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Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor 10.24.18

My final PennInTouch course cart has me reflecting on my Penn education.


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Reading for pleasure. Taking classes because of intellectual curiosity. What foreign concepts at Penn.

Shopping for class options for my last semester at Penn has got me feeling reflective. There's nothing like staring at your course cart on PennInTouch and having a crisis about your intellectual trajectory. I found myself thinking about all the classes I'll never take, all the topics I said I'd study as an incoming freshman that got pushed aside.

I'm not some academic saint. There were periods in the middle of my undergraduate career where I was just skidding by. Skimming readings, silently skulking in lecture, writing papers at the latest possible hour. It was sustainable, in a way. I was getting the grades, hitting the marks, and creating academic connections. Though it felt like the bare minimum to me, it wasn't. But I didn't feel intellectually or morally nourished. 

Much of this was my fault, a result of my misguided priorities and wavering work ethic. In high school, much of my academic work was input—output, study for a test, perform well, and throw the information out of your mind. Much of my studies—a few teachers notwithstanding—was structured like standardized test–taking. Lots didn't stick. I came to Penn in this mode, and had to unlearn it in many ways.

In freshman fall, I took classes that allowed me to explore critical theory and study for the hell of it. It made me uncomfortable. It's difficult to have your ideas of meaningful knowledge acquisition shaken to their core. 

Conversations about preprofessionalism at Penn miss the mark. Much of the conversation rests on confronting how insidious it is to turn yourself into a marketable product in relentless pursuit of a job. It's always about OCR and internships. But I think there's an oft–ignored dimension to this conversation, which more accurately gets to the root of the issue. Preprofessionalism also means creating a value system that privileges knowledge that can be turned into tangible sources of value, converted into hard skills or materially applied.

Academic tracks that emphasize critical inquiry, perspective–building, and gaining a general understanding of the world are marginalized. They don't offer any immediate benefit. You'll only ever use that information if you become a contestant on Jeopardy!

In all my tough times at Penn, I was questioning the utility of my education. I was scared to take courses out of intellectual curiosity, to jump wholeheartedly into conversations that seemed so detached from my day–to–day. But to be frank, I don't think Penn did much in the way of encouraging me to act otherwise. 

Somewhere midway through my time at Penn, I realized the error of my ways. I deep–dived into the esoteric and specific. I was happy, and I'm happy to be where I am today.

If I could talk to freshman baby Nick, I'd tell him to take the classes that he wants to take, the courses whose titles most excite him. I'd tell him to sample as widely as he can in his freshman and sophomore years. I'd tell him that it's cool to participate in class, and to delete the "Relevant Coursework" line from his resumé.  He'd have a better appreciation of education then, and also a free line to cram some work history into.


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