How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning

How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning
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I. Preparing Students for the College Experience and Responding to Critics of the American University

I have just published my How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Leaning (Wiley-Blackwell). I argue that students must balance the joy of learning with the practicality of learning, and achieving that synthesis is what I call the Art of Learning. Put another way, my book is about the college experience and how to make the most of it.

In late summer 2014, as he began his ninth and last year as the President of Cornell, David Skorton asked vital questions about American higher education:

For the first time in my 36 years in academia, the value of America's colleges and universities is being questioned--and seriously. Is what we offer worth the money and time invested? Will a college degree really translate into a better job down the road or improve our quality of life? Couldn't we rely more on technology and less on highly paid faculty members and expensive campuses and student amenities to deliver our "product" at lower cost?

In part, my book is a response to issues raised in these questions.

While my book is also something of a "How To" primer, it is based on considerable research that supplements my 48 years as a professor at Cornell within which I have held three visiting professorships and directed eight NEH Summer Seminars for college and high school teachers.

Many of the chapters derive from my widely read Huffington Post's articles on higher education supplemented by further research and input from hundreds of past and present university and college students as well a great many administrators and faculty members. My book was written to be useful and interesting to undergraduates, parents, high school college and college teachers, and high school guidance counselors.

I discuss what I call the College Olympics, namely how students can find the right college for them and how to pursue financial aid. Even before the College Olympics begins, parents can help to prepare their children to flourish educationally and be ready for the admission process.

Beginning with the crucial freshman year of college and continuing through the senior year, my book offers suggestions on how to negotiate the challenges of each year as well as suggestions about specific issues such as time management and whether to study abroad for a term or even a year. In specific chapters I address how to choose classes, why the humanities are essential, and how to prepare for the future after graduation.

My book also discusses the social choices that need to complement academic decisions, including a chapter that examines in detail the pros and cons of the Greek system (fraternities and sororities) that plays an important role on many campuses. I also discuss the role of parents once their children are attending college.

Believing, for a more fulfilling life, everyone should take some courses in the arts and the humanities (as well as gain a grounding in basic science and computer skills), I then turn to issues that pertain to the study of the arts and the humanities. I am responding to the widespread view that the study of the humanities is a passport to unemployment if not to poverty.

I conclude with a section on my perspective as a professor. Because I think students and parents will benefit from knowing what a professor is thinking about when he or she organizes courses, I discuss my goals and my philosophy as a teacher. I discuss the balance between teaching and research and why, despite some claims to the contrary, these two activities usually supplement one another. Finally, I discuss the values of the current generation of students and the current emphasis on community involvement. In doing so, I take issue with the charge that contemporary students are self-immersed and less interested in the world than their predecessors.

Thus the purpose of this book is to help prepare students, parents, and high school advisors for the college experience and beyond. My goal is to help students balance the joy of learning with the practicality of finding a career path. My book is for all those contemplating a college education and their families as well as for those already admitted to college.

I stress the positive aspects and the enormous potential of the American college experience. I do so at a time when much has been written of late about the shortcomings of American colleges and universities, including the relatively little time students spend on their academic study, the excessive partying that turns campuses into permissive social circuses and sites of sexual abuse, and the burgeoning costs accompanied by excessive student loans.

We need to consider how to open the doors of higher education, including those of the most prestigious schools, to students in the lower economic and social strata. Goldie Blumenstyk, author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know, asserts:

[Y]ou'll still find lower-income students and minority students far more concentrated in community colleges and for-profit colleges, and upper-income students and white students more concentrated at four-year private colleges and publics. . . . [A]n adult from a wealthy family is nine times as likely to earn a bachelor's degree by the age of 24 as one from a poor family -- with all the implications for social and financial success that entails

A narrative of higher education in America should highlight the role of public education, including that of the great state universities like California and Michigan and the role that CUNY (City University of New York) played and still plays for first generation Americans. Unfortunately, the days of free and almost free tuition have passed. Nonetheless, the public universities still offer a lower cost alternative to elite private schools, particularly for residents of the state or city in which they are located.

