Take French. Say you have to "study" it two or three years to get out of college, and say you're an average kid at an average college. Here is the issue:

What is the difference, if any, between being ignorant of French formally (having studied it as a degree requirement) and being ignorant of French informally (having never studied it at all)?

Practical people and bottom-liners say there is no difference: If you can't speak French or read it easily and if you have never read Jean Rostand or even Montaigne, then you might as well not have bothered with French to begin with.

Everybody agrees you need a supersensitive Geiger counter to detect the slightest surge in a guy who has just finished college. When he entered he registered 6 on the scale, and when he finished he registered 6.04378.

Before he started French he knew how to say mademoiselle and could grin and grunt well enough to accomplish a little, and when he finished he knew Me'rime'e wrote the lousiest novels in any Indo-European language, and could say both formidable and Eure et Loire with a comprehensible accent. But this is a major gain?

Yes. It is a major gain.

It is very like shaving when you get up in the morning. You haven't made yourself gorgeous, you haven't even improved your appearance worth speaking of, but you have completed a tribal rite, you have saluted the herd, and if you doubt how valuable this is, you have only to observe a guy who has taken a train across India then a plane flight to Dulles. He is fit to be tied for no better reason than he has not shaved.

So is college a tribal ritual? Well, it beats spending five years in a long house, to absorb by osmosis the sacred values of the tribe. That is the custom in other primitive societies, and the main thing to be said for their way of doing things is it's not as cold in the winter as Yale. But in other ways, no better.

Nowadays, of course, there is this new notion that you should learn things in college, and at least begin the mastery of some subject. Vigorously resisted, this notion has yet made headway in physics departments and football squads. Athletes are sometimes laughed at by eggheads, who think jocks are not much better than computer programmers or seminarians.

But jocks have an unarguable advantage over the typical liberal arts "student." The guy who plays football actually has firsthand experience of his subject and has spent enough hours at it to understand it in some depth. A man who has wound up playing right tackle for Sultry State has become a moderate authority on football even if nobody to speak of ever heard of his team.

He differs considerably from the guy who has glazed his way through economics and sociology without the least idea what is going on. Old die-hards complain of the lack of intellectual content in Home Repair 101 and History of Boiled Water (Neanderthal through Nader). But there is no greater intellectual content in Age of Jackson (Andrew) or Rise of the Carolingian Empire if the student declines to engage, as he usually does.

One would not wish to be sexist here. Take a woman who refuses to put rice in water and another who tries and makes the usual mess. No decent rice in either case. But the one who has at least been in the presence of rice, however hopeless in avoiding glue, has achieved even in failure what her sister has not.

Who doubts it is better to make a mess of rice than not to try? The wretched cook can look back at a life of stress and anguish, no more than that, but isn't it better than looking back at a complete blank?

So in the studies of college. The French student does not learn French, the geology kid can barely tell a brain coral from a gastropod, and you could argue college was a waste of time.

He did learn "gastropod." The rest of his life he can say, "You stinking gastropod," which is fresher than "Yeah? Well, up yours, buddy." The difference between 6 and 6.04378. It's not much of a difference but Vive It. And when our college product finishes school and gets his job pumping gas or whatever (in my case it was chopping cotton for 40 cents an hour) he will have time to ruminate. Things will come back, like sun through a chink, distorted and dazzling. Since most American jobs do not require either thought or a sense of wonder (except how you wound up there) there is leisure at last (for there is none in youth) to pursue some subject in great depth. Some become little-known authorities on the Dandie Dinmont, neglected prince of terriers, others on the marvelous variety in rose thorns or sow bugs (rather a little specialty of mine).

The whole point of college courses is that later the guy discovers much about the sow bug, so to speak, though he did not know this was to be his fate when he glassed his way through solid geometry.

Whether French should be required I am not competent to say, but I sense there is something there somewhere. I myself have enjoyed loathing Me'rime'e novels for some decades, and one night in France I won at bridge though the French do not know the proper names of the suits. Zut, sir, and alors.