Advice I Can’t Give My Students, and I Know They Wouldn’t Take Anyway

I’ve been dispensing practical, straightforward college advice on my blog. We’re starting with the fact that “college” is not some sort of undifferentiated commodity, and a liberal arts degree is not a direct pipeline to a job.

Next is the fact that you might learn things that aren’t immediately related to the value an employer places on your labor, and that’s okay. You can develop marketable skills while also educating yourself as a human being with an inner core not defined or constrained by capitalism.

But at its heart, this is all still practical advice aimed at navigating the college waters and finding a job after you wade out. The advice I can’t actually give in the classroom, and that my students wouldn’t take, anyway, seems better suited for Medium than the pragmatic space of the blog.

Learn how to be alone

Live alone. Break up with someone and don’t date anyone else. Study alone. Eat lunch alone. Go to the movies alone. Travel alone. Spend a few days alone in the library writing a paper.

You have probably only had the most limited opportunities to be alone before now. It’s time to see what it’s like and how you respond. Push your limits. Make yourself uncomfortable. Do you ever stop being lonely? Do you eventually forget to see yourself through other people’s eyes? Do you reach a point where you genuinely don’t want to be around other people? Believe it or not, it’s possible to feel that way.

My students will never take this advice because they’re all in fraternities and sororities that, near as I can tell, are expressly designed to stave off the abject terror and existential dread of taking a meal alone or going an entire day without talking to someone.

Take a class you’re really bad at

This is what pass/fail and auditing were meant for. Take something you know you will not succeed at: studio art, intro to acting, number theory, or a poetry workshop. Try your best, or your semi-best, or even half-ass it. You’re not going to succeed, anyway.

How does it feel to get feedback you simply can’t act on? What’s it like to see where your going wrong and not know how to fix it? Who are you now that you know you’re bad at something? Are you still the same person?

My students will never take this advice because they worry too much about their grades, but also because they like to succeed and do not like to fail. That is, of course, the point.

Figure out your own damn politics and religion

Never again will you have so much time available to devote to navel-gazing, or so many people paid to assist you in the pursuit. Take advantage of it. You don’t have to reject everything your parents taught you, but at least take some time to consider whether you really agree and why.

Take some classes that will challenge your commonplaces: philosophy, religion, cultural studies. Try a sociology course that will ask you to find some quantitative proof for your assumptions. Push back when you disagree with your professors, but stay open to the possibility that you might be wrong, too. When your professor asks for evidence to support something you dearly believe to be true and you can’t come up with any, really — I mean really — wrestle with the roots of your belief.

Some of my students do this already. Sometimes they do it in purpose, and other times because reevaluating your beliefs is a necessary byproduct of fully engaging in your education. I know students think that my goal is to turn them all into socialist atheists, but all I really want is for them to recognize when their commonplaces are being challenged by new information or new thinking processes and then interrogate those commonplaces in light of these new ideas. I don’t care if you come into college a bleeding heart liberal and leave a free market disciple as long as you’ve done the intellectual work and figured out what you value and why for your own damn self.

Some final thoughts

You are so goddamn privileged to get to go to college. There are other ways to do the things I’ve described here, but they are much harder outside the institutional structures of the university. Never again will you have so many resources available for figuring out what kind of person you are or so much assistance as you begin to work at becoming that person.

This is not just feel-good nonsense. If you do not decide what kind of person you want to be, you will become defined by your job, which was, of course, the main reason you went to college in the first place. Your value will be tied to the value of your labor, and your identity will rooted in your job. This is no way to live.

You’ve been given the gift of time and assistance in figuring out who you are and what you value and believe. Don’t squander it.

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