Discussions finding fault with American higher include not only William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014) and the 2014 CNN documentary Ivory Tower but also Kevin Carey's The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (2015) and, to a lesser extent, Frank Bruni's Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015).

Perhaps we professors and administrators need to do a better job responding to naysayers. As Nicholas B. Dirk, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, asserts: "For too long we have neglected the need to aggressively defend, explain, and promote the value of the education our institutions provide, not just for individuals but for society as a whole." One goal of my book is to do just that while not overlooking areas that need improvement.

I do not ignore the failure of American universities to be economically inclusive, specifically the need to tap the potential of those in the bottom 20 per cent of the economic ladder. Nor should we turn our heads from issues raised by the diversity we have achieved and the need to achieve further diversity. Clearly the discomfort of minority students on American campuses needs to be addressed, and we need to underline our commitment to the actuality that Black Lives Matter. We also need to acknowledge other troubling issues on campus such as underage drinking, excessive drinking, sexual harassment-- notably at parties where drinking takes place--and discuss the shortcomings of the Greek system, how it can be improved and whether it is in the long range interests of universities to sustain it.

Not only are the value of a college education and the economics of colleges and universities under scrutiny, but so too is the concept of the American dream whereby people use their ability and education to fulfill their potential and move up the socio-economic ladder. Today colleges and universities do have greater diversity in their student bodies and faculty than in the past. But at the same time evidence of severe economic inequality and social injustice dominate the news. Inequality and injustice are causes and effects of a crisis in America that extends to the role of higher education. I address those issues in the context of offering ideas for applying to and succeeding in college, including how to apply for financial aid and limit burdensome loans that hamper a student's future.

I suggest initiatives that might help middle and working class parents and their children who cannot afford to send their children to expensive private schools or to live in affluent communities with elite public schools. In these affluent communities, preparation for college dominates virtually every educational policy decision made by school administrators and Boards of Education. In such school districts, parents are in the foreground encouraging their children, playing roles in shaping school policy, and contributing to foundations that supplement the tax base and support extra-curricular activities, including sports and music. These parents also pay for their children's private tutors and sports coaches. By contrast, in many rural and urban schools, graduation rates are low, school budgets are pinched, teachers are overworked and deal with serious discipline issues on a daily basis, guidance counselors are asked to serve far too many students, and parents struggling to make a living do not have time or funds to be advocates for their children.

While my primary focus is on the US system of higher education, my suggestions are transferable to the educational systems of other countries. Young adults seeking higher education everywhere face similar challenges and pressures, although the US is unique in the financial issues students face. While career opportunities vary from country to country, balancing the joy of learning with the necessity and reality of career preparation is a pervasive issue.

II. The Economic Value of Higher Education

While I am realistic about problems, I tell another more optimistic story about the value of a college education. Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro addressed this issue in the Oct 8, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education:

The vast majority of students graduate with relatively modest loans--under $30,000, on average--and almost one-third leave college with no debt at all. Meanwhile the college premium--the ratio of earnings by college graduates to those by high-school graduates--is at or near a record level.

MIT economist David Autor writes: "The economic payoff to college education rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was barely affected by the Great Recession starting in 2007." According to Autor, this is also true for a great many "developed countries." In the US, Autor finds that between 1965 and 2008 the value in lifetime earning of a university education, compared to those with as high-school diploma has "roughly tripled."

We are often told that college isn't for everyone, but it is surprising how many people can benefit from graduating from a four-year college. According to David Leonardt in a 2015 New York Times article entitled "College for the Masses":

The unemployment rate among college graduates ages 25 to 34 is just 2 percent, even with the many stories you hear about out-of-work college graduates. They're not generally working in menial jobs, either. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is near a record high.

