Maughan Library

What I Really Learned At University

A lot of people have just started university, and this year I finished. I figured it was a good time for me to reflect on my last few years in education at a top university in London, and to offer any insight that I might have for others who are just beginning.

For many, university is where they find themselves.

I had the opposite experience.

My university experiment was spending three years being like everyone else, and honestly, I became lost. I have always been the sort who was hated and loved by the right people, yet at university I became a ghostly impression of my true self.

With hindsight, of course, this is easy to see. But at the time I was mired in “being a student” and living in a way that everybody does. Why? Because everybody does.

I lost sight of who I was, why I was there and who I wanted to be, and the result was a mixed experience. I also ended up losing sight of the things I wanted to achieve when I set out and accomplished far less than I could have.

But don’t worry, this isn’t (hopefully) a whinge about shouldawouldacoulda; this is more a reflection on my time and also hopefully an opportunity to give some advice to those just starting out. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I don’t regret anything and I would not change it – it is pointless to worry about things that happened in the past – but there is still much that we can learn. I have never had any regrets in life and I don’t plan on starting now; one reason why is learning from my mistakes. Everything I have done has shaped who I am today and, on the whole, I think I’m awesome.

Without further ado then, here is:

What I Really learned at University

1. Status

I attended King’s College London, which – as they are keen to tell anyone who’ll listen – is apparently one of the top universities in the world. In fact, the name of the university on my degree certificate is probably worth far more than the actual degree I did. Actually, not even probably.

It is.

This name is old (which is a good thing for universities) and conjures images of a grand tradition, Nobel laureates and a fraternity of intellectuals drinking port. And this kind of thing is what would make prospective employees think my degree was worthwhile – not what the content of my degree actually was, or the grade I got.

In short, my degree gives me some level of status. I admit I feel a snobbish glee at saying the name; it is a name which many other universities cannot match on presumptions of cache, exceeded by only a few such as Oxbridge, UCL and Imperial.

Yes they do sound impressive don’t they!

But, Oh Shakespeare I do apologise for the theft; what’s in a name? “King’s College London” is taken as a badge of competence – nay, excellence – but sadly this is taken largely at face value. It is the classic fallacy of argument from authority, but I will take it since it benefits me and most people are unaware of these sins against logic and reason.

The unfortunate consequence of this however is that many people get a degree, just to get a degree and thus do not learning anything of great value. At least half of what I learned in my course I consider now to be worthless – the other half I do plan on salvaging but I could have gained an equivalent academic store of knowledge in a third of the time and at far less cost.

A degree supposedly signifies a higher earning potential after university; whether this is true or not it is a mistaken way to think of things. Our society is obsessed with credentials and the fallacy of “authority” is a present belief among many. This is why Gillian McKeith was able to dupe so many with her nonsense; she had some initials after her name, a certificate from a fancy sounding agency and she told people she was a doctor.

But actually what matters is the truth of a person’s beliefs; how they came to their opinions, the kind of research they do.

These days the value of university education is continually challenged from various angles, and some might even argue that it is not worth the time or money any more. Well, it will be a few years yet before I can truly appraise the worth of my time at university so I wouldn’t like to comment definitively on that just yet. But it truly is an enormous undertaking both in terms of time and money and for many people – perhaps most – it might not be the right decision.

Why is this? Well, I think that the game has completely changed – the old wisdom that you must go to university to get a respectable job and start saving for a pension is being slowly over-turned and I can see a day where far more people realise the freedom they have to truly follow what they love and live life on their own terms.

2. Politics

Suddenly at university everyone has an opinion.

Well, a lot more people anyway. This was wonderful for me; I spent my younger school career frequently distraught at the wilful intellectual vapidity that most seemed so proud of. At university that changes significantly; capitalists, socialists, communists, Labour, Tory, “green” and so on, all these people come out of the woodwork and start championing their causes with passion, vigour and (mostly) intelligence.

I learnt a great deal about the beliefs of others and had my own beliefs challenged and changed on many occasions. In fact now I look back on many of beliefs and assumptions held at the start of university and regard them with disbelief – how could I have been so wrong! It is simply a wonderful time to have stimulating and difficult conversations with people who are in their most energetic and passionate years. It is amazing to see yourself and all the other young people starting to finally stand on their own two feet in arguments and beliefs, although it is also depressing just how many are yet trapped in the dogma their parents fed them.

3. Writing

Before university I thought I was a pretty good writer. In fact this was only half true. I was a pretty good writer but this was only really measured against the standards required by a state education in the UK. Unfortunately these standards are completely dismal, but it meant that I could rely on my writing abilities to carry me in subjects I wasn’t actually that good at.

