Things I should have learned in college

One of things I became aware of as I got older was a melancholy nature, a sort of soft under-current of regret, about opportunities I passed up when I was younger. Some are rather trivial: why didn’t I learn golf when I could have more easily grooved my swing, or why didn’t I learn to play a musical instrument? Others are more serious: why didn’t I get to know my extended family more, why didn’t I take my education seriously, or why didn’t I participate in more activities where I could build up experiences and contacts that would help me later in life? For much of my life, and even today, I seemed to float through time and space oblivious to anything larger than my immediate surroundings. Looking back I wonder why I didn’t think about some of this a little sooner.

In college, this pattern continued. I managed to graduate from a liberal arts college with a degree in history and yet lacking a strong foundation in much of the cultural inheritance of Western Civilization or even modern American art and culture. Let me give you two examples:

– Poetry. I seem terribly ignorant of the history and practice of poetry. Oh sure I am familiar with the names of some poets and have even read a smattering of it. But I couldn’t really tell you why one poet is seen as better than another or how they relate to the history of the subject. I can enjoy poems when they speak to me intellectually or emotionally but I couldn’t offer much beyond that very subjective criteria.

– Classical music. Again, I really have no appreciation for or knowledge of this subject. I know a few composers and have some vague recollection of a few tunes but beyond that I am woefully undereducated. Who did what, when, and why is largely lost on me. In fact, I find most classical music annoying and unenjoyable. My ears haven’t been trained to understand and appreciate classical music.

I am not arguing that I should be an expert on these topics just that I have a passing understanding of their history and significance. Perhaps I am being elitist but shouldn’t a liberal arts education include this? Of course much of the responsibility falls to me for failing to take any courses beyond what was necessary to graduate. I wonder if this appreciation for “high” culture is dying because so few people are exposed to it, and given an appreciation of it, in high school and college?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I never found college courses all that useful in teaching high culture. Most of my education came from omnivorous reading and listening. Colleges do, of course, have pretty good libraries and record collections.

    Same with history and science.

    Some people want to know a lot, and others don’t mind knowing less. I don’t know if there’s an advantage either way.

  2. Hey kev,
    Look! Not only am I visiting your lit blog, I’m not posting assholish remarks! As for your gloom at not doing some of these things in your past – its not too late! I don’t think you know this about me, but I picked up a banjo a few years ago and haven’t been able to put it down. I figured if I hadn’t started in my youth, there’s no chance of me taking it up now. Boy was I wrong! I’ve started playing with other musicians and I’m becoming a bone fide banjo frailer. If you still want to play an instrument, just get up and do it! I know your love of music and your attention to detail will make you an excellent player in NO TIME! You just gotta take that initiative. Picking up the banjo was one of the best things I’ve ever done. If you have any desire to do this at all, you CAN’T go wrong.

    As for courses, I’m self taught and I know you could teach yourself. You’re that kind of person. If you want any pointers or places to start looking for such material (or just some support) contact me. When I’m home next Xmas I plan to look you up and we’ll jam.

    Rock on,

  3. Kevin – I agree with Jon – don’t look back and wish you had started playing, just do it now! I started learning guitar a year ago, and am having fun with it. I was 44 when I started, and wish I had started at 15 too, but it’s too late to worry about that. I’m still not very good but making progress, and may start real lessons soon. And as a bonus my 15 year old son started playing too, as I hoped he would, and he is already pretty good, much better than I. I believe you have to keep growing even as a parent and that your kids can learn a lot from how you live your life, not just how you tell them to live theirs. Deep, huh? ;-)

    Also, I was inspired by liner notes on a Michelle Shocked tape from over 10 years ago, Arkansas Traveller, where she credited her dad for starting her on a musical path by teaching himself mandolin in his thirties. I thought it was a great gift to give to one’s kids.

  4. Hi,
    I just found you via a link at The Charlock’s Shade.

    I also have a lot of regrets about not getting into high culture sooner. I’ve always been sort of interested and I really can’t explain why I didn’t start sooner. Too many distractions and a feeling that there’s always tomorrow, I guess, but when you get close to 40 you start to realize that the number of tomorrows is not infinite.

    The positive side of my story is that a few years ago I finally did start getting into classical music and thanks to some great people I’ve met online I have learned enough to impress most people even though I don’t feel that I know all that much. More importantly, I get more joy and satisfaction from it than anything else I’ve ever been into.

    I’m just starting to read more classic literature. That goes very slowly. Reading a great book takes much longer than listening to a symphony.

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