What needs to be stressed is that even students with less than sterling credentials benefit greatly from college, even if among this group there is a high drop out rate:

Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don't clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don't attend any four-year college. . . . Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it -- 22 percent more on average

From the practical standpoint, we know the economic value of a college degree. In a Wall Street Journal piece entitled, "A College Degree Pays Off Far Faster Than It Used To," Josh Mitchell writes:

College graduates may be taking on historically high debt burdens to finance their educations. But it will take them far less time to get a return on that "investment" than it took their parents' generation.. . .someone earning a bachelor's degree in 2013 will need 10 years to recoup the entire cost of that degree. Those who earned a bachelor's in 1983 needed 23 years to do so.

Thus we have overwhelming evidence for the value of a four-year college degree.

III. College Education and Quality of Life

What about the value of a college education in non-economic and at times intangible terms? In my book, I emphasize what education can add to the students' quality of life in terms of self-awareness, understanding of the past and present contexts that define our individual and community experiences, and appreciation of the arts as doorway to a fuller life. To those lifetime gifts, I need to add that education teaches us to solve problems, to read insightfully, to write lucidly and logically, to speak articulately, to think rigorously, and to be creative.

College can also make us more tolerant citizens by teaching us to be receptive to diverse ideas. This is a goal that fulfills both the joy and practicality of learning, for if students learn to communicate ideas in nuanced discourse, logically and lucidly presented in such a way that there is space for substantive discussion, we will have the pleasure of living in a less polarized and more civil society where democracy functions and diverse perspectives are respected. At best, college teaches democracy by teaching students not only to work cooperatively in classes and extra-curricular activities, but also to speak their minds, often with the hope of changing the minds of others.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of US universities, they offer hope and possibility. While some of our American students may take this for granted, most of my students are aware that they are in a crucible of opportunity. Foreign students who come here understand that the United States and its better colleges offer them something special. As Emma Ianni, Cornell '17, an undergraduate from Italy puts it,

I came here to find something that cannot be found [at home]: a bright future. My generation was born in a time that many define as the worst period for the job market since the Great Depression. Crisis, fear and disillusionment are pandemic, but here at Cornell I did find something I could have never found in Italy, my home country: here in the United States I found that determined hope that everyone needs nowadays. I say "determined" because I don't mean hope in a sort of fatalistic way; it's not about lightheartedly waiting for things to work out, it is rather about making things work out.

IV. Responding to Naysayers: College as Hope and Opportunity

In the aforementioned Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz has complained about the shortcomings of education at what he calls elite schools--a list of which he never provides and a category he does not define precisely. Using a disproportionate number of examples from Yale and Harvard students, he claims that all these elite schools encourage careerism and stifle creativity and boldness: "We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity; and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes" (236). He does praise some non-elite liberal arts colleges as places where teaching, rather than research, is valued and where the humanities are emphasized.

I am sure that this emphasis on teaching takes place in the world's prestigious public and private universities too, as well as throughout the American higher education system. Every day I see those qualities that Deresiewicz regrets missing. My Cornell classes and those of many of my colleagues are devoted to building those qualities even while we teach subjects.

Perhaps there is a small fraction of students who are busy building their resumes as opposed to enjoying and immersing themselves in their studies. However, Deresiewicz's macrocosmic generalizations lack evidence--almost all of his student comments are unattributed sources-- and his indictment of the "meritocracy" is reductive.

Certainly, in some urban and suburban places there is an anxiety epidemic on the part of parents worried that their children will not excel. I have heard parents in NYC worrying about getting their children into the best private nursery schools and even hiring people to prepare their three-year-olds for interviews. I have had students who had so much parental help and expensive private tutoring that, despite having terrific grades in private day schools and competitive public schools, they had trouble as first-term freshmen doing their own work.

But we need to understand that this anxiety epidemic is only one strand of the story of students making their way through the American educational system. I also see middle and lower income children--often first generation college students--from less competitive public schools excelling at Cornell. Within a term they usually catch up with students from prestigious private schools and most competitive public schools.

Upward mobility is alive and well, although it could be even stronger, as I have mentioned when discussing accessibility to colleges for those is lower income brackets. Were admission based purely on merit, the Ivies would take fewer legacies and potential varsity athletes.

One of Deresiewicz's basic premises is that students have changed for the worse. He tells us that students were once more creative, imaginative, and interested in learning for its sake than they are now. My experience contradicts this claim.

