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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Practical College

My brother, who is also considering retirement somewhat purgatorial, recently suggested we consider starting a company together. One of my ideas was for a new kind of school: The Practical College. The basic idea is from this previous post about the uselessness of a nontechnical college education.

But my brother wasn't enthusiastic about the idea of such a school. He felt it would be hard to make much money from it, and it might be hard to attract students who had already paid for college. Plus starting a new school would be incredibly complicated. He's right; perhaps the answer would be to just approach an existing four year college and suggest they rebrand. I  don't know.

But I still think that such a school would be a success -- and more importantly, its students would be successful. Here is the little mission statement I wrote up to give my brother its flavor:

The Practical College

Every year more than a million and a half newly minted college graduates emerge from their ivory towers with no discernible practical skills. They’ve studied what they were interested in, be that sociology or philosophy or medieval literature or Romantic poetry. They’ve worked hard to get good grades. Yet all the knowledge they have gained in those fields has close to zero value in terms of helping them get ahead in the real world.

Spanish literature, the Classics, and European History are all interesting, and fine things to study. Rowing, football, theater, and glee club are all fine pursuits as well. But none of these activities will actually help you get ahead in your career. Academic types like to pontificate about how people who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it, and coaches like to talk about life lessons learned from sport. But those are lessons that can only be used in the most oblique, roundabout ways.

The truth is, most college students are without a clue as to what is facing them when they graduate, and as defenseless as newborn kittens.

The Practical College is an intense, one year school designed to give its students the kinds of useful knowledge and interpersonal skills which will help them succeed in whatever field they choose. Regular colleges would consider the courses we teach insufficiently academic, possibly even morally reprehensible. But what we teach is far more useful than anything you’d learn at other schools.

At most colleges, you could learn 99% of what they teach by just reading the books assigned for the course curriculum. At The Practical College, we focus on who you are: we take a hard look at you and determine your strengths and weaknesses. We help you figure out how to change or at least work around weaknesses. And we help you figure out how to capitalize on your strengths.

Most schools today do their best to instill “self esteem.” But self esteem of the type which is automatically given to everybody simply because they exist is in fact self-defeating. The prevailing ethic -- that you’re perfect just the way you are -- is simply a path to complacency. The Practical College will provide you with the tools to succeed in whatever field you choose; that is the path to real self-esteem.

One such tool is charm. Charm can stop feuds, create friendships, and move you forward in your career. It’s what makes people laugh and want to be around you. Charm breaks down into five main components: flattery, empathy, self-deprecation, humor, and calmness. The Practical College teaches how to use all of these, and tailor them to fit your particular persona.

Most colleges have a tendency to turn their students into misty-eyed idealists. Good intentions are admirable, but they can sometimes blind you to the fact that others have bad intentions. You will undoubtedly run into at least a few sociopaths -- those creatures utterly without conscience -- in your lifetime. Since sociopaths can poison whatever atmosphere they’re in, and even ruin peoples’ lives, it’s best to know about them. The Practical College teaches you how to recognize and deal with them.  

The College also offers a course on how to detect everyday liars (and, by extension, how to lie yourself if necessary).

From the time we’re young, we’re taught to downplay and look beyond appearance. The reason so much emphasis is put on this is because our instincts push us so hard in the other direction. The importance of your appearance when it comes to being hired, getting ahead in business, and of course being successful in romance, cannot be overemphasized. The Practical College will bring in a reputable cosmetic surgeon to make recommendations -- but will put absolutely no pressure on you to act on those. Major changes tend to turn out poorly, so we suggest only subtle changes. But a minor touch up can be a great investment in your future. Age 22 or 23 is generally a transitional period, a good age at which to have such work done. You’ll be able to enjoy its benefits for your entire life, and your friends will be less likely to notice the change. There is still a slight stigma attached to cosmetic surgery; we will discuss that as well, and explain why you shouldn’t let it get in your way.  

We will also give each student a brief course in dressing. Another consultant will determine what colors and styles will look good on you. This consultant is not a wild-eyed designer who wants to make a fashion statement. He is just someone with common sense who understands clothes and colors and what suits different individuals best.

At most colleges, getting drunk is an almost mandatory extracurricular activity. But after college, alcohol is a tool which, if you know how to wield it, can be used to great effect. Many business meetings, social gatherings, and private dinners involve alcohol. We will teach a course about different drinks, and the statements they make. (One’s choice of drink can give away more than you think.) This course will teach you how to encourage others to drink while not getting drunk yourself.

