Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet

Three things every college student should learn

By Valerie Strauss

May 20, 2016 at 11:00 AM

(iStock)

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Middletown, Connecticut. In the following video, he speaks to admitted students and their parents in campus during an annual three-day celebration at the school held this spring. In his address, he speaks to three key things that college students should learn how to do when they are in college. No, learning how to code is not one of them.

Here's the video and following that is the transcript of his comments.

Transcript:

What's most important about your four years wherever you wind up—and it could be three years, it could be a different amount of time. What's most important is not how great an experience you have there—this is not a spa. What's most important is how you were launched into what you're going to do for the rest of your life. That's what counts.

And you can't really know that now. You can't know what you want to do for the rest of your life, and I hope you don't.  If you think you do, I hope you change your mind a couple of times over the next few years.

But whatever school you do choose, I hope you choose one that doesn't just depend on your nostalgic loyalty…but actually depends on you making use of whatever experiences you have at the school to empower you for a life of meaningful work, community service, being part of your neighborhood and a citizen of your country.

I hope that those things happened to you because you're launched into the next phase of your life by the experiences you have a college or university.

But in a liberal education, what happens is you get used to discovering combinations of things, of methods, of ideas, of sounds, of smells, of tastes that everybody else thought would never go together.

And once you put them together, when you're successful, people think, "Gosh, why don't I think of that?" Because the combination of things that you are exposed to can be the new common sense 20 years from now.  The new ideas that gain currency because of your creativity, your capacity for innovation, and the very, very hard work you have to do to pull that off.

….

The American tradition of liberal education comes from Jefferson and DuBois and Dewey and Jane Addams. The American tradition is the work you do is broad and contextual. It brings together things that nobody ever thought of. It is inquiry that is unbounded by discipline. The American tradition of liberal education is connected to work in the world. We want you, when you graduate from a place like Wesleyan, to be able to translate what you're learning in a classics course or a history course or religion course or biology class into something that was never part of that class. The ability to translate what you do in college to what you're going do after college is so key, and that's why it would be a horrible waste if you approach whatever college you go to as a break between high school and real life. Because what should happen in college is that you can define what your real life is going to look like in a more successful, more powerful, more generous and open way.

But wherever you go, I do hope you get three things from your college experience. The first is I hope you discover what you love to do.  I would say it that way because all of you've been good at stuff. The students here, you've done well. You've done well on exams, you've learned how to give the answer the teacher expects, and for teachers who believe they don't give you expectations, you've been able to fool them and satisfy their expectations.

You're really smart. Bravo. That's a great thing. But it would be a terrible thing if you wound up doing the stuff you've gotten A's at because you've gotten A's at it.

I can't tell you how many people I meet—either teachers or people in the business world or friends I come across in my travels—who wind up doing what they're doing because somebody told them they were really good at it.

"You're that kind of person, you're a math person."

"Oh you're really creative, you ought to be doing writing."

And then they say, "I guess that's who I am." And they wind up doing the kind of work that someone else told them they ought to do or that they're good at.

I hope what happens—whatever college or university you're going to—and if you got in here, you got into other really good places—that you find out not just what you're good at it, but what you love to do, what makes you feel more alive, what makes you really excited about going to class, what makes you really excited about working on a project. Then the real challenge for you, wherever you go to school, is to get really good at what you love to do because you will be in a different league now.

It's not the league of getting an "A," it's not the league of scoring well on exams. You want to do really well at what you love to do because you want your work to stand out—for you and the people who know something about your endeavor.

You will go to a school, I'm sure, where people will tell you you're smart; where people will tell you you're talented; where people will give you applause. I hope you go to a school, whatever school it is, where also people will also say, "You know, that's not really good enough. You think this page makes sense?"

I remember my teacher at Wesleyan saying to me on the final paper, the back of the final paper. I had a decent grade; I remember it. But what I really remember, what I'll never forget, is that he wrote, "Mr. Roth, you have an awkward, comma, wooden, comma style. You should work on your writing."

I lived in the literary society on campus. I fancied myself a writer. And he was saying, "Yeah, you think you're a writer and the people who you live with think you're a writer, but by writers you're not a writer. You have to work on it."

And your parents or your family members will get a phone call and say, "Daddy, my teacher said I have 'an awkward comma wooden comma style.'"

And I hope your parents don't say, "Oh sweetheart, you are so gifted! That teacher doesn't know anything." I hope you don't do that. I hope you say, "Get back to work. Get back to work."

The third thing, wherever you go, is to learn to share what you know with other people.

It's very important, not just for you but for everybody in this room and those people all around the country, that when you discover what you love to do and you get better at it, that you just don't go up to the attic and keep doing it…or into the basement. It's so important that you learn how to share your work. That sometimes means how to sell your work, how to take your work in the marketplace and see if anybody else thinks it's good.

You know, how many times has this happened? "Well, my parents like this poem."

"I played it at my friend's house and everybody thought it was beautiful, but the radio station doesn't want it."

Well, that's your problem now. Because it's not about putting it up on the fridge. It's about: Do the people in Bangalore think it's good? Do the people in Houston think it's good? Do the people in Los Angeles want to make the show?

Because when you're here, whether you're doing science or film, you should want your work to be received at the highest level. When you're leaving here, people will say to you, "You should take this work to the next level," which means into the public sphere.

We hope while you're in college, whatever college you go to, that you learn not only how to succeed in the classroom and not only how to be a cool dude on campus, but actually how to translate what you've accomplished on the campus to the world around you. That's the most important transition from campus success to your success in the working world, is to figure out how to share what you really care about in ways that other people find really exciting.

If you discover what you love to do, if you get better at it, and if you learn how to share it on the basis of an education that opens your heart and your eyes, people are going to want you on your team.

If that happens, you will think back to this beautiful morning in Middletown and you'll say, "Remember that cheesy guy Roth trying to make all those jokes? He said people should want me on the team."

And I hope, whatever school you go to, that's how you feel four years from now as you're graduating. That you'll say, "People want me on their team because I've had the kind of education that makes me a contributor and a creator."


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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