In connection with developing empathic capacity, the ability as professional communicators to think of and for our audience(s), and perhaps even the willingness to evaluate ourselves as moral agents, I asked us to consider what college is for, or what we look to our college experiences to produce or enable. Here are your consensus answers:
Katy’s group reports college as meant to be a place to learn and grow. “In college a student’s views are challenged. The set of beliefs a student establishes in college will most likely be her set of beliefs for life. In college a student learns to take responsibility for his or her actions and to communicate. College forces a student to expand her perspectives and hopefully teaches her how to empathize with others.”
Jackson’s group reports college to be intended to help students develop “independence, social skills, and academic diversity,” as well as to provide time and space for students to “find themselves.”
Avery’s group reported that college is valuable because “minds from all walks of life come together to learn. Professors have differing ideas from us, and though we may not agree, finding out how other people view life differently makes us more well-rounded people. College also gives way more opportunities to find careers and discover your ideal career path.”
Jenn’s group decided that college is for personal development. “We take a broad number of classes and get to know those with different backgrounds than our own so that we can learn multiple points of view. This helps students better formulate our own opinions.”
Finally, Jamie’s group described college as a filter. You go through separating two mindsets: The first is what you came to school with. The second is the one you get in college, one is given to you through higher education and life experiences. Every day you have the choice of what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. You can continue operating and making decisions based on what you have always known, or you can let your education change the way you approach things.
If you asked me what college for, my answer would vary, even day by day by day, but most days I’d likely say something like, “College should enable you to live more freely, more fully, more responsibly and more alertly.” I might talk about the invitation college extends to students who wish to think with more rigor. I’ve often said that our greatest asset with respect to learning is our ignorance. I’m learning every day what I don’t know. When I know what I don’t know, only then can I do something about it, which is to attack that ignorance with a vengeance.
But college is also un-learning. We bring with us myths, pieties, values, sacred cows and even sacred words, assumptions and entire narratives. We soak in a chemical bath of conventional attitudes, submerged in a sea of propaganda, spin and persuasive messages. Even outright lies. Society so often seems and behaves like a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth.
To respond to Jackson’s group, I don’t think “finding” one’s self is all that helpful. The self is not something we have, but rather something we are or, even more accurately, what we ever are becoming. I think the self is much more decided, pursued, made — a crucible of creation — than it is anything one could “find.” The great romantic John Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is, to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” We forge in a furnace the beginnings of a soul, not to mention a head, a heart and some hands.
Thankfully, no one (yet) used the word “success,” which I think is such a seduction. Success the world can offer, and it can take away, or simply re-define. Ideals, conviction, the capacity to bring moral agency to bear on problems that matter — these things the world cannot manipulate, and college cannot create. But college can afford a young person the safe space and freedom in which to forge them. “An education is a self-inflicted wound,” writer Lewis Lapham has said.
Finally, I think college is a few years between high school and “the real world” to use to discover the moral significance of desire. You can use this capacity to learn and in some ways determine what it is you truly want to do. These years can be used to invent a life that matters, not merely to “find your passion” or “follow your dreams,” as way too many commencement speakers like to mindlessly repeat. Invent a good life that matters to many. This, I believe, is what college is for.