I think the first course we ever take should be “College 101” or “University 101”; in other words, how to get the most out of our time here. Four years is a long time, and without guidance on how we should be approaching it all, it’s all too easy for our college years to disappear and to be regretting later in life that we didn’t make the most of them.
These are the four things I wish someone had told me on day one.
1. The trick is to be curricular
“One of the secrets of a modern American college”, writes Mark Greif, one of my favourite essayists, “is that before undergraduates take up “extracurriculars,” or if they choose not to take up any (as I didn’t), studying is itself the passion and the activity. The challenge is to be curricular—to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.”
For all the talk of extracurricular life being the heart of university, that’s not the reason we’re here. It can seem strange to say, but the best way to transform your life while at college is to stick as closely as possible to your reading. (Obama did). To not only read the pages assigned, but to devour the books whole. To wake up early for no other reason than to get a seat by the window in the library and read the book from start to finish, mulling over every thought and comparing it to your own life and your own understanding of the world.
Going to college is like stepping foot into a room where the most important conversation of humanity is taking place. Perhaps unwittingly we’ve opened the door and walked through, but now inside, the best thing we can do is listen. Listen to every important thought ever put down by humanity, the disagreements between different thinkers across the ages, and judge the thoughts against our own lives.
If we’re “curricular” enough, by the end of college we should have built ourselves solid foundations upon which to shape our lives. We will have learned about love and death; how to waste a life; how to live simply; how to cope with loss; and so on for all topics that matter to us as humans— and our goal should be to find ourselves in our final year able for the first time to chime into the conversation with our own thoughts. Don’t rush it during the first few years—be content to recite what each author is saying in the conversation. Only in our final year should we take those first bold steps towards stating our own views, now that we know what has been said before.
2. We’re not here in order to get a job
And if you are, there’s something far more important you should be doing with your time.
Throughout your time at university various people will try to pressure you into thinking that the point of your time here is to get a job once you graduate. Perhaps some professors, instead of assigning an essay (which is simply a way for you to engage in that great conversation of humanity) will assign something like an infographic, because “that’s a skill employers want these days.” Perhaps your university’s career office will invite you to a meeting in which they’ll box you into a career path and encourage you to take classes related to the job you think you might want later in life. Maybe even your friends, as they start to worry about their own futures, will push you into majoring in something “practical”.
But the reality is that college is a remarkably inefficient way to get a job. That’s what all the discussion at the moment is about, with commentators lamenting the declining “return on investment” on a college degree; it gets more expensive, and it’s harder to get a job. Let’s be clear: college is not an investment. It is simply a purchase. What is it we are purchasing? Oh, nothing less than four years with which to become a real, thinking human being. It is the best purchase we will ever make, and maybe it will even come with a job at the end of it! But to think of college as being a “return on investment” before we’ve even begun will mean we look for all the wrong things while there, passing up the real value that an education offers us.
The moment college is thought of as an investment, it has become a bad one indeed, for in that thought you’ve precluded gaining the real thing that college offers.
The goal of college is to build solid foundations with which we can live the rest of our lives. It is to become a real human being, one who thinks, feels, and judges, using our capacities to the full in everything we do, from contributing in a job to building a healthy, happy family.
Always remember: you can build a career on these solid foundations of your life, but you cannot build the foundations of your life upon a career.
3. Try to discover the kind of life you want to live
“To be admitted”, says Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, “you had to exude confidence about what Americans… call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it.” Finally, someone said it.
Instead, Lilla argues, students should be “far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” And that latter—figuring out what is worth wanting in life—is what a liberal education affords us.
Every book we ever read shows us different possible lives we could lead. Even something as dry and seemingly lifeless as an economics textbook can at least show us what life might be like as an economics professor. Literature is filled with characters, and if it does nothing else, it gives us the ability to empathise with different people, putting ourselves in their shoes, so to speak—wondering what their lives might be like, whether we might like to be them.
When we read books, Lilla argues,
“We are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?… You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”
We can never try out a thousand different lives with the single life we have, so taking four years while at college to question all these different lives and decide on which one(s) might be for us is perhaps the most valuable time we will ever spend. There’s a reason that we go to university at this point in our lives, and that is because we need to figure out our definition of success now, before too much time has gotten away from us.
4. If you’re constantly stressed and too busy to sleep, you’re doing it wrong
So many of us seem to live in a state of latent exhaustion. The irony is that the exhaustion is a status symbol—“I’m just so busy, let’s get lunch sometime”, says the acquaintance, rushing off into the distance, not to be heard from until the next time you pass them outside class (I’m sure I’m guilty)—but the exhaustion cannot be truly admitted. To admit that the exhaustion is a problem is to admit weakness, and that’s not something that we who got into these colleges can easily do.
But with every all-nighter to finish a paper there comes a decreased chance that we’ll get out of college what we came here for. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for anyone else. Less sleep = more stress. More stress = worse work. Worse work = less sleep + more stress. And so on. Negativity can start affecting everything and everyone around you, and we know that mental health on university campuses is a severe issue.
The reality is that professors are on our side. They don’t want us pulling all-nighters. They don’t want us struggling. Once we realise that they are in their jobs because they want to help us learn, to get out of college what we came for, assignments can be seen as opportunities instead of struggles. If you’re given an essay topic and have simply zero interest in it, or think you won’t learn anything from doing the work, go talk to your professor and propose a new topic. They’ll allow it. And once we’re doing work that we’re interested in, everything else can often fall into place—time management, sleep, thinking positively, and working out what kind of a life we’d like to lead after university.
Remember that to be busy is a choice; and to be busy without first having done the difficult work of discovering what one believes in and wishes to work towards is to have merely, in the words of one novelist, a sense of “motion without movement”, and, in the words of another, to strive for ends that may be “chimerical or hurtful.”
Don’t fall into that trap of exhaustion. Just because everyone around us is living like that doesn’t mean we need to. Be zen.
And if other people keep you up too late—get earplugs. (I don’t have that problem thanks to a heroic best friend who silences everyone coming into the suite after 11. Thanks as always, Maria!).