New College

Well, the news about New College sounds pretty grim.

It'd be premature of me to mourn its death, not the least because I've never set foot on its campus. I only know New College indirectly, by working with New College grads.

My first "real" job (as in, a job that I... cared about) was at Big Nerd Ranch, which was founded by a New College alum (Aaron Hillegass). I had just come off of 8 years of grinding myself to the end of an undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech.

I learned a lot at Georgia Tech, but certainly not a love of learning. During one of my sessions with a school counselor, he told me, "You know, you don't have to graduate." I thought he was out of his mind: what kind of career could I possibly have if I didn't earn this degree? All I was interested in was proving how smart I was so that I could make a decent living.

Seeing the way BNR ran classes opened my mind and my heart to a different way of learning and working. I was worried in college about flunking out; meanwhile, Big Nerd Ranch didn't even have tests.

What made a Big Nerd Ranch class special was that... well, say that your class was about Android Programming. While you were sitting in that class, the only thing you had to think about was Android. You didn't have to worry about passing a test, or about impressing your boss, or your colleagues. We provided the structure for learning: the materials, the time, the physical space, and the social environment. But the motivation we entrusted to you: if you had it, you already had all you needed. If you didn't have it, we did not indignify you with the threat of an examination.

Simply put, I saw there that learning could be fun and worthwhile for its own sake, and that this could be dramatically better than forcing it through via institutional control. I saw that having other people around who were doing the same thing made it more exciting, and that being smart was different from knowing how to learn.

Before I worked at Big Nerd Ranch, I hadn't felt that since probably junior high. Certainly not at Georgia Tech: I saw that degree as an evaluation of my intelligence, not as an opportunity to learn neat stuff.

New College, as I understand it, works the same way: there are no exams, nor is there a formal major system. If that sounds wishy washy and ineffective to you, all it will take is meeting a New College grad to be convinced otherwise. To a person, they're all brilliant, well educated, and driven. What they are not, though, is happy cogs in institutional machines. They live the antithesis of Himmler's watchword for the Nazi SS: "There is no task that exists for its own sake." I hope they are able to give this new crisis the relish it deserves.