Near the end of my Advanced Creative Writing class last semester, I found myself in a conversation about meaning and purpose with my students. This isn't new. But this time the "meaning" and "purpose" we were talking about was the purpose of college education itself, especially as it relates to becoming artists – and the purpose students are seeking in having chosen to come to Luther in particular. In a time when every week seems to bring a new book or criticism or budget report on the state of higher education, and when the social and familial voices saying "go to college" don't seem to slacken despite worries about student loan debt, it's a question every student should ask him- or herself: what am I doing here? Really?
It seems to me that there are several different ways of being in college. One is to show up and hop on the tracks – get carried kind of passively along through classes and credit-hour accumulations, doing the work but never really rising that far above the average, never speaking unless you're called on, building no real relationships with faculty and making no real mark. But a far better way (to continue with the train metaphor) is to find the "third rail" – that current of electricity and excitement that doesn't just hold the engine in place but that truly makes it run. Once you hook into that sort of passion at college, you will know what it's like to "geek out" – to get so excited by ideas and beauty and possibility that you lose yourself in them – and your enthusiasm will carry you into excellence almost before you know it. You'll be lit up, on fire, in a good way. You'll want to read more, revise more, work harder at the easel or in the lab or on the practice field. You'll want to push yourself harder and take advantage of the opportunities all around you here at Luther to be better at what you do. You'll be a better colleague to your classmates and a better future professional. And you will discover what you are meant to do with – in the poet Mary Oliver's words – your "one wild and precious life." You don't have to know from the second you set foot on campus what your passion will be. But you do have to be willing to take risks intellectually, to be vulnerable, to ask questions and spend time reading and talking and thinking. You have to put your heart into your life here at Luther. And when you do, you will find that your education becomes a source of continual renewal and joy, a sort of wellspring in your heart, for your entire life.
Yale professor William Deresiewicz is getting lots of attention lately for his new book "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life," which he developed out of this essay (and which faculty will be reading and discussing among ourselves this fall.) His main argument has raised a lot of eyebrows: students at "elite" colleges like the Ivy League are being channeled along the train tracks of privilege, but they are not being taught to think, to take risks, or to really see themselves as human beings. "[B]eing an intellectual is not the same as being smart," he writes:
"Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework. If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can't be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade."
I think all students (and faculty) – not only the "excellent sheep" Deresiewicz describes – can benefit from asking ourselves this question: am I really excited about ideas? Do I really want to learn for the sake of learning, not just to get a good grade or get a job or get whatever the next socially determined prize is this year? What is my "third rail," and how can I connect with it?
This may take us to some uncomfortable places of self-examination; it may lead us to have some talks with trusted friends and advisors, to spend some time writing in a journal, to change majors or explore that one "random" class we've always wanted to take. But the good news is that at Luther, our whole way of doing things is built around helping each student plug into that "third rail" – whatever that looks like for him or her. Your advisors, professors, campus pastors and work-study supervisors are always ready to talk with you, and we want to have these conversations. If you want to take responsibility for finding and flourishing according to your passion at Luther, we are listening, and we are here. So is that lively third rail of energy and delight, humming throughout this campus, always within your reach.