At university that all changed.

Why did it change?

I certainly don’t consider my university education to be a paradigm of great teaching but it was certainly an improvement on school and college; however, we were faced with large class sizes, inattentive teachers (although I do not blame them entirely) and the depressing reoccurrence of rote learning. Some of my modules were so absurdly useless that I struggle to imagine how they were justified in the first place other than by committee. We had very little in the way of true teaching, despite the great amount of work and energy from my lecturers poured in to theories of pedagogy.

So what was different? Well, the rules of engagement had changed – at university there are certain practices and standards that you must follow to do well (just as there are at school) but the catch is that you are taught none of these at school. This leads to great frustration for many who are left confused as to what exactly it is they are supposed to do in order to excel at university level.

Finally in my third year, it clicked. It helped that a large part of the year was spent studying academic writing to a depth I was scarcely aware of previously – but it was more than that. I finally reached a level where I could match the quality, purpose and type of my writing to the task. There is still great room for improvement, but I feel confident now that I can write for any situation, to a standard which most people reading would consider to be above average.

Now I must admit that my frustrations with the writing and learning process were very much my fault too. I did not take it upon myself to research writing practices and did not pursue many of the extra resources that we were informed of by our teachers.

If I were to psychoanalyse myself for the reasons why, I think it would be along these lines: the student life encourages a lack of responsibility. As I indulged myself in this it became a compulsion and I actively avoided a great deal of responsibility; part of this was not attending lectures and not following up with my own study and research. In effect I disowned my responsibility for my education and of course, had to deal with the consequences.

Language is a vital pillar of human life – it is how we express ourselves and give meaning to everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. We can invent, fantasise and find joy in language. It is a true privilege to be highly competent at that which makes us human and university affords a great deal of practice at utilising language. Take advantage of that, and take responsibility for yourself and you will face less frustration than I did.

4. Girls

This subheading should more properly be something like “members of the gender(s) you fancy” but that’s not quite as catchy and I think you get the idea anyway. University is a great time to find your soul mate, or to find several soul mates. Some of my friends found girlfriends in the first term of the first year, and others just spent their time finding a different girlfriend each term. The point is, you can do what you like. The stigma of having sex just for fun is pretty much non-existent these days but so is the stigma of having a sexual long term relationship before marriage. Thank goodness for common sense eh?!

The lesson is really, don’t be shy, don’t be afraid of being judged. Every niche is catered for at university level even if you have to look a bit to find it. Explore, have fun (and be safe).

5. Join Societies & Start Something New

University offers incredible opportunities to try new things; they have enormous resources and can really help to bankroll things that you otherwise might not have the chance to do. If there is not a society that caters for you, then you can create one for yourself if you get enough people on board.

For me this meant acting in and directing plays in central London – a privilege that only a few gifted individuals might have in the professional world, yet I was able to make this a reality along with my other thespian friends due to the prime locations of the real estate owned by KCL.

Societies are also an incredible opportunity to meet like-minded people. Some of my closest and best friends at university I met through my drama society. I knew that by putting myself out there and getting involved I would meet people who shared my passions and interests and who were also driven to improve themselves and make the most of their time.

Societies have the in-built infrastructures and resources that allow you to pursue your dreams, even if on a small scale. As mentioned, for me that consisted of getting back in to acting in the first year and then actually directing a play in the second year.

I’m not going to lie, that was pretty damn daunting.

We had no professional support and incredibly tight funds. In fact we only had £200 with which to costume 20 actors, hire a venue and pay for lighting and rights. Yet not only did we achieve all this, we even made a profit which, if you know anything about amdram, is practically unheard of. University gives you opportunities to achieve in this way and to take advantage of all the brilliant minds and passions of others. Creativity is a great impulse in man and this is a great time to indulge it.

6. Don’t Let the Student Lifestyle Consume You

I am not sure how the student lifestyle compares in other countries, but in the UK there is an enormous and overwhelming emphasis on destructive drinking. Before university I was very opposed to the idea of me personally getting too drunk to maintain control and awareness of myself (although I have never been against other people doing what they wish with their own bodies).

I remember being incredibly confused when my peers went on about how fun it was to remember very little of the night. I remember seeing posts from people suffering from a hangover claiming “never again” knowing full well that “again” would probably be that night, or soon at least.

I understood none of it!

