My family, filled with smart, shrewd and funny people, would shrug their collective shoulders and ask, “What good is college?” Only my mom, who died when I was young, valued education. I knew that because her single ambition for me was that I might marry a man with a degree.

I applied to college only because my high school history teacher told me the place he’d attended on a football scholarship had just started accepting female students. He thought maybe I had a shot.

When I told my relatives that I was heading to New Hampshire in 1975, they assumed I was pregnant. Why else would an 18-year-old girl leave the state? “It happened to your cousin,” one aunt whispered as I boarded the bus for White River Junction. “You can always come home.”

They were skeptical about what I’d learn in some cold building far away that I couldn’t learn in Brooklyn. What would an education get me — except into trouble?

I had no idea what I wanted to do or be, but I wanted a degree of my own. Revising my mother’s wishes, I didn’t just want to stand next to someone knowledgeable — I wanted to be knowledgeable.

Also, an education can’t divorce you.

An education is different from a degree. A printed piece of paper — even in a fancy font — is worthless unless it represents substantial personal commitment.

An education is about learning things you don’t know. Life’s menu can be innovative, varied and delightful, but without outside influences, it can too often be limited, boring and unappetizing.

I have a friend who pretty much eats only what she was served as a child: meat, potatoes, beans and applesauce. She’s not excessively fun when it comes to dining out.

Curiosity, like originality and delight, has to be nurtured. But if we keep emphasizing familiarity and security at the expense of new and potentially challenging experience, then we’ll be stuck with the intellectual equivalent of a 1968 Swanson’s TV dinner.

Authentic education demands that students learn, and not merely that they are taught. It’s not about simply offering access to information or data. What happens in classrooms is not the same as what happens at UPS: It is not like transferring an unexamined parcel of information from one person to another. It must include, as all reputable teachers know, instructing students in academic discipline and personal responsibility.

This is one reason that students should have to take classes from outside their area of specialization. Their futures are under construction. They may have blueprints in place, perhaps handed down via their families or fantasies from glittering daydreams, but there are many architectural models from which to choose. That way, they won’t end up with the academic equivalent of a five-story apartment with no kitchen and a bathroom on the roof.

Unable to predict the ineffable results of education, I worry we’re defining it in merely quantifiable terms — judging institutions, subjects and majors by how much money their graduates earn in the workplace. That’s not an assessment of a demanding course of study. That’s an assessment of who makes coin. If that’s all anybody needs to know, I could have stayed in the old neighborhood. Gangsters, after all, make more money than anybody else.

An authentic liberal arts education has value of a different kind: It’s a triumph over ignorance and a refusal to be intimidated by the unknown.

It’s about taking a class in a cold building on a quiet morning and learning that words, as well as numbers, in the proper sequence, can unlock the universe. It’s about proficiency, of course, but it’s also about perspective.

It’s not what you “get” out of college that changes your life; it’s what you’re given. You gain authority not only over subjects, but also over yourself.

As my family predicted, education got me into trouble — but it was trouble for which I looked, not from which I ran. That’s the payoff.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this for The Hartford Courant.

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