Bridges and College

May 23, 2013

One upside of the pocket-painful decision to keep a car in New York is that I get to see the bridges up close. Recently I’ve seen a lot of the Verrazano-Narrows.


Now that is tall cool glass of water.


When I think about how bridges delight me, I think about David Billington, who teaches CEE 262: Structures and the Urban Environment at Princeton. This class (in my time) was widely known as a gut – but I got much more out of it than a check mark on the engineering coursework requirement. Every week took us through the story behind a bridge or a tower. Every week I came away in awe of the achievements of great engineers. Till this day, whenever I see a bridge I recognize, I see Professor Billington standing next to its picture that he’d flip to on his microfiche projector.

I’ve been speaking to more and more people recently mulling over whether or not they should go to or finish college. (A few years ago, the question was about grad school – times they are a changin'. Next year it’ll be about high school.). My visceral reaction is: but college is so much fun! And not just in the sense of new friends and freedoms, but in the simple premise that it’s four years to learn new stuff.

(Like the steampunk-Downton-Abbey history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.)


And then I hear them out and I think - yes, yes, that’s true. College is expensive and it’s not clear it’s ROI positive (sometimes it’s clear that it isn’t). Classwork can be abstract; I’d have a really hard time drawing a correlation between what I learned in college to what I do for work today. One could certainly spend valuable young-person energy starting a company instead.

College was right for me, but it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. I’ve met lots of brilliant and successful people who didn’t go or finish. The thing they all have in common is insatiable hunger for knowledge that beats mine tenfold. They’d probably know all about bridges by reading up on it on their own if it interested them.

Me? I doubt I’d have known to be excited about bridges if I hadn’t gone to college, signed up for a gut, and been charmed by Professor Billington.

I’m glad I went.

Update: Professor Billington delivered his final lecture earlier this month!