Congrats! You’ve graduated from high school and are heading off to college in a few short (the shortest of your life) weeks! I really do envy you. One of the greatest moments of my life was finding that I belonged in college, and each year when the leaves start changing color I feel nostalgia for my Urbana afternoons.
Perhaps you’ve gotten into your dream school. That’s fantastic. But if you’re like I was, you’ll end up at a safety school. You might feel that a dream has been shattered or that you’ve let yourself down. Feel this if you must, but know that you’re being unfair. If you’re planning on graduating from college, this is just the beginning, and you don’t really know much about college yet. Even if your parents or siblings are college graduates, there’s little they can predict about how much you’ll change in only the first year.
No matter how much you learn about schools, how many campus visits you make or how many current students you speak to, you won’t ever know the whole picture of a school. How you attend the college where you end up is much more important than which college you attend. There’s an art to being a student.
Unfortunately, our current high school system has constraints that keep it from teaching this art. Even high schools of repute produce graduates who have completely false assumptions about college and the role of a thinking person. I hope you’ll consider these points I want to make. They’re meant to lend you a head start and an advantage.
Here are things you should know:
1. Boredom is a choice
Imagine you are in a forest. Now imagine you find yourself bored in the forest. You have “nothing to do” and there’s “nothing interesting” because “nothing’s engaging you”. If you’re American, you’ve been taught to blame someone for this. This is actually a serious problem: anytime we feel something negative, we assess blame; and boredom, we learn, is negative. In order to consider ourselves alive, we need to feel very interested while we avoid all negative emotions. For the sake of an example, let’s accept this position blindly. Who or what is then to blame for our boredom?
We cannot possibly blame the forest. Which part of the forest? The whole forest? The birds and insects, fungi and moss? You’re kidding! The forest is endlessly fascinating, so fascinating that a person with natural curiosity — for example, a three year-old — will explore the place with gusto. Every blade of grass has a fluid pumping system inside it. If you bring your microscope, you’ll find a hidden universe. You’re bored?
In college you will meet people fascinated by everything from blades of grass to cloud formations, building materials to roofing systems, the properties of light and the nature of darkness. Fascination is nothing—I have met people in college obsessed with Hebrew syntax and the bacteria in carpeting.
Your professor’s job will not be to entertain you. Instead s/he will take you out into the forest. The most daring professor will simply leave you there and, after some time has passed, ask you what you learned from the trip.
Perhaps you believe that boredom is not a choice. It’s simply something that happens to certain people. I won’t argue with you, but I’ll present the consequences of your idea. If boredom is someone’s natural condition, it means that person lacks the capacity to become fascinated. To say it another way: if somene’s powerless against their boredom, and they’re paying tuition to attend college, they’re probably masochists. It can’t be that they’re fascinated by boredom, can it?
2. You cannot perceive the world
Not completely, and certainly not absolutely. The reason for this is because you have a mind, and your mind is simply watching itself in action. To realize how the mind works is to have it blown. It’s liberating.
Let’s use a simple example.
Imagine you are in the high school parking lot. You notice a stone. There it is. How boring. A stone. The next moment you’re texting your friends. How fascinating! Texts!
What have you perceived? Sure, the stone and texts are there. But you haven’t learned much about them. The stone isn’t boring; you are bored. Text messages aren’t fascinating; you are fascinated. You cannot conclude that a stone is boring and a text fascinating because you find stones boring and texts fascinating. The stones and texts did nothing. You did everything by yourself.
Every single perception is a test, a measure of and insight to the mind. If you conclude that things are true, false, good or bad because they seem that way to you, you make a terrible mistake. You become a tyrant imposing your perceptions onto the world and you’re blind to your own confusion. It becomes very difficult to learn the most important lesson: we come to new things from positions of ignorance.
3. College professors are ignorant
Are you shocked? Insulted?
College isn’t for the omniscient. It’s for the ignorant: the person who accepts that s/he has an enormous amount to learn. College students and college teachers know that they do not know everything, just as they know that they will never learn everything. They will always be ignorant of something.
