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How to Game the System—and Lose February 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.

Kevin Carey explains how he squandered 4 years at a University and still received his degree.

I spent phenomenal amounts of time during my four undergraduate years on wholly nonacademic pursuits—drinking beer, hanging out with my girlfriend, playing poker (thank God the Internet hadn’t been invented yet or I’d be doing this still), watching the 11 p.m. ESPN SportsCenter, watching the 2 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter, killing time between the 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. SportsCenters, and so on. […]

I wanted to take art history because I had a vague sense that it was the kind of course freshmen took. But that course was full. I took history of architecture instead because it seemed similar, it was available, and the line was short.

Six of my credits could be earned in phys-ed courses. So I took lifeguarding for three credits, which was good for a summer job. A one-credit “Advanced Basketball” class involved little basketball instruction, but it was a great way to get access to scarce court space for five-on-five full-court games in the middle of the day. “Weight Training” did the same for the weight room, and “Intro to Karate” filled out the slate.

Binghamton had a science distribution requirement, but you were allowed to take some courses pass/fail. […]By the end of the semester, I calculated that I had to answer 20 percent of the final-exam questions correctly to pass the course. Since the exam was multiple choice, with only four possible answers to each question, that wasn’t much of a challenge. I also took Drawing I that semester because I was told there would be nude models. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.) […]

I waited until my final semester, when, despite a carefully planned strategy of non-course-taking, I still needed eight credits to finish. I signed up for “Gender, Policy, and Law” because I figured there would be a lot of women in the class. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.) It also met in the middle of the afternoon on Tuesdays, perfect for a lifestyle centered on four-day weekends and the 2 a.m. broadcast of ESPN SportsCenter.

Carey admits his responsibility for his careless attitude toward education; but seems to also blame the University.

An institution that routinely describes itself as “the best public university in the Northeast” shouldn’t hand out four credits for a 10th-grade C. It should aspire to be more than just a knowledge vending machine of courses to be chosen at semi-random with little in the way of guidance or forethought. It should look for opportunities to teach undergraduates more than its peers, not less—indeed, that’s what phrases like “best public university” ought to mean.

But if someone is willing to devote this much effort avoiding real work, it is hard to see how modifying the rules will help much.



1. Anon - February 5, 2010

Staying anonymous for this one because I was kicking around the SUNY system back then, and have friends who are teaching in the SUNY system today. I didn’t attend Binghamton, rather Albany. I considered Binghamton and rejected it as not giving enough support to undergrads. Albany was far worse though. They just knew how to sell the college better. A remarkable feat you’ll understand if you’ve ever been on Albany’s main campus.

The fact of the matter is that the SUNY university centers back then were party schools. A fact that most of us who went to them because we wanted an education hated. It was impossible to study in the dorms most nights, even in the “academic” dorm I resided.

And as I mentioned, there was little support for freshman. All the emphasis was on the graduate programs and you were left to fend for yourself, to carve out some kind of academic program from the hundreds of courses in the catalog. You weren’t told about the 700 seat Physics I lecture, or the lab instructor who could only speak Chinese. You weren’t told that those courses needed to fulfill your graduation requirements were so competitive to get into that you would be lucky if you could finish your degree in four years. Nor were you told of the mysterious disappearing required courses that ran only every other year, in the Spring, if a poorly paid graduate student could be funded to teach them.

Least of all, there was just zero help for someone who was the first person in their family to enter college. Navigating college and making the most of it is something kids from lower income, working class families just don’t know. Not without a mentor or buddy to help steer them.

So what’s my point? While there’s always going to be kids who work very hard at not working, the way colleges are structured almost assures failure for many kids. Yes, I’m saying they need hand-holding, though probably not the kind people usually think of. They need someone to teach them precisely those skills Kevin Carey utilized to avoid doing any real work in college, those skills that help them navigate the system, although one hopes they employ those skills differently.

Oh, and it would help if the university centers in the SUNY system either learned how to care about undergraduate education or just gave up on it, and let the regular four year SUNY colleges (some of which, like SUNY Oneonta or SUNY Geneseo, offer extraordinary undergrad educations) handle undergraduates exclusively while the university centers focus on grad and postgrad work.

2. Sexist Stay-at-home Father - February 5, 2010

This is funny stuff. College is a two-way street. Students may not be a hundred percent mature, but they are responsible for themselves. I wasted a lot of my time at university. I regret this, but it’s my fault and I am the less for it. That’s what Kevin, hopefully, takes from this.

3. Paul J. Moloney - February 6, 2010

Instead of complaining about the university, it seems that this fellow should be thanking the university. If the university had not allowed him to be as ignorant as he wanted to be, he would never have ended up with the prestige and status of being a director of an “independent think tank”. One wonders, though, about the wisdom of making it publicly known what his credentials are for being a director of a so-called think tank. One wonders also what is thinking, at the think tank, his based upon if it is not based on a college education. It seems, then, that a college education is not needed to work at a think tank.

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