The best thing about going to a top-flight school is not the chance to learn from celebrity faculty members. It's not the opportunity to use fancy facilities either. And it certainly isn't the cloisonné coating that adheres to one's résumé and thereby opens doors to big-buck jobs in a subsequent career.

No, the really important lesson that a ritzy educational institution teaches --- sometimes, to the luckiest of learners --- is that in the right environment, ordinary can become extraordinary. A good university can be picky about who gets to attend. But a great university goes beyond inviting the obvious top candidates to join the student body. And the interaction among those students is what makes for real learning.

It has taken me decades to realize it, but my key experiences in college centered on the other kids whom I met --- and not so much on the child prodigies as on the "regular" smart young people. They showed me (or maybe we showed each other?!) that it was possible to solve apparently-impossible challenges via months and years of hard work. They also showed me that lots of different talents can come together and contribute, and not in just a fuzzy-minded feel-good "we're all wonderful" platitudinous sense. Amazing things occur through sharing of knowledge, in an environment of friendly competition, and by direct observation of how much a person similar to oneself can accomplish --- especially from the inspirational example of an older, more experienced student a bit farther down the road.

Those classmates raised the bar on "ordinary" to a new level. And though it may be harder to recognize outside thickly ivied walls, the same phenomenon can happen anywhere, at any time, to any one ...

(see also GeniusAndComplexity (15 May 1999), ClassyPeople (1 Apr 2000), SummaCumLaude (27 May 2001), LensManic (16 Jul 2001), EducationOfTheYouth (1 Dec 2001), PursuitOfExcellence (22 Feb 2002), KnowledgeAndSociety (25 Mar 2002), YouAreExtraordinary (7 Jul 2002), MeritScholarships (10 Feb 2004), ...)

TopicThinking - TopicScience - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicSociety - Datetag20050409

(correlates: GatherScatter, SkippingAhead, ThatDepends, ...)