1. You are entrusting your soul to a group of people you do not know.
Your professors will have an enormous influence on the person that you become. They aren’t just teaching you; they’re forming you. Their words, especially the ones you take to heart, will determine the shape of your soul, perhaps for the rest of your life. This is a terrifying and a wonderful prospect. Choose a place where the professors lead the kind of lives that you admire. Choose a place where the professors believe that education is for the heart as well as for the mind, and that it matters not only how much you know, but that you learn how to love what is beautiful.
2. You aren’t just choosing a college; you’re choosing a place.
In a world of transient seasons, ladder climbing, and constant moving, we forget what it means to be rooted. It means giving yourself to a place, and receiving the gifts that the place offers you. It means that being in the place will change how you understand your own story, because you’re now in a particular setting for this part of your plot. The place you choose will be like a mother, in many ways: nurturing you, carrying the burgeoning human being that you are. It is “the womb of your adult life,” in the words of a friend of mine. Choose a place that makes you come alive. Choose a place that makes you feel inspired.
3. Not everything that is reasonable or convincing is true.
Many people have good reasons for believing what they believe, and a lot of them are smarter than you. Are they right? Not necessarily. It’s easy to be convinced, and it’s even easier to adapt rather than stand out. But know this: your lack of rhetoric to articulate what you think is not reason to think you’re wrong. It just means you need to keep digging, keep wrestling, keep searching. Also bear in mind that knowledge isn’t always articulable. “You must not judge what I know by what I find words for,” says John Ames in Gilead. He is right; there is more than one way of knowing.
4. If you listen, you’ll learn more.
In this day and age, we are quick to speak and slow to listen. But by listening to each other, we learn so much more. We can look at the world through many windows that way. Listen to the world. Like Mary Oliver says, whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination. You’ll learn much about what endures. You’ll learn about the things that transcend our pithy lives. Listen to others. We are infinite abstractions to one another, but sometimes we can bridge the space between us. Listen, and find others who will do the same.
5. You are entering into a tradition that extends far into the past.
For me, it took going to Oxford to see this. It took walking into the Merton College library, a library established in 1276. However much it might appear this way, you are not a self-contained entity, free to do whatever you want in college. No, you are entering into a tradition, and the tradition of the university is a hallowed thing. When you study, you are listening to the polyphony of the voices of the past, and you are wise to listen to them if you want to reckon with the present. Give your studies the reverence they deserve. By studying, you’re honoring those who have gone before, who have made it their life’s work to ensure that the texts you read are preserved and that the wisdom of the past is available to you.
6. There are things that have nothing to do with power.
Nietzsche and Foucault have had an enormous influence in almost every academic sphere, and to be honest, I quite like them both. The prose Nietzsche writes is both melodic and gritty, and I think Foucault hits on some very important elements of how injustice is perpetuated.
But power isn’t everything, and there are a lot of things that have nothing to do with power. And, quite honestly, applying the will-to-power lens to daily life just doesn’t work, because it isn’t the whole story. Humility and love undermine the narrative that everything is reducible to power play. “There is simply no substitute for kindness and decency,” says a professor of mine, and it’s true. Be kind and decent, and think critically about power, but there are things – like love, like sacrifice, like faith — that are greater than the will to power.
7. You are the next presidents, writers, scholars, teachers, social workers, etc.
You may have been told this before. But perhaps my spin will be a little more somber. The truth is, one day, all the baby boomers will die, and the fate of the world will be up to millennials. This is somewhat scary. One day, our generation will have to be able to find ways to confront the problems of environmental degradation, poverty, global conflicts, and natural disasters. One day, the future of our planet will be up to us, and lest we forget what happened in the last century, let’s call to mind that the signs on the blocks of Auschwitz aren’t replicas, and they’re only seventy years old. The twentieth century was a bloody one. In the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., emblazoned on the wall is Isaiah 43:10, “You are my witnesses.” We must never forget the past.
The things we learn during our college years will guide us in the future, and we are in this global society together, for better or for worse. One day, we will make the policies; we will decide which wars to wage, and which solutions to implement. In short, your education matters enormously. Choose how you learn, and choose wisely.
As of Friday, I have finished my penultimate semester of college. Four years is a long time to commit to a place. Perhaps it’s something like marriage; you’re not quite sure what you’re in for until you’ve already begun. All I know is that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I am amazed and grateful beyond measure.
It is difficult to know what to do with gratitude. I thank God over and over, but what does that do? It doesn’t do justice, that’s for sure.
I’ve been given so much. I stumbled upon a beautiful place, a school full of human beings that seem lit up with joy and curiosity. The freedom to ask questions and explore answers, all in the context of a community of people, living and dead, who are craning their necks and straining their eyes to see.
There lives a dear freshness deep down things, says Gerard Manley Hopkins. Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests, writes Seamus Heaney. I’ll dig with it.
8. Dig deep, because this isn’t just about you.
Your education is for the life of the world. Learn. Grow. Be. Do. And most of all, seek wisdom. The world needs it.