Why go to college?
For some, college is just a stage in the educational ladder after high school and before entering the working world or going to graduate school. In this view, college is primarily the place where you obtain an important credential that is the pre-requisite for securing well-paying jobs. This is not an insignificant consideration.
Others might see college as the place where you both broaden and deepen your knowledge in a range of subjects and develop higher-order skills such as critical thinking and writing and researching skills.
All these things are undoubtedly valuable and worth pursuing. But for me, I think the primary purpose of college is that it is the place where you start to lay the foundations for a personal philosophy of life.
What I mean by this is that at least in college we need to start asking ourselves the question: “Why do I get up in the morning?” For some, the answer might be “Why not? What other option is there?” For others it might just be a habit that is unquestioned. For yet others, it might be that they have particular ambitions in life that they want to achieve. For yet others, it might be because other people depend on us to do various things.
But while all these considerations undoubtedly play a part for all of us, the question that I am addressing goes somewhat beyond that and asks what we think of as our role in the universe. What is it that gives our lives meaning? What should be the basis of our relationships with our family and friends and society? What is our obligation to all those to whom we are tied together by a common humanity? What should be our relationship with nature and the environment?
All of us think about these things from time to time. But I suspect that these various areas of our lives remain somewhat separate. By ‘developing a personal philosophy of life’, I mean the attempt to pull together all these threads and weave a coherent tapestry where each part supports and strengthens the other.
I think that the university is a wonderful place to start doing this because it has a unique combination of circumstances that can, at least in principle, enable this difficult task to be pursued. It has libraries, it has scholars, it has courses of study that can enable one to explore deeply into areas of knowledge. It provides easy access to the wisdom of the past and to adventures towards the future. But most importantly, it has people (students and staff and faculty) of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, nationalities, gender, etc.
But I wonder if we fully take advantage of this opportunity or whether the day-to-day concerns of courses, homework, research, teaching, studying prevent us from periodically stepping back and trying to see the big picture. In fact, it looks like the search for broader goals for college education is declining alarmingly. In 1969, 71% of students said they felt it essential that college help them in “formulating the values and goals of my life.” 76% also said that “learning to get along with people” was an essential goal of their college experience.
But by 1993, those percentages had dropped to 50% and 47% respectively, from the top ranked items to the bottom, being displaced by an emphasis on training and skills and knowledge in specialized fields. (Source: When Hope and Fear Collide by Arthur S. Levine and Jeannette S. Cureton, 1998, table 6.1, page 117.)
In my mind, this is an alarming trend and needs to be reversed.
One thing that events like the tsunami do, even for those not directly affected by it, is to bring us up short, to realize the fragility of life and the importance of making the most out of our time here. It reminds us that there are big questions that we need to ask and try to answer, and we cannot keep avoiding them.
This kind of thoughtful introspection mostly occurs outside formal classes, in the private discussions that we have in informal settings, in dorms, lounges, parks, offices, and coffee shops. But how often does it happen? And how can we create a university atmosphere that is conducive to making people realize the importance of having such discussions?
The meaning that we attach to life will depend on a host of individualized factors, such as our personal histories, what we value most, and what we are willing to give up. And we may never actually create a fully formed personal philosophy of life. The philosophy we do develop will most likely keep changing with time as our life experiences change us.
But the attempt to find out what our inner core is so that we act in life in ways that are consistent with it is something that I think college is perfectly suited for. I only hope that most people take advantage of it.