How Education Takes Away Our Interpersonal Skills and Leaves Us Socially Stranded

About a month ago, I found myself in the middle of a “townie” birthday party. It was everything I dreamed of, complete with shitty beer, hairspray that belonged in 2006, and a shirt that read, “Cool story babe/Now make me a sandwich.” I went with two female friends from the College and we were entirely out of our element. My friends engaged in a “girls vs. boys” beer pong game, while I, amused, kept quietly to myself. The girls closed in on the win, when one of them yelled something along the lines of, “Woo! Yeah! The boobs win everything!” to which I quickly, and much too loudly, joked, “Except the patriarchy!” As soon as the words fell from my lips, I received some self-conscious, weak chuckles from my friends and rather confused looks from everyone else who heard me.

Mark TwainNow, let me clarify: if I had been surrounded entirely by my Grinnell friends, that joke would have received an uproariously large laugh or at least a depressed chuckle. In that moment of being the worst-person-at-the-party though, I realized that I had not always been an academic prick. Moreover, I used to be able to glide through many different professional and social atmospheres before college. These days, the only moments when I don’t feel like the mutant elephant in the room are when I am with other attendees of in-the-middle-of-nowhere, bourgie colleges. As I tuck more semesters under my philosophy major belt, Grinnell College has slowly made me incapable of interacting with most people who are in existence. Furthermore, due to the intense nature of an education like Grinnell’s, the amount of time spent absorbed in academia has deprived many people the opportunity to learn basic, real-world skills. By the time each and every one of us reaches our fourth year, intellectualism will instill the value of non-practical skills and life-goals, which will leave us, to some degree, lacking normal abilities and unable to socialize with the majority of humans.

Grinnellians pride themselves on their “quirks,” which are normally a quaint expression of a student’s perceived individuality. However, many times the lack of normalcy results in a ripple effect of problems. Our own disabilities in common society hinder other people’s quality of life. First of all, claustrophobic, academic atmospheres encourage students to forget, or never learn, normal social skills. Intellectualism overpowers qualities like kindness or empathy, is our go to for impressing people, and worst of all, tends to make us believe we are always right when it comes to facts.

For example, I was spending time with a friend and a guy I’ll call Merle* [all of the names here have been changed]. To impress my friend, Merle without provocation would always answer questions in Norwegian and then automatically translate himself into English. While it was impressive that he speaks Norwegian so well, it was enough for us to stop asking him questions altogether forever.

Another one of my personal favorite worst-person-ever stories was Gunther*, who was just trying to make friends. In response to a person mentioning his major was Russian, Gunther replied, whilst stroking his peach fuzz no less, “Hmm. … Well I like to think that music is my second language.” Later, Gunther was describing how his local Midwestern, American Indian tribe had begun to accept him as one of their own, and he actually knew their traditions better than many of the tribe members his age, but he didn’t seem to know the tribal name. Desperate to throw this guy a rope, I strung together that they must be Lakota, because a lot of cultural knowledge was scattered when they were exiled from Minnesota. To this he starkly said, “No, you’re wrong. They’re the Sioux.” This was painful, because the word “Sioux” was actually a racial slur, which was created by the Native Americans themselves.

The examples given here are extreme cases of young adults who have spent too much of their life dreaming of academia. However, there are smaller examples of socially frictional moments:

  • 1. The terrible person asking longwinded, douchy questions when class ended two minutes ago.
  • 2. The awful, road-bumpesque small talk that occurs far too often.
  • 3. The fact that we, as a campus, have tried to be so socially just that we have become paranoid.
  • 4. The little shit who opens the grill door, completely oblivious to the fact he or she exists among people.

There are degrees to which people start to live only in their heads. The occasional student is so practical that their obliviousness is barely noticeable.

The other issue with Grinnell is that it does not allow people to learn real life skills. Most of us come straight from a home with some sort of parental/guardiantal care, where they may have cooked most our meals or did our laundry. Some of us did not even hold a job before college. After high school, most of us went straight to Grinnell, which takes care of almost everything for us: FM cleans our bathrooms, we initially have 20 pre-prepared meals per week, and Grinnell puts us in a sterilized environment where only human beings in their prime exist. Because of this, some people spend so much time only reading, writing, and doing experiments that they do not gain common-sense, general skills gained from normal life experiences.

One day, I was working the sandwich line at Dining Hall with Ethel*, who was not quite fluent in English, and it was her first job ever. I tried to be understanding and give her basic jobs, so I handed her a broom and dustpan. It soon became apparent that Ethel had no idea how to sweep, and she flailed the broom around like Disney’s Cinderella and did everything but gather the dirt.

On another occasion, Chester*, who had earlier claimed that dogs were his favorite animal, had a dog come up to him. Chester was excited at the presence of a dog, but then asked, “How do I pet the dog?” while his hand anxiously twitched to and fro.

From what my parents/maid-did-everything-for-me-while-I-only-read-books planet did you come from that you did not learn how to sweep? Or how about the fact that you have only spent time around super-educated humans that you do not know how to pet your favorite domestic animal? Again, these are extreme examples. But how many first years working at the dining hall have proven that they do not know how to build a sandwich or sauté a green pepper? I mean, come on. Take a gap year and pull yourself together.

In part, colleges like Grinnell produce such awkward individuals due to the fact that very few people actually become graduates of these types of schools. First off, it is a high quality, liberal arts college education. One third of the American population receives a Bachelor’s Degree and most get theirs from a state school that is focused on job-preparation. Very few get a degree from a small, liberal arts institution that believes in education for the sake of education. Throw on top that the college is highly selective and in the middle of nowhere, and it becomes a constantly boiling, intellectual stew.

Grinnell students basically only have the college to provide their social lives, entertainment, and opportunities. Whether they like it or not, every student is drowning in a sea of Grinnell intellectual principles with no means of escape.

While I have been critical of the Grinnell cultural effects on students, it should be said that I actually think highly of the way it molds people into thoughtful, caring individuals. Many of us feel that it is worth developing Social Frictional Disorder (SFD) in return for the ability to see the world in many new and enlightening ways. Therefore, it is normally nothing to actually perspire or wallow over. At the same time, it is not a just personal problem when we are not capable of a basic skill or are interpersonally terrible; it almost always negatively affects a greater people. So, it is for those moments that we are actually the worst-person-at-the-party or incapable of sweeping that I am saying that we, as a community, have a problem.

As an advocate for social happiness, I am asking for an end to the ignorance. I think it is wonderful to have so many thoughtful, motivated people in the middle of Iowa continuing their pursuit of theoretical knowledge. However, we need a balance. As Mark Twain says, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Do not give up or avoid learning basic skills in order to get straight A’s. From my lengthy studies of Twain, I believe he would advise us all to take advantage of your hometown culture, converse with people who are not on their path to getting PhDs, spend time among nature and animals, pick up a useful hobby, do not dislike or disregard someone because he is a straight white male, and pay close attention to your mannerisms and tone of voice when you speak. As a great philosopher once said, “Not everything has to be an issue of oppression. Sometimes you can just enjoy life. And not cite sources.”