Fortunately, our colleges and universities are fully cognizant of the problems I have been delineating and take concerted action to address them. Curricula are designed to give coherence to the educational experience and to challenge students to develop a strong degree of moral awareness. Professors, deeply involved with the enterprise of undergraduate instruction, are committed to their students' intellectual growth and insist on maintaining the highest standards of academic rigor. Career services keep themselves informed about the broad range of postgraduate options and make a point of steering students away from conventional choices. A policy of noncooperation with U.S. News has taken hold, depriving the magazine of the data requisite to calculate its rankings. Rather than squandering money on luxurious amenities and exorbitant administrative salaries, schools have rededicated themselves to their core missions of teaching and the liberal arts. I'm kidding, of course.
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Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.
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To say that the humanities can be a path to truth itself is to challenge one of our most closely held beliefs. We live not only in a scientific world, but also in a scientistic one: a world that thinks that science - empirical, objective, quantifiable - is the exclusive form of knowledge, and that other methods of inquiry are valid only insofar as they approximate its methods. But the humanities and science face in opposite directions. They don't just work in different ways; they work on different things.
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The purpose of college, to put this all another way, is to turn adolescents into adults. You needn't go to school for that, but if you're going to be there anyway, then that's the most important thing to get accomplished. That is the true education: accept no substitutes. The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that's what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning - the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons - then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.
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And speaking of options , these kids [the ones who attend elite universities] have all been told that theirs are limitless. Once you commit to something, though, that ceases to be true. A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called "The Paradox of Potential." Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation.
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We inherited a strong and flourishing country, and instead of making the investments - that is, the sacrifices - to maintain it, we chose to suck it dry and stick our children with the bill. If you want to see who is to blame for student debt, just look in the mirror. And if parents find themselves supporting kids beyond their college years, that is only, in the aggregate, a form of compensatory justice: the intergenerational transfer of wealth that should have been effected through taxation.
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[Jane] Austen was not a novelist for nothing: she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories - entering into their feelings, validating their experiences - is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness.
But the compulsive overachievement of today's elite college students - the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can - is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish. Something more insidious is operating, too: a resistance to vulnerability, a fear of looking like the only one who isn't capable of handling the pressure. These are young people who have always succeeded at everything, in part by projecting the confidence that they always will. Now, as they get to college, the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer. Everybody thinks that they are the only one who's suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud; everybody thinks that everybody else is smarter than they are.
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Status is a funny thing. Money gets you stuff, at least. Status doesn't get you much except the knowledge that you have it. And while money may not make you happy, it is easy to imagine someone who decides they have enough. With status, you can never have enough. It is comparative and competitive, by its very nature. It doesn't just not make you happy: it actively makes you unhappy. You want to make it to the top? There is no top. However high you climb, there is always somebody above you.
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There's no doubt about it: fun people are fun. But I finally learned that there is something more important, in the people you know, than whether they are fun. Thinking about those friends who had given me so much pleasure but who had also caused me so much pain, thinking about that bright, cruel world to which they'd introduced me, I saw that there's a better way to value people. Not as fun or not fun, or stylish or not stylish, but as warm or cold, generous or selfish. People who think about others and people who don't. People who know how to listen, and people who only know how to talk.
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Don't play it safe. Resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control. These, too, are nets. Above all, resist the fear of failure. Yes, you will make mistakes. But they will be your mistakes, not someone else's. And you will survive them, and you will know yourself better for having made them, and you will be a fuller and a stronger person.
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Hence the vogue for double majors. It isn't enough anymore to take a bunch of electives in addition to your primary focus, to roam freely across the academic fields, making serendipitous connections and discoveries, the way that American higher education was designed (uniquely, among the world's systems) to allow you to do.
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