Saturday, July 18, 2009

A few of the things you can do in a great university

I believe that one way we can get more high schoolers interested in college is to give them more information about what college is and what possibilities it holds. The fact that they will probably make more money and have more career options if they go to college can only be one argument among others, and not necessarily the most important one. We should be giving students college marketing materials in 8th or 9th grade - and never mind the fretting about kids "growing up too fast" - in order to make the idea of college more real to them, and to help them understand that there is a relationship between the way they approach high school and what their future opportunities will be.

To that end, I offer an incomplete list of things that can be done in great universities. I believe that what we teach kids in high school should pave the way for them to have the opportunity to do the sort of things listed below.

Things you can do in a great university

-Spend a summer, semester, or year learning a language - any language - and living with a family in a country thousands of miles away. When you get home, the experience will have transformed you, and your knowledge of another language and culture will be something you carry with you for the rest of your life.

-Discuss some of the greatest books ever written with professors and graduate students who are devoting their lives to understanding these books.

-Take advanced courses in art, film, literature, or music, and never look at these in the same way again.

-Learn to do, and actually do, research in a field that interests you. In addition to learning things that others have figured out and written down for you to memorize, you'll be a participant - in labs and seminars - in the creation of knowledge.

-In the four summers before you graduate, travel, volunteer, read voraciously, or get internships doing important work that you will remember and learn something from. Don't get a "job" over the summer - get an experience and an education.

-Learn Chinese, Arabic, Ancient Greek, or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Take four years of classes in a language; when you are done, you may be able to read newspapers, letters, and literature in that language, and an entirely new world of people, communities, ideas, travel opportunities, and careers will be open to you.

-Develop your own voice and the voice of others by joining or starting a publication as a writer or editor, or hosting or participating in an art exhibition, play, or concert.

-Build your focus, physical capabilities, maturity, and self-discipline while making lifelong friends by participating on an athletic team; if the team is on the varsity level, you will also be able to travel and compete around the country. (Many club teams travel as well, of course).

-Increase your literacy and reading fluency as well as your ability to write persuasively by taking four years' worth of classes in the humanities and social sciences.

-Do independent study work with graduate students and professors who are brilliant people and experts in their field.

-Attend lectures by experts in every field, politicians, judges and lawyers, writers, and others.

-Discover the complexity and importance of politics, and learn to think beyond the headlines. Discover your political voice.

-Attend concerts, museums, and exhibitions that include work by some of the most talented artists and musicians in the world.

-Learn to create professional computer programs, websites, or documentary films.

-Have access to the resources of enormous research libraries and cutting-edge research technology.

-Surround yourself with some of the brightest and most creative people of your generation.

-Graduate and have the freedom to choose your career - including the most desirable careers in the world. Have access, through your alumni network, career center, skill set, and educational background, to practically any social or professional network in your field. Be a credible and desirable job applicant with economic opportunities around the country and the world.

-Enjoy four years of relative freedom - a time you can easily squander, if you wish to do so, or an opportunity, if you will seize it, to become an educated person. It can be four years of throwaway job-training or four years of stimulating and unforgettable intellectual experiences.

If students want to make the most of their school years in general and their college years in particular, they must take ownership of their education and elect to do what is difficult. The alternative is to take an easier, clearer, purely pre-professional path - a path that is all-too-often paved with banal classes and textbooks, and that often doesn't actually do much to prepare you for your first job (the pre-medical track is a significant exception). You can work toward entering a profession while getting a great education along the way.