We are also told that previous generations of students were happier, more confident, and had more developed "souls," a term Deresiewicz uses in a secular sense. Put another way, he claims that students were less anxious, stressed, and depressed, and more reflective about who they were. But Deresiewicz does not provide substantive evidence or consider that prior generations were less likely to admit to depression and anxiety, because in the past admitting stress and depression or seeking help was culturally less acceptable.

Judged by the attention he received, Deresiewicz briefly touched a popular chord and became a rallying point for naysayers. Anxious parents whose children were not, or might not be, admitted to elite colleges could feel that little had been lost. Yet I believe much of what he says is either hyperbolic or lacks factual underpinnings. An example: "Everybody [at elite colleges] thinks that they're the only one who's suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud, everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter than they are" (Deresiewicz, 16). Suffering is living under the fear of having one's home bombed, or being displaced from an area where one has lived for generations, or having a dread disease, or losing a beloved friend or family member. Suffering is not, in most cases, being concerned about your future when you are nineteen-years old and are attending an elite university in the United States. What he is describing is the discomfort that we all experienced as young adults and, indeed, periodically thereafter.

Students from our current diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds may have more anxiety than those admitted to elite schools two generations ago, but they succeed. Moreover, today colleges and universities admit students with emotional and physical challenges who might not have been able to function at college in earlier eras. We have far more support for deaf, blind, and physically challenged students as well as those diagnosed with bi-polar disorders, depression, and dyslexia.

Did universities, especially elite ones, have higher standards in the past? If we use grades as our criterion, there is some reason to answer "Yes." Without doubt we have grade inflation, and one could argue that giving an A- for what thirty years ago was a B or B- is a lowering of standards. On the whole, however, I do not see a decline in the quality of academic work. I would argue that the quality of my students in terms of their preparation and performance is better than it once was. Moreover, while some students (being human) may occasionally take advantage of a professor's good will and trust, I don't see at Cornell much evidence of Deresiewicz's particular complaints: "[T[here are due dates and attendance requirements at elite colleges, but no one takes them seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. Kids at prestigious schools receive an endless string of second chances" (218). Is there anything wrong with a day or two extension for a student who is ill or temporarily overwhelmed?

Another area where standards may have suffered nationally is the amount of time students spend on their academic work. Some of the time once spent on academics has been replaced by the surge in the time spent on extra-curricular activities, community involvement, and employment. At non-elite schools students often have jobs to pay for college and family needs, and these jobs may require that they work many hours a week and perhaps full-time. Furthermore, statistics show that a good deal of students' time is spent on social media. It is possible that more time than in the past is spent on what is now called "partying."

Of course, how students use their time varies from student to student, from field to field, and from college to college. From what I see not only at Cornell but where I have visited and what I hear from colleagues and students elsewhere, most students value their educational experience and manage their time to take full advantage of their learning opportunities.

V. Conclusion

I close with an echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson's great essay "The American Scholar," an essay derived from an 1837 address he gave to the Harvard Beta Kappa Chapter. The American Scholar, Emerson argued, should be "Man Thinking" (which we modify in the twenty-first century as "Man and Woman Thinking"), that is, drawing upon "an active and creative power of mind"--rather than being "a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other's people's thinking." These creative thinkers have an obligation "to see the world clearly, not severely influenced by traditional historical views and to broaden understanding of the world from fresh eyes and not to defer to the popular cry." These qualities of vision, I submit, are the qualities to which our college students and their teachers aspire--and at times come close to achieving-- in the continuing quest to master the Art of Learning.

Author of the recent Reading the European Novel to 1900 and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. His book on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. has just been published by Wiley (Hardback: ISBN 9781118974841; Paperback: ISBN 9781118974858; ebook: ISBN 9781118974810).

Among other Schwarz books are the recent Reading the European Novel to 1900. He has also written an earlier book on higher education, In Defense of Reading:: Teaching Literature in the Twentieth-First Century

He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at and followed on twitter at and

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