Students ordinarily spend their four years of college grinding for grades, thinking it will help them get a good job. But those four years are probably less important than the half hour they spend interviewing for a job they want. An admissions officer at a grad school looks at your transcript; an interviewer looks at you. If the interviewer doesn’t take to you, or doesn’t remember you, a perfect GPA matters little. The interviewing process is much more akin to speed dating than to anything academic. The foremost question in the interviewer’s mind (whether he realizes it or not) is, would I want to spend more time with this person? It’s all about chemistry – and chemistry can be manufactured. To our knowledge, no regular college offers a course on how to interview. We do. We will explain the kind of impression you want to make and how to be memorable. You will learn the types of things interviewers want to hear, how to appear hard-working, and how important it is to show that you really want to work at that firm. We will even tell you what to say about the two years you’ve spent at The Practical College.

The Practical College will teach a brief course on effective martial arts. This is not about how to perform elaborate moves or jumping spin kicks. It’s about the quickest, most effective things to do if you ever find yourself threatened.

We will encourage you to learn how to use a weapon. For legal reasons, we will not teach this course ourselves, but will arrange for a group class at a nearby gallery. We hope you never have to use a firearm; but it is better to know how than not. Sometimes just that knowledge can be psychologically reassuring.  

The Practical College will teach the basics of seduction. These are somewhat different skills for men and women, but we will have a brief course for both.

Too many people go to the altar with stars in their eyes, with no idea about the real nature of marriage. We will teach a brief course on why -- and how -- you should get married with your eyes open. We will offer a marriage checklist, and discuss prenuptial agreements.

The Practical College offers a very brief course on investing. We will explain the nature of different financial instruments.  

We will teach you about the nature of the corporate ladder, and your relationships with your boss and coworkers. We will explain why it is in a boss’s interest to encourage teamwork, and why it is in your interest to pay lip service to it, but also why it is in your interest to step outside that concept whenever you can.

Salesmanship is a far more important part of your life than you realize, even if you don’t work in a sales department. As a freshly minted college graduate you may not realize it, but you’ll be selling your ideas, your company, your product, and yourself for your entire life. The Practical College will teach a course on salesmanship.

We will teach you about body language: how to read someone else’s and how to use your own. It will cover when and how to look at someone, how to stand, how to walk, and how to shake hands.

If you’re a parent who feels your child is a little na├»ve, and would prefer that he enter the corporate jungle as a carnivore, and not a herbivore, send him here.   

To some extent, The Practical College will teach Machiavellianism. There are certain people – often sociopaths -- to whom this comes naturally. They don’t need this program, and, frankly, we don’t want them. The people this school will help most are those who do not have those instincts naturally. 

The Practical College is, in essence, a finishing school. When you hear the term “finishing school,” you think of young ladies getting ready for their debutante ball. This, of course, is not what we are about. We will provide young men and women with tools they hadn’t even realized that they would need to succeed in life.

This is not a school where the students can pick and choose courses, or select a major. Everybody goes through the same classes. There are also no grades assigned here. Grades are traditionally a mechanism to get students to learn; they will not be needed to maintain student interest here, as the real world value of the curriculum will be quite apparent.

If you think you detect a strong whiff of cynicism here, you are correct. But our view is that the cynical view is often the realistic one. And bear in mind, you can always use cynical means to idealistic ends. You may also be put off by the superficiality of some of the ways we would “improve” you. It’s true, we do suggest a certain amount of superficiality. But no one is immune to the effects of looks, charm, and poise. If you have these weapons in your arsenal, you will be better equipped to face the world.

Very few of us past the age of forty have never had the thought, "Ah, if only I'd known back then what I know now." This college is a way to impart much of that knowledge to 23-year-olds. It will teach many of the insights and social skills that many of us stumble upon, through trial and error, by age forty. But by age forty, many options have already been closed off to us. If you learn these things when you're starting out, you'll enjoy a far wider array of opportunities in life. 

As I said, we will probably not pursue this. But I wish such a school had been around when I was 22, and I had been sent there. God knows I could have used the education. 


Anonymous said...


You would make a fine professor there. As they say, "those who can't do...."

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Since you've (wisely) chosen to remain anonymous, I don't know if you know me or not, but what you say is definitely true. I've actually thought about this: a guy who's naturally charming wouldn't be able to teach a course on charm, just because it comes naturally to him and he wouldn't be able to (and in any case would be less likely to) analyze it. Someone utterly without charm like me, on the other hand, has thought about it and could therefore actually do a better job of teaching it.

