When I was growing up, I saved every bit of schoolwork I ever made. I did this because my parents told me too. I’m guessing they wanted to have the memories. Every worksheet and notebook sat in a cardboard box, under our dinner table, a time capsule starting from kindergarten.
Well, it was the summer after 7th grade, and those boxes were full. My parents wanted to clean the house, so my mom dumped a pile of old toys I played with, and told me to figure out what I wanted to keep, and what I didn’t. After that, I was to do the same with my old schoolwork.
What neither of us knew was that my dad had already taken the box (my box) of schoolwork, and had thrown the whole thing away, box and all.
Was I upset? Well, yeah! I’m sure a lot of embarrassing, adorable stuff was in there. But, I wasn’t upset enough to dig it out of a dumpster, so I let it go. That day, I made a resolution: I would never throw out my schoolwork again. Not until I got a chance to look through it first.
I kept this up all the way through college, and today, I decided to mine through all my undergraduate work, to see what gold I could find.
It turned out my dad had the right idea after all. I wanted almost none of it! It’s funny, at the time it all seemed to matter so much. After a few years, it just doesn’t.
The bulk of it is answers to homework questions. I threw out all of that, because they all refer to questions from textbooks I no longer own. I sold most of my textbooks every year, in a bid to stop the textbook bureaucracy from extracting more money from students.
The stuff that isn’t homework is primarily notes from my computer science courses. That’s to be expected, it’s what I majored in. There, the problem is that much it is far, far too similar to my day-to-day work. I don’t need my old notes on Python and data structures, when I have to deal with that every day. Freaking tech jobs. If I have to use one more hash table, I’m going to flip out. (Just kidding, hash tables are the one true data structure. If you disagree, you have yet to see the light.)
In a weird twist of fate, much of what I decided to keep was actually from the courses I liked the least at the time. The humanities class about movie stars in the 1950s and 1960s, which I found terribly boring. The operating systems course, where I liked the overarching concepts, and hated the details. The music course about music’s intertwining evolution with American culture, which…okay, actually, I liked that class, but I haven’t felt any urge to review it. I don’t like those courses any more than I did then, but they were different, and I respect that.
As for the courses I liked, I’m keeping those notes too, but wow, I remember so little of what I learned. For example, I took a course on formal logic, where we proved that proofs work. My notes are all Greek to me, literally and figuratively. (Logic uses a lot of symbols.) Meanwhile, I don’t remember Poisson distributions as well as I should, considering how much time we spent on them in probability theory. And although I can tell you what an SVM does, I had forgotten the exact way you structure the optimization such that its solution maximizes the margin. I could re-learn some of this quickly if I needed to, but the key point is that I haven’t needed to.
If that’s true, what was the point of doing it?
I took those courses because I wanted to. That worked for me, and I had the luxury to afford it, but it makes me realize how much of college must be wasted time for the people who just care about getting a high paying job. You could argue college teaches general skills around work ethic, socializing, time management, networking, and so on, but shouldn’t teaching those skills be high school’s job?
The argument that rings true for me is that most people’s college experience is like mine, where only small parts matter, but it isn’t clear what parts matter for you until after you finish undergrad.
Despite forgetting a lot of what I learned, I do feel that time was when I was most “alive”. I had more varied interests, was generally more curious about the world, and went through a lot of personal growth. It’s made me realize how much I miss having 100% freedom to do whatever I wanted, without having to worry about money or career aspirations. Now, there are heavy incentives to find my lane, so to speak. It can drift, but large shifts come at large costs.
It also reminded me that once upon a time, I genuinely thought “It’s all ogre now” was an incredible meme. I liked it so much that I wrote it on the cheat sheet for my machine learning final. Well, we’ve all got things we regret. Luckily, I’ve moved on to much better memes, like “Call Me Maybe” + “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” mashups. Four years from now, I bet I’ll still like that song.