Little ago, while surfing on social media, a quote by Elon Musk grasped my attention: it was about the utility of college. I’ll mention it here in its context. Musk was interviewed during the Satellite 2020 Conference held in Washington DC on the 9th of March. After an initial dialogue with the host, the public intervened asking questions about SpaceX future projects. Following this, a girl asked him about the relationship between colleges and industries: with more enterprises starting to require higher college degrees and with college tuition remaining expensive, how could colleges and enterprises make third-level education more accessible, even for underprivileged communities, so as to allow everyone to attend university? Musk’s answer got my attention “College isn’t necessary to learn, things can be learned for free, college isn’t a question of learning”. He then added that college’s value resides in being able to carry on with assignments, even if boring. Overall, “College is for having fun and to prove one can do his chores, but it is not for learning.”
My first impact was to distance myself from his statements and to recognize that my college experience is different, it’s an experience of both professional and human growth. However, I had to step back, what Musk said wasn’t stupid: thanks to the internet most things are available on web, to the point I actually found myself looking up topics online which weren’t clear to me. Furthermore, specifically in american colleges, college life can be perceived superficially as a place where we are taught to be self-sufficient and independent. So why does his statement hurt my feelings, going past the fact that he is doubting my long four years of studying? What allows me to contradict Musk is how, during these years, I’ve reconsidered my need for a teacher. It’s true that (almost) all knowledge is available online yet it seems to me that it is not possible to eliminate a figure of authority who makes its conveying possible. I do not mean conveying only as a transfer of information but as a transfer of passion and experience.
I’ve noticed how having someone to follow and to learn from is more efficient rather than teaching myself other than being more appealing. A simple example of this comes for learning applied subjects like the ones I study in Politecnico, where solving exercises is often required: throughout his explanation, the lecturer shows a way, he establishes a method and he shows his thoughts while facing a problem. It doesn’t seem to me that this is available for free online.
In addition to this experience, which could appear purely emblematic, I’ll mention these four years of learning, with a particular attention to these last months carried out online. This semester I am sitting one of the most complex courses of my bachelor degree in Civil Engineering, it’s that kind of course which takes up hours of studying. For the entire semester, our lecturer allowed students to follow his class in college other than online. I seized this chance and for about a month I was the only one taking part in his lecture on campus. This opportunity gave birth to a simple relationship with the person I was facing, starting with “Good Mornings” before lectures up to friendly breaks where he asked me how it was going. It struck me how this minimal yet very significant connection allowed my passion for this topic to grow and how I found myself more attentive and interested, even when I didn’t understand a thing. I’d like to highlight this, given that, knowing myself, my move would have been to back up when facing such a big challenge.
This is why Musk’s statement hurt me greatly: facts are showing how, in order to grow, I need to follow someone who’s more passionate about what he does. This dynamic seems to be working in my life in general yet very specifically throughout study. It’s a bit like climbing a mountain without knowing the way, it’s always more convenient to follow someone so as to get to the top enjoying the climb.