RALEIGH – “I’ll have to tell you all, probably should have sooner: I don’t really understand this material.”

As best I can remember, those were the exact words of the graduate student who taught – or, more properly, was assigned to teach – my course in symbolic logic at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said this about halfway through the semester, reacting to the obviously confused looks of most students in the room.

The episode is one of several that inform my own judgment of the shortcomings of higher education, even at the level of a UNC-CH. To those who defend the university against criticism – such as my somewhat-cheeky piece a while back on whether I am going to allow my children to go to college – by dismissing critics as uninformed outsiders or ideological poseurs, I say, simply, you don’t know what you are talking about. I do. I was there. I’ve talked to many at length who’ve been there since. And I’ve studied the available evidence on the value added from college instruction, such that it is. It is foolish to deny the reality of campus life today in deference to rose-colored memories of the past or wishful thinking about the future.

The episode also helped propel me into a sustained fit of autodidacticism, which in fairness was facilitated by the excellent research facilities and collections on campus. Not only did I (and most of my class) find it necessary to learn symbolic logic without professorial assistance, but I also went on to fill in some of the other gaps caused by my Belgian sociology instructor who could barely speak English, my mumble-mouthed professor of the philosophy of science who had not yet mastered the philosophy of getting-a-clue, and my well-spoken but highly biased American history teacher who attempted to convey the genius of Roosevelt’s New Deal by demonstrating “pump-priming” with a dollar bill he circulated throughout the classroom. Someone (I wish it had been me) asked him where the dollar bill had originally come from. If from his pocket, then didn’t he have to not spend the dollar on something else, and didn’t that non-action also have consequences? And if not from his pocket, if conjured from thin air by a central bank, wouldn’t it represent inflation that also needed to be modeled?

The teacher “answered” this proper question with an insult and an invitation to “move along.” Your tax and tuition dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.

By the way, I should say that the teachers and courses within the major I completed, journalism, were almost without exception excellent and rigorous. (I had intended to double-major in philosophy, but the desire and need to begin productive employment intervened.) Some routinely question whether “trade skills” such as journalism should really be imparted in a collegiate setting. I agree that they need not be, but there’s something to be said for teacher and students all knowing why they are there and what they are trying to accomplish. Nice change of pace from other, airier disciplines.

You know, when I started writing this column, I didn’t intend it to be another jeremiad on higher education. I meant to say something about if-then statements, which got me to thinking about symbolic logic. Originally, I was going to comment on a couple of conditional statements in recent political debate in North Carolina, one involving Jim Black’s campaign-finance misbehavior and the other hate-crime statutes, but found myself led along a different path. So I ended up taking another swipe at the misplaced priorities and unfortunate truths commonplace on university campuses today.

I know that may all sound, well, illogical. I blame Carolina.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.