Friday, April 1, 2011

1000 miles of colleges - Preppy to hippie and in between

1000 miles. 7 schools. Preppy to hippie, Amherst to Bard and NYU in the middle. And an "OMG I'd better study for the next 6 weeks" reaction from Sebastian (a junior) which meant mission accomplished for me.

The US college system is so very different than the UK that it's really a debate in my mind which is better. Is it better (as I did) to specialize in maths and physics at 16 and then from 18 on only study maths? I came out of a 3 year program with a BA and an MA in maths and an incredibly deep but narrow academic education. And not very employable until I had learned to type first and then to write software. But as a result of my education I approach every problem from first principles.

Compare that to the liberal arts education at one of the colleges we saw (Amherst was a favorite, so was Dartmouth - hence the grades panic). The students study a huge breadth of subjects and can graduate with a BA without going deep in any one subject. Does this give them better long term careers because they have (hopefully) found a field they love, learned to write, learned to make an argument and studied abroad? Or does it make them superficial and in need of a real degree next - hence they all go to grad school?

What was great for the two of us this week was visiting a wide variety of colleges and styles and so my son was able to articulate that, despite his parents hoping, he really does not want to go to engineering school exactly because of the need to commit to a career path earlier than he is ready to. So unless he changes his mind in the next 6 months he's headed for a small liberal arts college like his sister and I am going to learn to both keep my mouth shut and appreciate his choices.

Listening to the funny, articulate student guides this week I think every school we visited except one would offer plenty of challenge and a solid, interesting education (mine was certainly not interesting to me). I'm reminded that in all of my education the single most powerful skill I learned was public speaking. I use that almost every day as a CEO. And that I learned in high school doing competitive public speaking competitions, not in college. College gave me credentials, confidence, bridge skills and my husband, but not much else.

Because junior year Spring break also needs to be fun we are ending up with two nights in New York. Last night was War Horse and words cannot begin to communicate the experience. It is quite simply astonishing. An education in the extreme innovation and creativity that is possible in live theater and I expect NYU will continue to go up in Sebastian's college ranking with every theater performance we go to.

War Horse - emotion through puppetry that has to be seen to be believed

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