Congratulations to graduates in the Class of 2015. Graduating high-school students often ask me how college will differ from high school. And what I say usually seems to come as a surprise: In college, you should start thinking much more seriously about happiness.
“What does college have to do with happiness?” you may be thinking.
And who can blame you? You have likely been groomed to want a respectable job that pays well, and been told that a college education is a necessary step toward that goal. You have learned that the better a college’s reputation, the more useful its degree will be in the quest for worldly success.
But I would like you to think bigger, to want more from your education—much more.
Education goes far beyond worldly success, and very far beyond success measured in monetary terms. Your education, if well conducted, will give your life meaning and significance.
For this one, four-year period in life, you have an opportunity to learn what it means to be human, to apply your mind to some of the best thinking, art, and science produced by mankind, to exercise your imagination in new and unexplored worlds, to develop strength and purpose of will, and to grow passionate toward objects that are truly worthy of love. This is the kind of learning that can lead to happiness.
So what should you be looking to do as you embark on the adventure of a college education? Here are five things that will help you to develop the freedom to live your own life on your own terms.
1. Become responsible rather than merely accountable. This means no longer relying on others, especially teachers, to set your goals and assess your progress. You need to learn how to do this for yourself. Instead of simply being accountable for fulfilling the tasks set by others, you need to become responsible for choosing your own goals, for committing to the means needed to attain those goals, and for maintaining your own assessment of how well you are progressing. The best professors would rather see you become self-determining than have you parrot back whatever you think they want to hear. This is the most important thing you can do in college. The remaining items on this list are corollaries to this.
2. Don’t look for easy answers. Learn to ask your own questions—any questions so long as they are really yours—and learn to trust the power of your intellect enough not to be embarrassed when you are the only one asking them. Believe in the power of your mind—your mind, not your professor’s, not your friend’s, but yours.Look for those classes and teachers who will help you learn the hard way—by replacing your previous errors with newly discovered truths. Avoid easy tests, like true/false, and multiple choice tests. This education belongs to you, and the best testing will be your tests—the tests you bring to whatever you read and hear, examining everything against your experience and your reason. And avoid the professor who substitutes entertainment for learning, along with the lecture class that affords no real opportunity for questions, no opportunity at all for conversation.
3. Find a study group to work with. You and your study partners will often learn more from talking and working together than you will by yourselves. It is easier to ask questions of others than of yourself, and they will challenge you to think and to work at thinking, whereas without them you might go too easy on yourself. Learning is a cooperative art.
4. Remembering that college is not the end of your education but, if you are lucky, just the beginning, take advantage of classes that will give you the root skills for a lifetime of learning—classes that will expose you to the language arts and the skills needed for communication, classes that will give you a competent understanding of the world of science and technology, classes that will expose you to great thinkers and artists of the past, classes that will help you examine the human condition today.
5. Find a curriculum that will provide breadth and help you to discipline your character before you worry about specializing. Everything in the world nowadays is geared toward specialization; everything is designed to get you to make a choice that will leave you stuck in place while the world sweeps past, unable to adapt, unused to growth, and afraid to try something new. Breadth will be useful when you do specialize. It will be useful for your career, and it will be useful when you realize you must change careers. Better yet, it will help you live a full and happy life in an ever-changing world that calls upon its citizens to help guide it rather than let it leave its governance to chance.
To sum it up, allow yourselves the luxury of doubting what you think you’ve learned from others, of questioning the things you’ve heard but not thought about much. By opening yourself up to the possibility that you may be wrong about what you have taken to be true, you will take the first step in your self-education. This is the step toward humility—the recognition that you don’t know everything and that you ought to be your own fiercest critic before attempting to judge another.
If you learn how to use self-doubt confidently, it will also open you up to receiving amazing gifts of experience, wonders that come from who knows where, discoveries that you would never make without this openness, without the educated freedom to find your own personal path to happiness.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published on St. John’s College SignPosts for Liberal Education and appears here with permission.