9.22.2016

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XLVIII

Here's two excerpts from a book I read this month, "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," by Frank Bruni:



“I cannot remember a single thing I learned in college,” [Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard] Parsons told me. “But it worked for me because what I learned was that I could make it in this world.” He had traveled five thousand miles from his home, and was able to circle back to Queens to visit his family only once a year, during the summer. He had been sixteen when he arrived in Honolulu. He didn’t have local relatives, local connections, any kind of ready safety net. He was utterly on his own. And the magnitude of that dislocation had forced on him a maturity and poise that another, different college experience might not have. “At the end of four years, I was still standing,” he said. “Maybe wavering a bit, but still standing. I learned that surviving and prospering—with a small p—was something that I could do.” Back in elementary and middle and high school, when he’d been skipping grades and prophesying Princeton and was blissfully unaware that the boldest plans have a way of being thwarted, he’d had arrogance. Now he had something less gaudy but infinitely more useful. “Confidence,” he said. “And for me, that was an essential part of the equation of success.”

***

As I listened to [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz, I longed more and more for a robust, sustained national conversation about the ways in which all college students, and in particular those at exclusive institutions, navigate their years of higher education and what they demand from that chapter of life. And I yearned for that largely because college has the potential to confront and challenge some of the most troubling political and social aspects of contemporary life; to muster a preemptive strike against them; to be a staging ground for behaving in a different, healthier way. We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. We live in the era of the Internet, which has had a counterintuitive impact: While it opens up an infinite universe of information for exploration, people use it to stand still, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing hobbies (and established hobbyhorses) and customizing their social media feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced, their opinions forever affirmed. And college is indeed a “perfect place,” as Catharine Bond Hill said, to push back at all of that, to rummage around in fresh outlooks, to bridge divides. For many students, it’s not only an environment more populous than high school was; it’s also one with more directions in which to turn. It gives them more agency over their calendars and allegiances. They can better construct their hours and days from scratch—and the clay hasn’t yet dried on who they are. But too many kids get to college and try to collapse it, to make it as comfortable and recognizable as possible. They replicate the friends and friendships they’ve previously enjoyed. They join groups that perpetuate their high school cliques. Concerned with establishing a “network,” they seek out peers with aspirations identical to their own. In doing so, they frequently default to a clannishness that too easily becomes a lifelong habit. If you spend any time on college campuses, you’ll notice this. And you’ll understand why one of my utopian fantasies is a student orientation period in which students are given these instructions, these exhortations: Open your laptops. Delete at least one of every four bookmarks. Replace it with something entirely different, even antithetical. Go to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and such, and start following or connecting with publications, blogs and people whose views diverge from your own. Conduct your social lives along the same lines, mixing it up. Do not go only to the campus basketball games, or only to campus theatrical productions. Wander beyond the periphery of campus, and not to find equally enchanted realms—if you study abroad, don’t choose the destination for its picturesqueness—but to see something else. Think about repaying your good fortune by mentoring kids in the area who aren’t sure to get to college, or who don’t have ready guidance for figuring it all out. In some American studies classes at Columbia University, this is a course requirement, and there are similar arrangements and programs at other schools. It’s a trend that’s worth tilling, a movement that should grow. Now more than ever, college needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplumbed territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they already are. And students, along with those of us who purport to have meaningful insights for them, need to insist on that.
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