At some point that changed for me. I don’t know when it happened exactly; it seems like it was a gradual process but when I was half way through university it also seemed as though I had always been that way. What changed?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I do acknowledge that getting drunk is fun in the kind of superficial way that watching Jeremy Kyle is fun. But deep down I never really enjoyed it. I hated not being able to get out of bed when I was supposed to; I hated all the rationalisations I fed myself (“oh it’s just uni”, “oh you were actually in control”, “everyone does it”, “you need it to have fun”, “you’re boring if you don’t”, “man up”) and I hated the fact that it seemed to be the only way of doing things for freshers.

I told myself that I welcomed oblivion, like a deranged Buddhist, I remember feeling like I was seeking out the destruction of myself.

Yet, the culture is strong enough that despite not actually enjoying what you are doing, you will keep doing it. People will tell you to “man-up” – as if destructive behaviour is at all manly – and I ended up battling a strong compulsion to drink.

Looking back on this now it seems bizarre. Anyway, I’m not trying to tell you what is wrong or right for you to do in your life, but be true to yourself. I wasn’t and paid the cost – and everything has a cost. The upside is that now I know myself better again – and I do have a few hilarious stories in to the bargain.

7. Make Use of What You Learned

This is particularly important for students studying what people ignorantly call “soft” subjects. English, art, philosophy, history.

Basically any subjects that you know the Tories would hate.

The truth is that most subjects at University are just not going to prepare you for the real world in terms of practical skills or rational thought. You don’t learn how to wire a plug or fix an engine, let alone build a computer or truly run a house. Worse; you don’t learn logic, true critical thinking or how to reason from first principles. And unless you do a science then you can forget learning anything about the scientific method!

Throughout school the natural impulses of the questioning mind we are all born with are subdued, and in many, destroyed. University does little to rectify this and once again it is down to you, the individual, to stake a claim on your mind.

But there are other things you learn and you can make use of them if you know how to. You do have to do a bit of lateral thinking but it is possible.

You see, regardless of subject, each has the potential to help someone improve the lives of others. Any time you learn a subject to a specialist level, you have knowledge that others need and unfortunately, most academics aren’t particularly good at translating this knowledge in to usable and understandable language for the rest of us. Even those who specialise in language… That’s why they’re academics, not capitalists; if they could make a legitimate profit out of their skills and knowledge they would.

But anyway, not only do people need some of this knowledge; they don’t have it, and don’t know how to get it. If you think of your knowledge as a commodity then you can find ways of selling it and using it to make a living, regardless of what that knowledge is.

I have taken it upon myself to translate in this way much of what I learned on my degree. I don’t claim to be the best in this field, but I probably am among the best out of us for being able to apply the knowledge and help the every-day person with it. This is something I think is sorely lacking in most disciplines.

So please, please use what you learned at university – it will greatly benefit you, and in turn, others.

8. Don’t Take It Too Seriously

Yes, it’s three years of your life. Or more. And yes it can be stressful, frustrating and downright annoying. But hopefully you should be having fun while you’re there; you are supposed to get something out of university, not really the other way round and I firmly believe that a true and valuable education can only happen when you are enjoying yourself as you go.

Enjoy your time, take advantage of the opportunities to make friends and do new things – but don’t get caught up in it. Don’t lose sight of who you are or what you really want to do. You can do both, and you can have it all, but it is more difficult and it does require that you take true responsibility for yourself – something which I only really began to learn in my final year. Yeah, that was too late.

Conclusion

I guess what I learned can be summed up this way; take responsibility for yourself, explore and reach out to others, and don’t forget to have some fun. If you stay true to yourself you can’t really go far wrong.

If you are just starting out, I wish you all the best! To my brother; you will become great if you take true advantage of the time ahead of you. I love you. To anyone else; good luck and may you be the next Steve Jobs.

If you have just finished uni (or finished a while ago) and disagree with anything or have anything to add, then leave a comment. If you are just starting out is there anything I didn’t cover which you might like to know? 

6 thoughts on “What I Really Learned At University”

  1. Edyth Miles says:

    “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learnt at school.” Albert Einstein.

      1. “The more that learn to read the less learn how to make a living. That’s one thing about a little education. It spoils you for actual work. The more you know the more you think somebody owes you a living.” ~Will Rogers

          1. Essays like this are so important to brniaendog people’s horizons.

  2. Stefan Nilsson says:

    I find connections to be one of the most important part of going through school. We’re currently 250 people in our class and regularly meet owners of highly successful businesses. Sure, it’s not the main reason to why I love living at a university but when I’m finished I know I’ll have a lot of connections which will be useful later on in my life.

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