You have probably met people yourself who believe they know something and are very passionate about it. You cannot change their minds even if you show them their contradictions. They’re not ignorant, or so they think. It’s impossible for them to learn.
Ironically, when we know we’re ignorant, as toddlers do, we’re rarely bored. The person who knows everything and has nothing to learn is so bored, and so stubborn about remaining bored, that we can barely stand a conversation with them. These people never ask questions but have loads of answers. “The only thing that matters,” they say, “is that you try your best.” They think they deserve something from the world because they find life “difficult”. They believe human experience leads to a series of punishments and rewards.
4. College neither punishes nor rewards
I encounter students every semester who feel they should receive a decent grade simply because they completed an assignment. “I worked hard on this and you’re punishing me.”
Hard work and grades are only vaguely related to each other. I know talented students who glance at the diagrams of the human anatomy a few times and have them memorized. On the exam, they’re tested to see how well they remember the anatomy. They’re not rewarded for remembering. Exams are evaluations of performance and ability. Are all tests perfect? Not at all. If performance is difficult to measure, effort is impossible.
Sometimes it takes enormous effort for us to perform, but other times we simply have to show up. Most of us need to put in an effort to perform, but effort is not the same as performance, so the college doesn’t measure it. “The only thing that matters is that you try your best,” is true on a personal level, maybe. But if I’m training nurses and find they can’t tell the difference between .005 and .05 (between a quantity of medicine that heals and a quantity that poisons), I don’t care how hard they tried. I’m not sending them to treat patients.
Ironically, the students who require the least amount of effort on individual assignments are often those who’ve put in the effort away from school to develop good learning habits. I watch them in cafeterias and libraries on their free time. Instead of sitting around bored because no one’s engaging them, they talk to classmates about what they’ve learned. When they’re alone, they’re often reading.
5. You don’t read enough
People who read a lot know this. There’s always another book, another newspaper article, another academic journal that we haven’t gotten to. People who read very little are often quite satisfied with how much they’ve read. Who is the most satisfied? The person who does not read at all. You know it’s true because they never read. If they were unsatisfied with this, they’d read.
By going to college, you announce that you want to become a problem solver. In order to accomplish this, you need information. You also need to be able to look at a problem from as many different points of view as possible. This means you need to read. You should always be reading something and planning what you’ll read next.
Reading is the most efficient way to gather ideas.
6. All ideas are suspect
This includes your ideas. All of them.
Everything you’ve ever learned, by reading or by listening to someone, might be wrong. All your beliefs might be nonsense. There are many reasons to suspect this. Most of your ideas were handed down by people; some of them believe in rewards, don’t read enough and are constantly bored. If you don’t investigate who these people are, what they wanted you to understand and why, you don’t understand your ideas. And if you don’t understand them, how do you know they’re correct?
7. Your goal is to learn
This might sound obvious. It probably should be. However, I meet students every semester who believe their goal is something completely different. Many of them want to demonstrate what they already know. Some of them have a political axe to grind: they believe, for example, that fast food and obesity are immoral, and every essay they write says absurd things like “Super Size Me proved that America is a corrupt wasteland.” They also believe something’s boring and it makes them angry: “If you don’t make college physics fun, nobody’s gonna take it.” They earn a low grade and complain: “I worked very hard on that paper!”
How open are you to learning? Test yourself. Go out into the high school parking lot and have a look around. It should take you only about thirty seconds to realize that the parking lot is a weird place, full of much more than cars, surrounded by more than a school and a town. Measure your response. Are you bored in the parking lot? Don’t the blades of grass growing in the cracks fascinate you? Wouldn’t it be great to know where asphalt comes from? If these questions don’t arise, you have work to do.
But that’s okay. Become aware of how much there is to learn and embrace this feeling. We’re all ignorant. The style of our ignorance might change over time but it will never go away. Find the confidence to admit this and empower yourself with curiosity. When we lose the need to blame the world for not fascinating us, we become much more fascinating to the world.