Column: College teaches more than books

I recently was given a newspaper article in which the author made the comment that all you learn in college is how to learn. This comment caused my hackles to rise.

Another comment I have also heard from time to time is that all you learn in college is how to take a test. This comment was made by a close friend. He was a very intelligent individual, but shunned college.

He felt that general course requirements, like history and psychology, were a waste and only got in the way of an education. His interest was electronics, and he eventually worked his way into an engineering position with a major electronics manufacturer.

This friend of mine, Neil, was a unique individual. He is over seven feet tall, and hated playing any kind of sports. Electronics and computers were his first love.

One day, shortly after starting a new job at a semi-conductor plant in Utah, he was approached by a co-worker of a more diminutive stature.

"Gosh, you're tall," the five-foot-plus associate stated. "Do you play basketball?"

Neil had been annoyed for years by this question, and apparently his aggravation had reached the boiling point.

"No," was his reply. "Do you play miniature golf?"

This rebuke caused the man to turn angrily and walk away. He did not realize that short people are not the only ones sensitive about their size.

Perhaps it was because I was older than the average college freshman - I was nearly 50 when I enrolled - but I found college to be a very enlightening experience. Not only did I learn about the subjects in my field of study, I also learned a lot about myself.

One of my first classes was Psychology 101. One day, the instructor brought in a mirror box. She placed it on the desk in front of me and opened it. Looking into the mirror, I could see a paper with two stars, one inside the other. She instructed me to take a pencil and trace a line between the two stars.

I proceeded to follow her directions, going down one side of the five-pointed star, but when I reached the point where I had to go sideways, my hand froze. I was unable to move my pencil in the required direction. She asked a classmate sitting next to me to help move my hand. The student tried, but as hard as she pushed, my hand would not budge.

I cannot describe the profound effect this experiment had on me. I could not realize the frustration felt every day by persons who have suffered head or brain injuries and are unable to perform simple tasks.

Later, I took a class in environmental science. There was nothing extraordinary until I was given an assignment to collect aluminum cans and newspapers, and then to recycle them and write a report.

In writing the report, I discovered a way to write, to express myself, to tell a story in a fun and interesting way. I had wanted to be able to write for years, but could never find a way. This opened a new door for me, and I have since written dozens of stories of my childhood, family and various adventures.

Then, in order to complete the requirements for my degree, I selected a class on art appreciation. It was interesting, but not very exciting. Then one day, I attended a local art exhibit on which I could write a report for extra credit.

I wandered around the room and came across a co-worker who had an exhibit. As I looked over his labors, I came across an oil painting, which at first glance seemed ugly. It was an abstract on canvas, about 10-by-20 inches. And as I looked at it, I became aware of a feeling of strong emotion, of anger even.

I asked him about it, and he explained that he had been trying to paint a picture of a place he had visited in the Grand Canyon, that he had eventually given up, and in a fit of rage, frustration and anger, had begun smearing paint over the canvas, resulting in this interesting abstract.

I went home that night and thought about what I had seen. I came to the conclusion that most good art will evoke an emotion in the viewer. A person might think that an artwork is ugly, beautiful, interesting or bizarre, but they do see it, and it makes an impression on them.

It's not just a pretty picture. Perhaps that is why certain landscapes are so hard to copy. You stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and you feel the immensity of it. It is something that must be experienced. It is nearly impossible to capture this feeling of awe and wonder on film or canvas.

I also found that I had learned to listen. Often in a conversation, and especially during an argument, people will pretend to hear you, but too often they are thinking about what they are going to say next. They care not what or how you feel; they are only concerned about what they have to say.

So I ask myself, what did I learn? Well, I learned a lot about myself and a little about the problems others face.

I learned that what appears abstract is actually an emotional experience. I learned how to take a test, that by paying attention in class, taking notes and then studying them, I could do pretty well on a test.

But probably the most important thing I learned was that I still had a lot to learn.