A degree from a leading international university and what it really taught me…
The University of Toronto is consistently ranked as the leading university in Canada – purveyors of the best education that the Canadian dollar can buy ($50-$80K for a BA – depending on residence and program). Year after year, the university ranks among the top twenty post-secondary institutions internationally. It is usually somewhere between the likes of Columbia and Cornell, a handful of spots south on the gradient from Yale.
At U of T the course load is touted as exhaustive, and the standards are high. The institution considers a full time student as one enrolled in 5 full credit equivalents per annum – that is a 20 % heavier course load than Harvard’s. The average marks are in the 60s, requiring really exceptional bullshitting-skills to achieve anything in the respectable and desired 80s range.
Now, I am not writing this piece to ruffle feathers or insult scholars. Quite the contrary, I admire all of you who are far more dedicated to good grades and academia than I will ever be. What I question is the value of it. Greater still – is it worth the shackles of debt that it brings for many young adults and their families? After obtaining their degree, the average Canadian student incurs $28,000 in debt which takesan average of 14 years to completely pay off. What’s more is the growing trend for many recent graduates find themselves unemployed or under-employed. The job markets are reflecting that the BA is over-valued, favouring real-world experience over book smarts and indicative that the supply far outweighs the demand. But why?
Is the curriculum easier now than it was in the past? Was too much attention paid to the seeming importance of higher education for the masses (non-professionals) leading to an overflow of educated young adults without careers? When I sit back and think of what I learned directly from University, nothing solidly factual comes to mind. No game changers in there. The modern day BA seems more a testament to one’s ability to research and regurgitate the work of their professors as opposed to learned insight and a great cultivator of ‘eureka moments’.
On several occasions I attended classes with more than 1000 people enrolled. I began to ask myself if there was a point as I could barely hear from the nosebleeds what was going on below. When I sat closer to the front, I realized that the teachings seemed fairly shallow and often politically slanted. It is not that I advocate against pursuing a degree. Rather, if you have the confidence and ability to perform without one you’re going to do just fine. It is those who are betting on a career from that 11×17 piece of gold leaf encrusted onion-paper that I am worried about because they seem to be the majority of students. Instead you should bet on your bearings and the knowledge gained through experience – they’ll take you farther. I read a story the other day about a fellow in the catering business that went off to get a psych degree. When he graduated he tried to find work, and he was one of the successful recent grads in his class. He got a job… as a caterer, a caterer with a huge debt to pay. Stories like this one are all too common, helping to further diminish what little worth the BA still had.
With regards to the classes of 1000+ student, I began planning French picnics for the fourth floor balconies of Convocation Hall, where they were held. The luncheons taught me a lot. They instilled in me the art of delegation, honed my skills in clandestine operations, and made me realize the true value of working smart and enjoying life. They also added a bit of culture. They imparted to me that U of T lectures were more tolerable with good friends, excellent French Merlot, and artisanal sticks of bread.
As I began having copious amounts of fun, four floors up from the professor, I realized that the rigid chairs and lack of desks were not conducive to a mid-lecture nap or a strategic game of beer pong. I also needed a job to support the rapidly cultured tastes I was acquiring. I swapped daytime class for evenings of wine and cheese at the local fraternities and networking opportunities attended by those who you know will equally go on to become famous and infamous. Our future Conrad Black’s and Kiefer Sutherland’s; Chiefs of Justice, heads of state, and financial embezzlers. A curious lot who become more suspect after dark and when fuelled by libations of choice. A great lot. To best afford these evenings, and stave off boredom, I started working anywhere and everywhere. During my time served at U of T, I worked and volunteered in the hospitality, retail, political, photography, gerontology, medical, marketing, and financial industries – sometimes many at once.
Personally I found the U of T experience to be invaluable, but not because of the books or the higher-education originally expected. Instead, what it really taught me was how to deal with people, have a head for brown-liquor (essential if you want a Bay Street career), and how to work smart. It was a constant test of balance and innovation: optimizing effort exerted for reward obtained. Through U of T I was able to figure out how to put in the least amount of effort for the greatest amount of reward and essentially prioritize projects at work against essays at school which I condensed into hours rather than days or weeks of work.
Since working and partying did not negate the assignments and exams required to get the ol’ BA, it emphasized efficiency. My plan of attack was thus: read, read, read, write some notes, drink an espresso and read some more – but in very short bursts. It took approximately 20 minutes here and an hour there, most often the night before or the day of. This method will fairly easily earn you a B- average and with some extra attention paid to presentation, can shoot you into the A range. All with just a twentieth of the time suggested per course. How you say? Now, I could not have done any of this without Wikipedia – especially because I did not step foot into a classroom for semesters on end.
Say what you will about Wiki, but the facts are this. My degree owes its paper to the online crowd-sourced information contained within the cyber-firewalls of Jimmy Wale’s brainchild. Who needs a $150 textbook on evolutionary biology when you can ‘Wiki-it’? At the very least all you need to do is download a course syllabus and check off the topics as you read about them on Wikipedia. Going through the entire course readings will probably land you an A if you can tolerate them, but doing few to none is almost as good and saves you dozens of hours each week. The fundamental concepts that a BA requires you cover are neatly laid out in Wikipedia with citations and hyperlinks to the deeper caveats of the subject matter provided within.
If not going to class makes you a bit nervous though – there is a cure. Go to three. The first lecture is highly suggested; the second should be one of particular interest mid-term; and then the third should be reserved for the last one (so that you get the goods on the exam). Wikipedia is not only an exam study tool, it is the near-perfect, one-stop shop for essay research. The citations are more often than not flawlessly provided and the structures of articles make for excellent guides to essay organization later on. Long are the days of painstaking bibliographies and taking up space in snooze-enduring lectures.