Saturday, November 13, 2010

Oh College Days, What Art Thou?

I do not often respond to other posts, but my fellow Happydale classmate Kiernan recently posted a blog subtitled “What I learned (and didn't learn) in college.” It was inspired by a column in The Guardian and an e-mail from her sister, who asked her how to get straight A’s.

I did not go into college ever thinking I would leave with straight A’s. And I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I slacked off in my studies; major au contrair, mon amis! Academics have always been very important and prioritized in my family. I simply decided and did not allow my studies to completely devour or define me. That isn't living, nor is it college.

Senior year: I FINALLY got Bear to a football game!
I gave my time to other things, like the Hillsdale Forum, Kappa, babysitting my advisor’s kids, RAing for two years in Mac, coaching a little girls’ soccer team, playing soccer, serving as Social Chair for both Catholic Society and the American Studies honorary, pulling pranks, becoming friends with my teachers, getting published, eating cheese, etc.; all the while, enduring constant, jesting mockery for "never leaving the library" from my fellow classmates. (Or so it seemed; I am rawther partial to libraries.)

I suppose the major thing I noticed missing from her evaluation, however, is the need for perspective. Learning in college does not mean having a perspective but gaining one. Mark Steyn once told me he was going to teach me to shingle a roof because writers need perspective. How can one get perspective, however, without the urgency and adgitation that there is more to do and more to learn? Pushing one's limits, either physically or intellectually, can help one know more, by doing, not simply being.

For example, Kiernan instructs her sister in all-caps to NEVER pull an all-nighter. I say, why not? My sister Kato has only pulled one all-nighter and it wasn't even for academic reasons. (It is also a really, really funny story to listen to.) My college career, on the other hand, could easily be defined by the ceaseless all-nighters my roommate Bear and I pulled and my participation in the infamous “graveyard shifts” of American Studies majors.

This is not an endorsement of all-nighters; they were often painful, and always caffinated. A person has to be mentally prepared for it. My first all-nighter freshman year was horrrible. I felt terribly ill by the end of it. The second one was better, and the hundredth one was second-nature, with typing away at 6 a.m. and hearing the birds chirp always a pleasant surprise, as in, look what I'm doing! But this is what worked for my schedule, and I figured that out by doing it, is my point.

Our room in the last month of college... at least we passed our comps and successfully defended awesome theses!

Secondly, Kiernan defined college as “necessary, interesting, and not-overwhelmingly-pleasant chapter in my life.” She said, “I loved my professors at school, I loved the books that I read, I loved my friends. They were the bright lights that often got me through a dark day. But, I did not love college. It was not everything I expected it to be. Unlike many people, I will never consider it the best years of my life.”

I do not disagree with her description overall; but really, only people like Tom in F. Scott's 'Great Gatsby' peaked in their undergrad years. College isn’t “the” best years, but they are some of the best. I made more mistakes in college than I did in years before. I faced challenges and grew as a person. I was faced with adversity to my faith, and found the courage to stand firmer; I found fellowship and knew truth. I learned not to think, but to think better and more analytically.

College gave me my sea legs, essentially, through joy and sorrow, tears and laughter. It is because of these experiences that I can fondly return to this second, Happydale bubble with a strident step in my walk, and be glad I am gone from the place; for, "we shall not cease from exploration/ and the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time." College prepared me to move forward; it is a means, not an end, in life. It is a good, not a best.

Still, it delights me to know Kiernan and I both picked Hillsdale for the same reason: I too “decided that I would go there to learn how to become a writer.” (And a few other things, too!)

Her "don't" list echoed my collegiate career: I got wrapped up in socializing; I took way too many credits; I took classes I didn't feel comfortable taking; I didn't willingly pick sleep; I studied fairly well under pressure; I studied mostly with people. I didn't get all A's, but I did well. My roommate was a Biology/ English double major and Art History minor, so there wasn't much room for slacking during college-- just lots and lots of random dance parties.

Bear and Bird as sophomores
I won’t rehash all of Kiernan’s points, except for this one list—

"Things I Did Not Learn At College (and that you therefore should not expect to learn)":

1. How to be creative
2. How to enjoy literature (or history or art or music) more deeply as a person, not an intellectual
3. How to write, not merely according to the rules, but with my own panache and flair
4. How to enjoy learning
5. How to be a life-long learner

Why do I quoth the raven-haired one? Because it is here that we truly part paths. Because this is the list of things I take from my four years in college. This was my endgame. That was not her's. And that's okay. That's the beauty of a liberal arts education. It gives different people different experiences while using the same system and foundation.

John Henry Newman said the purpose of a liberal arts education is to "open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression..." But more than that, this type of education helps each student, if they will so take the path, to understand what it means to be human. To be a human is to be a child of God; and there is nothing less sacred than the undertaking of getting to know him through his children, whom are made in his image. No book in the world can treat a person with compassion like a human can; no book can be a friend like another human can; no book can touch a soul and change a life the way another human can. It was in these ways that I have been conditioned and treated, alongside my mind, at college.

But can I revise number ten? By removing the word "never"?: "Can I repeat - PULL AN ALL-NIGHTER! ESPECIALLY BEFORE AN EXAM!"

Ah, that's better. If you don't know, you're just going to have to trust me on that one. It's definitely an experience worth having!


  1. I love you so much!!
    a) This post made me almost ill with nostalgia.
    b) I agree nearly across the board.
    Every year, I figure something big out, sometimes without knowing it until after the fact, but I do not have it all figured out by any means. Au contraire, mon ami! :-) But you and Heathbar taught me a lot about going through college not as an educational experience, or even a life experience, but to experience it because it IS life. It is neither the end nor the means - it's just another chapter of the journey. A hugely changing, exciting, challenging, growing chapter, but only a chapter nevertheless.

    I miss you guys so much. Thank you for teaching me how pull all-nighters, dance at random, eat cheese, laugh when possible, and cry as needed.

    Carrying the torch,
    Ol' Sport

  2. Old Sport,

    You are always, always welcome. We are especially grateful we have you continue to prosper where we left you, our little 'zard one. ;)

    Yours in Smothering Bear with Unwanted Affection,
    Old Chap

  3. Julie,

    Great post! I'm so glad that we can agree on being very honest about our college experience with current undergrads, and in encouraging them to enjoy the things that make the experience worth it. I loved when you noted that no one really "peaks" in their college years. That's important to remember if you're still in school.

    Also, your Newman quote has got me pulling out my Artes books and writing a post on the liberal arts. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Enjoy your late nights... :-)