This time of year college students swarm back to campus. As a motivational college speaker, this is a busy time for me as I get invited to present back-to-school programs and new student welcomes. For the third time I’ll be presenting to 6000 incoming freshmen at UCLA, my alma mater.
According to the UCLA Undergraduate Admissions Office, the average GPA of their admitted applicants is 4.38 (3.88 unweighted). That’s just grades. That doesn’t speak to their test scores, activities, awards and employment. This is an impressive freshmen class. Amazingly, 24 universities rank even higher by US News & World Report.
No teenager qualifies for schools like this by accident. These students are driven by a desire to succeed. For them, high school is a means to get into a great college. Everything they do is designed to make their applications look good. There’ll be plenty of diversity among them, but what unites all students accepted into top 25 universities is their ambition.
The problem with ambition is it’s potential to distract from learning. When education is guided by a desire to acquire a credential, it’s easy to forget to learn. In high school many students choose classes and activities based on what they think will impress colleges. In college, many are motivated by what they think will impress graduate schools or employers. They approach higher education as merely another stepping-stone.
These days financial security is not guaranteed for college graduates. As education costs rise much faster than inflation, graduates are entering the labor market strapped with debt and bleak employment prospects. According to USA Today, half of 2012’s college grads are unemployed or underemployed with jobs that don’t’ use their skill sets. A recent cover story in Newsweek suggests that college is a lousy investment altogether. If we measure education merely by the immediate employment opportunities it yields, this may be a reasonable argument. A kid who goes to college expecting employers to roll out the red carpet may be in for a big disappointment.
But there’s another reason for education – college or otherwise – that transcends employability. It’s a reason that sounds almost laughable in our success-crazed culture. The younger version of me certainly would have mocked it. But having now graduated, worked and lived a little, I’m throwing that reason out there. The purpose of education is the pursuit of knowledge.
That’s right. Mental growth. Wisdom. An understanding of our world. Laugh if you want, but I went to college and have been in the workforce for more than two decades. I have some perspective.
I’ve come to understand that a life well lived is as much about intellectual and emotional fulfillment as it is building ego, banking cash and buying toys. We’re not just here to earn. We’re here to learn.
In my motivational college speaker programs I encourage students to be driven less by ambition, and more by curiosity. To choose classes on subjects they simply want to know more about. To explore sciences and humanities and cultures that interest them.
“Art history? When am I ever going to use that?” That was one of the stupid questions (yes, there is such a thing) I asked as an undergraduate trying to get through my general education requirements. I didn’t see how a course on Renaissance art would help my career.
My problem was the assumption that it had to help my career. I thought college was supposed to give me job training. It was going to prepare me for a professional life. Didn’t everyone choose majors based on career interest?
Turns out, no, not everyone. Two friends of mine were English majors. Then they went to medical school. Another friend majored in philosophy and then went to law school. One of my closest friends got a degree from Colombia University in Russian Studies. Then he became a successful actor for a while and today is a well-paid IT expert.
All of these friends are doing really well, financially and otherwise, in spite of majoring in subjects unrelated to their chosen careers. They would argue that part of their success is because of their open minds and diverse backgrounds. Since undergraduate programs are more broad, theoretical experiences (which graduate schools and smart employers understand), my firends decided simply to major in what interested them. The result is that they not only are successful, but they’re smarter, more interesting people. College didn’t just enhance their careers. It enhanced their lives.
Education, whether it be college classes or life experience, shouldn’t be measured merely on its financial dividends any more than going to church, traveling and having friendships should be. There’s a lot we do in life that isn’t about money. Of course, most of these experiences don’t take of years of time and decades of loan payments. College is a HUGE investment. But there is still tremendous, immeasurable value in education that goes beyond financial consideration.
When would I ever use art history? In the summer of 1999. My wife and I traveled to Italy. I remember walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Had I gone in high school as a less educated teenager, all I would have observed was fancy church with a bunch of statues and a big canopy in the middle. But having studied Renaissance art, I was now able to experience St. Peter’s with a much richer prism. What would have just been a church was now a mind-blowing 16th-century structure designed by the likes of Michelangelo. I immediately recognized the “canopy” as Bernini’s Baldacchino with its four bronze Baroque columns. I felt inspired by Michelangelo’s masterful, heart-breaking Pieta, which portrays the Madonna as a young woman even though she’s holding the limp body of her fully-grown son. My wife and I pondered the meaning of that choice.
That college class continues to pay off as I travel, go to museums, read books and have intelligent discussions. Has it help me professionally? Not in so many obvious ways. But neither has Little League, Halloween, first dates, family dinners, walks on the beach, parenthood and countless other experiences that have enriched my life. I can’t say that all the things I’ve been through have boosted my career. But boy, have they made life worth living. Even for the price I paid.
If I could repeat any chapter of life, it would be college. I would take more classes on more subjects. I would take anything that interested me without regard for how employable the class would make me. I’d probably spend a fifth year and pursue multiple majors. Or maybe I’d spend a few semesters abroad. You see, the older I get, the more questions I have. I wish I would have sought the answers when I had the chance, before ambition got in the way.
We live in a fascinating world. We should aspire not just to survive it, but to understand and appreciate it.
I was fortunate to get to go to college. But even without formal schooling, the average person would be served well by following their curiosity, and not just their ambition.