Students should contemplate reasons for attending college

By By James Sewell

By James Sewell

It’s a rare thing these days to find myself with free time during the weekend with which I can do whatever I please.

So on Sunday, in keeping with religious proscriptions about resting, I found myself recumbent on the couch watching an old favorite movie, “Spies Like Us.” At one point in the movie, after Chevy Chase has been captured by KGB agents, he embarks on a philosophical digression in response to the question about his reasons for being in a remote mountainous region of the USSR: “Why am I here? Why are you here? Why is anybody here? I think it was…”

Perhaps you don’t see the humor of existentialism deployed in Cold War interrogation rooms. Nevertheless, his rhetorical questions are significant. Indeed: Why am I here? Why are you here? To get an education? To grow into responsible, productive members of society? To meet people? To avoid the real world?

Although fear of the unfettered market, which at any rate is now completely un-unfettered by the financial arm of the government, partly motivated my return to the embrace of academic pursuit, many of you have not really asked yourself that question, or if you have, not in a serious enough way for it to impact your actions.

A generation ago, a college degree was, for most students, the last scholarly credential to collect before heading into the wider world and making a career. If you had a degree from a university, you were golden.

Nowadays, with surging enrollments at campuses nationwide, and numerous organizations espousing the virtues of higher education, a college degree has become devalued, so much so that when you graduate, you might find yourselves applying for jobs for which there is no more stringent requirement than the ability to operate a stapler and a coffee pot. Why?

The reasons are too complex and interwoven to delve into here. The important thing is that you have a good idea about what you’re seeking to gain from your time here at the U. Is it a secure job upon graduation? Is it a foundation of knowledge and skills upon which to build a fulfilling future life? Is it prestige or recognition?

If you are exceptionally driven and know from day one that you’re going to medical school, law school or business school, you’re likely to be too busy grinding away the hours for that 4.0 GPA to care much about the kind of intellectual malaise affecting the vast majority of undergraduates, whose long-term goals cannot be properly articulated at a point in life when the idea of “next year” is almost impossible to wrap gray matter around.

Of the 46 students in the sections of Writing 2010 I teach, at least eight have yet to decide on a major, and a handful more have declared themselves premed, which they will soon realize, to their chagrin, is in fact not a major but a series of courses to be completed in addition to a major program of study. These students are partly undecided about their major because they believe that their major will bless or curse them into eternity.

If you find yourself adrift in the sea of people and ideas that is the modern university, and this is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night, relax. It took me a long time to realize that as often as you make plans for your life, life makes plans for you. If you’re in school because your parents are “making you,” drop out. If you’re here because you think it’s necessary to have a college degree to succeed, drop out. If you’re here because you don’t have any better ideas, well8212;that was my situation, and luckily in my senior year I stumbled on a course that changed my life8212;maybe don’t drop out.

But either you or your parents are spending a lot of money to send you here and the very least you owe them, and your future self, is an honest reflection on what it is you are seeking from your time here.

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James Sewell