What I Learned in College

What I Learned in College September 11, 2011
College was incredibly important for me. It gave me room to learn, grow, and try out new ideas. It gave me space and freedom. It gave me acceptance and encouragement. It gave me new information I had never heard of. In this post, I will explore what I studied and learned in college.
One way in which college was very eye opening to me was that it allowed me to interact with people from a wide range of different backgrounds. I met Episcopalians, agnostics, and people who were gay. I met people from different countries and cultures. I learned that people who are different from me are still caring people with happy fulfilling lives. I suppose I got a big dose of multiculturalism, and that changed me. I found it harder and harder to think that my beliefs were right and theirs were all wrong.
As for my studies, I started out planning to get an education degree. I hoped to graduate with a ring on my finger and marry immediately, but if this did not happen I planned to teach for a time at a Christian school or a charter school. Longer term, I felt that a degree in education would help me homeschool my future children. Beyond my specific degree, I hoped to gain a well-rounded education that would make me an intelligent person and enable me to communicate well. This would help me to be an adequate partner to my future husband and, I hoped, support him in future political campaigns. My goal was to be well educated.
My parents gave me a fairly good homeschool education, and I tested out of a number of college classes. I was well prepared to study and to learn. Yet while my parents had given me the tools I needed to learn, they had only given me one side of every argument, be it scientific  religious, or political. I only had half the information. College enabled me to hear the other side without pressure or expectation, and that was life changing.
My parents believe that college brainwashed me. To be perfectly honest, when I started changing my views I spent many hours very worried that I was being brainwashed, simply because I had been taught that that is what college professors would try to do. But this wasn’t the case. My professors never told me what to believe; rather, they gave me information and let me do what I saw fit with it. There was no enforced dogma except critical thinking and open exploration of evidence and information. My professors urged me to think, not to think the way they thought. They taught me how to think, not what to think. They didn’t brainwash me, they opened my mind.
Let me offer some examples of classes that made me rethink my positions and beliefs:
Global Studies – This is where I first learned about fundamentalism from a scholarly perspective. I learned that it was a global phenomenon, that it was brand new and didn’t go back much more than a century, and that was in many ways a simple reaction to modernity. I knew right then that this is what my parents were, and how I grew up. And yet, the class simply explored the phenomenon, it didn’t offer judgement. Yet it started me on a path toward exploring my parents’ views from a scientific and scholarly perspective, rather than from a devotional perspective.
I also learned about U.S. hegemony abroad in this class. I learned about the ways in which America had dominated the world, actions that frequently had negative consequences for countries around the world. I learned that the U.S. maintains hundreds or military bases across the globe. I found that the U.S. has not always acted as a beacon of freedom, and has actually generally acted in favor of its own interest and actually frequently against the very ideals it claims to hold. I learned to understand why many countries hate and resent us.
Studies of the Family – In this class I learned about a diversity of different family types. We explored the meaning of the family throughout history and across racial and class boundaries. This helped decenter and historicize the nuclear family for me.
Multicultural Studies – For this class I had to do a project on the problems gay people face in college and in college dorms. I think the professor assigned me this on purpose, because it was during freshman year and I was still pretty homophobic. For this project I had to meet gay students, and learn about the discrimination they face. I essentially had to get inside their heads and see things from their perspectives. This was really beneficial for me.
Studies in Science – This class taught me a bit about the history of science and how it works. I learned to see science not as a secular conspiracy but rather as an attempt to understand how the world works and why. At the end of this class, I had come to accept the scientific evidence behind both evolution and climate change. But again, it’s not like anyone forced me to change these beliefs or anything; rather, I looked at them with open eyes, a better interest in science, and an interest in understanding and found that there was overwhelming evidence for both.
History of the Middle East – This class was extremely eye-opening. I had no idea how badly the U.S. and the West in general had treated the Middle East, or how many problems they had created there. I realized through this class that it’s no wonder so many people in the Middle East resent us. They seriously have good reason. This class removed any remaining support I might have had for the U.S.’s foreign policy and national mythology, and it also killed the unthinking support for the nation of Israel that I had been raised with.

History of Witchcraft, Magic, and Science – In this class, I learned about witchcraft and magic from a scholarly perspective. Suddenly it all made sense in historical, social, and scientific terms, and there was no need to imbue it with supernatural meaning. I feel like this was a recurring theme for me. The more I really understood things, the less I needed the supernatural to explain them. And indeed, I learned about the birth of science and the way that it little by little eliminated the need for supernatural explanations and lessened the authority of magic. I came to see the supernatural as something historically employed by people ignorant of how the world works to explain phenomenon they couldn’t understand. Once I saw the past in these terms, I had to wonder about my own beliefs.
History of Modern Europe – This is where I learned that “socialism” is not a bad thing, and that it can actually be very, very good. In some ways it was this class that made me a social democrat. I’d always been told that if we weren’t careful the U.S. would go the way of Europe and decline. I learned in this class that Europe is, well, doing pretty well. Decades of socialized medicine and socialized childcare haven’t done it any harm, and actually, Europeans have higher happiness and health ratings than do Americans, along with lower drug rates, murder rates, violent crime rates, and poverty rates. I came to understand social democracy and understand the European system, rather than seeing it as some evil “other.” Now don’t get me wrong, Europe’s not perfect: they have internal conflict over what to do about immigration and now debt crises. But it’s not like it’s any worse than the U.S., which has both of these problems AND higher crime, worse health, lower happiness, etc. This class killed what American exceptionalism I had left.
History of the 1960s – This is the class where I learned that I was a feminist. I’d already faced conflict with my parents and knew I didn’t believe what they did, but I still thought feminists were selfish baby-haters. In fact, the word “feminazi” came to me more easily than the word “feminist.” But in this class I learned about the problems that necessitated the rise of second wave feminism, and as I did so I became more and more angry. Angry that men had kept women oppressed, paid them less for the same jobs, kept them out of college, and even at one time deprived them of the right to own property or even a legal identity. My inner rage grew until I declared myself a feminist with gusto. I realized, too, that many of the problems these women fought against are still with us today. The revolution isn’t over, and I resolved to do my utmost to complete it.

This class did something more, though. It helped me historicize the rise of the New Right and revealed its racist and classist origins. I suddenly saw the religious right (and the New Right in general) as a problematic social phenomenon rather than as unchanging truth or as a Biblical injunction. Furthermore, I learned about the New Left of the 1960s and read its Port Huron Statement. I could not understand how a movement which embraced such ideals as democracy, equality, and global brotherhood and fought to end poverty, racism, materialism, militarism, and exploitation could be evil or selfish as I had been taught. At this point, I aligned myself solidly with the political left and left the right behind forever. This transition was aided by the fact that I had already taken the class on modern Europe one semester before, and had there lost my fear of socialism.

I didn’t end up getting a degree in education. Instead, I became more and more intrigued by the humanities and social sciences, especially as I began to have issues with my parents, and so I moved in that direction. I was fascinated by trying to figure out where my parents and their beliefs came from. I wanted to figure out where I came from. I wanted to understand who I was. The humanities and social sciences helped me do this, and I found that invigorating. College for me was about figuring out who I was and what I believed. I am incredibly thankful my parents sent me to college. Unfortunately, they didn’t like the changes they saw in me and ended up decided they’d made a mistake to send me at all. Rather than seeing me becoming my own person, they saw me being ruined and led astray by worldly teachings. Based on my experiences, it’s really pretty easy to see why organizations like Vision Forum advise against sending daughters – or even sons – away to college.

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