be a waste of time and would give you much flexibility in finally determining a major, apart from English. I also strongly recommend that everyone takes a course or courses in computer programming. Do not believe you have to decide on a profession before going to, or even while in, college. I read somewhere that the average person in the work force changes professions, professions, not jobs, three times before age thirty. Generally, in choosing a profession or occupation do what you find most enjoyable and fulfilling. In these you will most likely best succeed. Too many people in life are stuck in jobs they either hate or find unfulfilling and dull. That’s no way to live, even when such jobs pay well.
           Speaking of professions, I strongly recommend teaching as the most important of all and one which deserves our best scholars. (South Korea, Singapore and Finland, for example, will only accept top-third college graduates as teachers-- with excellent results.) Without teachers we would have no essential professionals, no physicians, nurses, engineers, economists, lawyers, professors, diplomats, businessmen and businesswomen et cetera. I regarded teaching as the most gratifying of all my various occupations described in this memoir. (Granted, I was teaching under ideal circumstances.) I have long been much impressed by Henry Adam’s sage observation, made in 1918, (quoted earlier), “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
           Those interested in teaching should avoid schools and departments of education and should take only those education courses required for certification at the place where you want to teach.  It is widely recognized that most, but not quite all, education courses are a waste of time and money. If you want to teach at the grade school level, it is best to major in English and brush up on subjects you are likely to have to teach. If high school teaching is your preference, major in the subject or subjects you want to teach with a minor in an additional subject of interest. There are now over a million and half “baby boomer” teachers and, they are retiring at an increasingly rapid rate. (Although it should be noted that, at present, a substantial number of teachers are being let go because of state and local budget problems, but this is no doubt only temporary.) Thus it would seem that eventually there should be plenty of teaching positions open when you graduate from college a few years hence. A common complaint about teaching is the perceived low salaries of teachers. Actually many teachers are not at all badly paid considering the amount of time off and benefits such as health insurance and pensions. Incidentally benefits are also an argument for accepting a somewhat lower-paying salary in government jobs. To illustrate the pension benefit, getting a quite modest $20,000 a year inflation-proof pension (as are most government pensions) would require having savings of a million dollars in Treasury Inflation Proof Bonds (TIPS) paying a hypothetical 2% interest (somewhat higher than current rates).
            If you think you might be interested in teaching you could get a feel for it by part-time volunteering at a nearby school to do tutoring or other teaching-related tasks. If you like it, consider starting your career after college with the Teach for America or The New Teacher Project (TNTP) programs. There are also teaching positions abroad with the Peace Corps.
            Most students graduate with a heavy student loan debt. Before starting college you should, therefore, do a thorough search (internet is best) for existing merit credits and scholarships, including ROTC full tuition scholarships with a four year service obligation. Another excellent way to avoid this debt is through the GI Bill of Rights earned by serving a required tour of duty in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. Such service is, in itself, a valuable learning experience and should be seriously considered. As I previously noted, I went to work (as a cowboy) after high school and never regretted it. It certainly didn’t put me behind my friends who went to college right after high school. I do believe that there is something to be said for getting a job before going to college. Then one enters college more mature and with a better appreciation of what one can get out the experience. A June 5, 2011 Washington Post article entitled “What’s a college education really worth. Not enough” advocates a variety of pre-college (or college-substitute ) employer-directed apprenticeships.  In criticizing leading universities’ lax academic requirements it notes:” Thanks to the wonders of grade inflation and the lack of a serious core curriculum, it is possible to get through Harvard and a number of other high-price universities by acing your computer science courses and devoting little effort to anything else.” This means, after very considerable expense, graduating with a prestigious “credential” degree, but alas without having acquired much of an education while in college. The article also laments that, “General education requirements [e.g., straight academic courses like history, government, economics and math] are no longer general at all. They are absurdly specific. At Cornell you can fill your literature and arts requirement with ‘Global Martial Arts Film and Literature.’” This is exactly the kind of marginal, non academic course that I earlier warned against wasting money on. Unfortunately, top universities and most others are awash with such courses,
       I also always like to cite two favorite examples of how a broad education makes life more interesting in general. Traveling through mountainous terrain involves going through a number of highway cuts that block off the surrounding scenery and to most are the dullest part of the journey. To one who has studied geology (which I did), however, it can be the most interesting part of the trip, since the formations exposed on the sides of these cuts tell a story of how the mountains were formed. The other example came to mind when I commuted to the White House by bus from our place in Maryland. With nothing to read, that trip could be pretty dull. However, my long-time interest in languages and especially in the origin of English words made reading the ads above the windows interesting. One word would clearly be of Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) origin, while another clearly came from our Norman French ancestors. Others came straight from Greek or Latin, and so forth. As I used to tell my students, the secondary reason to get an education is to succeed in a given profession or calling, but the primary reason is to get the most out of life, to buy insurance against boredom.