When Theory Is Practical

Few students enter college or university with a clearly defined picture of where they want to be in four years. Still fewer come into the university system with an understanding of what postsecondary education entails. When I entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2006 I felt that I had a pretty decent grasp of what the next four years would entail, but the truth is that I didn’t.

Had I had a better understanding of college, I would have asked myself, are you there simply to absorb the lectures or are you there to learn and apply the information? I would have taken a broader selection of courses early on and then focused in later years. And as I look toward further graduate school, I realize that I should have ensured that I had all of the necessary prerequisites. I do not mind having to go back and pick up a few of the courses that I have missed, but it is not always the easiest road.

I chose to attend UNC-CH because I was attracted to liberal arts, UNC-CH is well regarded academically, and tuition is relatively low compared to other large state universities. My strongest interests are in music and economics, and eventually I declared a major in both of these, a true realization of the breadth of liberal arts education. However, it took a couple of undergraduate years before I came to truly understand how my practical education would build upon what I learned in the classroom.

In high school, the student who excels does so by getting high marks in both grades and conduct. There really are few metrics beside the report card for the secondary student. Although admissions officers say otherwise, extracurricular factors in high school, like clubs or sports teams, do not seem to have the same effect on admission as your SAT score and GPA. With college as the ultimate goal, most high school students focus on these primary academic factors.  I certainly did.

In college, it appears at first that this is the case again. There  is still a transcript and a grade point average and, yes, everyone should work to obtain those good academic credentials. But those credentials may not be the primary factors that will guide you in life. Watch out for the “high school syndrome.” In a sense, formal education per se becomes less important because it is up to you to make the connections between what you are learning and the future that you will carve out for yourself.  For most high school students, the goal is simply to make it to college.  For most college students, the goal is to make it to real life. As your goals change, the roles of formal education and practical experience should change as well.

As a freshman, I did not yet strongly identify with how the material I was learning could be applied.  My interaction with the material was on a theoretical level. As a double major in economics and music, I studied basic information about fundamental theories.

It was not until the end of my freshman year that I began to connect theory with its applications, which is of course the end goal of theory in the first place!

A prime example of the connections between formal education and personal application was in study of the harmony that underpins the music of the classical period. Before college I had listened to classical music and appreciated it on a purely aesthetic level. When I performed, my interpretation of the music was largely driven by what my ears told me. But once I developed a strong foundation in music theory, I was able to analyze pieces of music more completely and to use the theory to inform my practice.  Theory also allowed me to appreciate listening to classical music on an intellectual level beyond the purely aesthetic.

Professors at your college or university are there to help you make this transition between theoretical knowledge and real-world application. Just as there are good and bad teachers, there will be professors who vary in their willingness or ability to do this. Nonetheless, the professors I remember most were those who presented theoretical concepts in a simple and applicable manner. Their presentation of the material caused me to extend my curiosity beyond the classroom.

It is also important to realize that not all knowledge comes from the classroom. The time you spend outside the classroom, perhaps studying abroad or working on research with a professor, can really be invaluable. It is surprising that many students do not take advantage of these opportunities. Listening to a professor talk about his or her research is a completely different thing from actually assisting in that research. 

It may have been the discussions I had with a professor, the time I spent abroad, or the opportunities for research that truly affected my learning. Whichever the case, these are the kinds of event that will forever be emblazoned in my mind, not the work that was done completing a practice set, or the test that was taken, or whether I got an A or B

So take time at the beginning of your college career to think about what you want to do after college. Doing so will also require you to consider the way that you will be interacting with knowledge. College will not come to you. Advisors often amount to nothing more than someone to check on whether or not you have the correct number of hours to graduate. There likely won’t be anyone to tell you how to do things or what to do, especially if you’re considering long-term goals and aspirations.

Start looking at what you want in life and work toward achieving that goal! If you do this, you will be pleasantly surprised by the way that your relationship to learning and formal education changes for the better.