Walter Russell Mead gives some good advice for those college students heading Back to School
1. The real world does not work like school.
Life in school is life in bureaucracy. You follow the rules, do what you are told, and rewards follow.
…. You have to fight the tendency of the educational system to turn you into a timeserving baby bureaucrat, following the rules and waiting for the inevitable promotion. As you go through college, think about ways you can fight the pressures of institutionalization. Work or volunteer — not just for money, but to keep your hand in the real world. Live off campus. Start a business. Shake things up.
2. Most of your elders know very little about the world into which you are headed.
In the old days, you got the right degree from the right school, got a job with a good employer and rose steadily through the ranks through a long and increasingly distinguished career. At the end you had a safe pension.
Almost certainly, this is not going to happen to you. At times, your career is going to feel like Eliza’s run for freedom across the half-frozen Ohio river — jumping from ice floe to ice floe with the hounds of hell behind you. It won’t be all bad; there are rewards to this kind of life as well as risks, but you are going to need a different outlook on life and a different set of skills to cope.
3. You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.
I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but your generation faces the toughest competition any American generation has ever known.
Your competition isn’t sitting in the next library carrel. Your competition is in China and India – and your competition isn’t hanging out at frat parties or sitting around watching sitcoms with dorm-mates. It isn’t getting stoned and it isn’t putting its energy into chasing the opposite (or apposite) sex. Your competition isn’t taking lots of courses on gender studies; it isn’t majoring in ethnic studies, or (unless it is planning to go into movie making) the history of film.
Your competition is working hard, damned hard, and is deadly serious about learning. There’s nothing written in the stars that guarantees Americans a higher standard of living than other people. Those of you who spend your college years goofing off in the traditional American way are going to pay a much higher price for this than you think….
4. Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.
Your generation is going to have to scramble and you need every edge you can get. Your generation can’t afford to throw these four years away; choose your courses carefully and seriously. Everybody has different needs; aspiring movie makers and aspiring physicists aren’t going to take all that many classes together, but there are some basic concepts that make sense….
5. Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.
In times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends. You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world. Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.
For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage. You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine). What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn…..First, getting a liberal education means you have to achieve literacy in math and at least in one science – and come to grips with the scientific method. ……Second, study the basic ideas, debates, books, people and events of the western world – with special attention to the Anglo-American subset of the western tradition. You can’t understand other people’s cultures and traditions until you understand the one that surrounds you. Art, literature and music are part of this. Don’t neglect them.
Third, study the United States: its history, regions, culture, politics, literature and economy. You would be surprised how many highly educated people have never seriously studied (or traveled much in) their own country. Don’t make that mistake – and study the parts of the US you don’t know.Posted by Jill Fallon at September 9, 2013 11:12 AM | Permalink
Fourth, study at least one language and at least one culture that is alien to you. Pick a language that opens the door to a big world: Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, German, the Romance languages (if you get really good in one of these last you will have a surprisingly easy time dealing with others). …
Fifth, learn to write well. This paradoxically is going to be more important than ever for the next generation. I can’t tell you how many editors at how many famous magazines have told me over the years that most professors and academics simply cannot write, and bemoan the immense amount of time they must devote to impose some kind of intellectual structure and comprehensible prose on the crabbed drafts they get from, often, fairly well known people.
Finally, unless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers. The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning. It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding. You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world. The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.
6. Character counts; so do good habits.
One of the weaknesses in contemporary college education is that many teachers and administrators don’t think enough about the need that students have for moral education: reflection on right and wrong, the development of good habits that make good decisions easier to make and easier to stick with, a healthy spiritual grounding that can see you through the storms of life, and the kind of self knowledge that can only come from a life of serious moral engagement and thoughtful reflection.
Character and spiritual grounding are going to count much more in the tumultuous, uncertain environment that is approaching than in the more stable and bureaucratic world of the past. ……There may be chaplains at your school who can help you with this side of life. There may be courses on personal ethics; there may be faculty who you feel have something to teach as mentors and role models. There are other students who have qualities that you wish you had — and there are student groups who read, pray, meditate and act together to help their members grow. Seek out the people, the communities, the experiences that can help you grow. College should be a time of spiritual as well as intellectual and career development and growth and you will be missing an essential element of your education if you do not engage with the world of faith and religion during your college years.
If you take this advice, you may still come out of school with too much debt — and the fields that interest you may be hard to break into, and the financial rewards less than you may have expected. But you will be able to cope: you will have the education, the habits and the character traits that will enable to you find new opportunities and new careers even as old ones fade away. And whatever happens to your bank account, your journey through life will be a rich and rewarding one if you come out of college with a good liberal education and a lifelong love of learning.