Humans prefer a structured life to one characterized by chaos and uncertainty. We would rather follow the light at the end of the tunnel than go out with torches in search of an exit. Nowhere is this culture of order and focus more manifest than in our approach to college education. But, how is this intense fixation with a specific goal, right from the onset of our college careers, making us miss the point?
Tailoring a college experience to fit a specific vision starts with the application cycle. High school seniors flock to sites such as U.S. News and World Report, a site that offers ranking and satisfaction reports, clamoring for a “perfect” college. Nevermind that these scores are based on a few responses that are not exactly personal to any one student. The fitting ritual resumes upon matriculation. Students enroll in classes that are specifically tailored to their majors and associate strictly with colleagues whose values they share. Everything that does not align with one’s professional aspirations is a waste of time. But to what end does this obsequious approach to education serve?
The Conference Board, a research organization, reported that as many as 49 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs. Interviewed responders complained of a culture of competition and a loss of interest in their jobs as a major deterrent to their happiness at work. This alludes to the neglect of true intellectual stimulation and talent development in colleges; values that can be imparted not in the single-minded confines of a classroom, but outside, engrossed in any spontaneous activity that pushes one beyond their comfort zone and forces them to engage life with a new pair of eyes.
This is a stark contrast to just a few decades ago when colleges emphasized high thought and exploration to find one’s niche. College students of the ’80s reported a higher satisfaction with self and better preparation to handle the rigors of life upon graduation. The tide has since turned to rote instruction and competition for lucrative jobs in service of the free enterprise market. This approach has completely sapped living out of life.
Most people would agree that the things from which they derive the most satisfaction are those that happen without prior planning. Think of the random trip you took to Wyoming to observe the solar eclipse. How about the first time you asked a girl out? Sure, you had to rehearse the six-word speech a couple of times but the outcome was a mystery to you. How about the complete stranger who initiated you into rock climbing on a whim and the pleasures you have derived since? The things that make one uncomfortable often end up being the most memorable, enjoyable and enlightening of experiences.
Four years ago I was faced with an enormous dilemma. I had just been admitted to medical school in Kenya; a lifelong dream fulfilled. However, I had also gained admission to an obscure undergraduate institution in a foreign land. The logical choice could not have been easier. I chose the latter, much to the chagrin of everyone who was invested in my life. I had seen how the life of a medical student in Kenya played out, and wanted a four-year deviation from this course. After all, four more years would not put a major dent in my life, I had explained myself away.
Things haven’t been the same since. In four years, I have explored aspects of my life that, if left untouched would have only ended in regret. I have taken my knack for writing to the school’s newspaper; I have led a troupe of friends on a trip up the Schuylkill river and discovered a new love for science, a concept that I toyed with at a superficial level. Most of all, in four years, I have become human first. All because I took a leap of faith into the unknown.
It is often said that life is a game, and just like a game one misses every shot they do not take. It is the end of the first half of the New York Giants versus Green Bay Packers playoff game. The Packers lead the game by a point but the Giants are staging a classic comeback. With 12 seconds remaining in the game, the safer bet is to take the knee and quit while you are ahead. But this is the last thought in Aaron Rodgers’ mind. The Green Bay Packers quarterback dances around the pocket for a few seconds on the fourth and two play and launches the ball towards the deep end. When the hurdle of players is cleared on the end zone, the referee blows the whistle and gestures, touchdown! The Hail Mary has paid off. The Packers now enjoy a comfortable lead in the game, and yet another addition to A-Rod’s profile of taking chances that inadvertently put the Packers ahead of the pack in football. Imagine the shots that we would all make if we took every chance.
College is a time when energy is high, life is rife with risk and correcting course is feasible. It is a time to branch out and explore the hidden crevices of our lives. The implicit curriculum in most colleges now does not serve any ideals. It is imperative to open oneself up to novel experiences that have little to do with a desired end. Instead, dive into the open waters and let the tide dictate the destination.