And there you go -- that wordy response is a perfect illustration of my charmless personality.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'd go to a school like this and am nowhere near 20. Maybe you should consider marketing such an education to those of us who are older and better able to see how helpful these kinds of skills can be. As you said, most people in their 20s have such an idealistic view of the future that have no concept of what's coming.

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
Thank you, that's a thought. And yes, the older we get, the more clearly we see these things. If only I'd known....

dgh said...

I agree that image is everything - sorry for the cliche- but I would draw the line at plastic surgery unless someone had a serious facial issue. Next time I see you I want to know about what drinks I should order to project the right image! A man who would like to project himself as debonair and exciting may order a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred? Just wondering.
But the "marriage checklist" is way too cynical! So, if a prospective spouse "fails" The Practical College checklist then the "graduate" should not get married? I'm just wondering what would be on that checklist.
Yeah, I guess I would like to come to be a student at this college as well. I'm still not convinced you can teach someone to be charming though.

John Craig said...

If I could go back in time and meet my 23-year-old self, I'd tell him all the stuff the Practical College would teach, and that includes recommending plastic surgery to him/me.

As far as drinks go, well, I'm not much of a drinker so I don't know much about that. (I never said I could teach all those courses.)

And the marriage checklist isn't an absolute standard that every prospective spouse has to pass, it's just a suggested list that people should think hard about before they get married.

And no, you can't teach charm (otherwise I would have taught myself), but you can teach people how to respond to different situations and to have a few prepackaged self-deprecating lines at hand.

Anyway, it is highly unlikely that we'll do this anyway, so....

dgh said...

John, I have known so many people over the years who are very good at packaging themselves externally but have personalities that are lacking to say the least. Maybe "genuineness" is an important criteria for being successful. But I don't know how you can teach that. Maybe The Practical College should give out Emotional Intelligence tests to its students for self-awareness. I'm still not sure what you think plastic surgery would have done for you. Do you think it would have made you more successful in your career? Just wondering.

John Craig said...

Donna -- The Practical College would definitely not be about improving character, that is set long before the age of 23.

No, I don't think plastic surgery would have made me more successful in my career, but I would probably have gotten more women way back when.

dgh said...

I'm not sure character is always the issue. There are many people not comfortable with who they are and no matter how they present themselves image-wise they fall flat. They miss the mark as soon as they open their mouths.
And regarding "all the women you could have had", I think you are a very nice person and no matter how much plastic surgery would NOT have viewed women as conquests and therefore not had very many. I'm sorry, but that is my impression of you! :) You are a nice guy! What is wrong with that?

Nick Casanova said...

Donna -- OK, thanks I guess.

dgh said...

HA HA!!! Your alter ego has spoken! lol

Campion said...


This is a very interesting idea, so interesting that it's my intention to blog exclusively on this matter.

I would add time management, project management and logistical management to the curriculum as these techniques have very broad applicability in one's life and in one's career.

There's not much activity at my blog but the structure is there. Take a look if you're so inclined and let me know what you think.

John Craig said...

Campion, thank you, will do. Will probably not get to it till tomorrow though.

Brian Fradet said...

John--I so wish my kids went to such a college. I believe we are currently in a "college bubble" much like the internet bubble, the housing bubble, among others. In brief, college is, unless one wants to join one of the professions, i.e. medicine, law, etc, a scam, a huge waste of time and money. Some experts also predict that as the bubble starts to burst, which it already is, half the colleges in the US will be closed within about 10 years. Great Post! Brian

John Craig said...

Thank you Brian, and thank you for signing up.

I agree about the bubble, though I doubt that half the colleges will be closed in ten years.

As far as your kids....Heck, I wish that I had gone to such a college.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. If only our parents and schools would prepare us for adulthood, then we'd be okay, not needing to attend The Practical College. Reading this post caused me to chuckle.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Wow, you're really doing your homework today. I appreciate it. I honestly think that a college like this would be extremely helpful to its students. I wish I'd gone here for a year or two at age 22.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to laugh, but I laughed. It would be a good type of college. However, I thought that if kids had this education from grade school through high school (reality, practical based curriculum), we wouldn't need to attend such a college - we would be so much better prepared for adulthood.


Anonymous said...

I laughed because this business idea is clever, well thought out, even covering the marriage aspect of life (figuring in a pre-nup as well). You definitely are a thinker.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thank you very much.