Chapter 19: University of Chicago (excerpt) 

The older I get, the more I am impressed with The University of Chicago and its students. It is my opinion that every college should have an intellectual social climate, and it is my experience that most colleges do not. But why not? I discussed this briefly in the Furman chapter, but allow me to elaborate. An intellectual social climate is a social climate where students regularly discuss outside of class what they are learning inside of class, and they do it for fun.

Students in intellectual social climates are more excited about what they are learning, they are more motivated to study hard, and they have much more fun and enjoyment in their academic lives. Students who graduate from schools with intellectual social climates are on average far smarter than students who don’t. I would guess that these students are more likely to become lifelong learners, more likely to contribute useful gifts to society, and are more likely to enjoy their professional careers than their counterparts. Intellectual social climates are a good thing, and all college students should have the opportunity to be a part of one. (It took me visiting U Chicago, and to a lesser extent, Harvard, to finally admit to myself, “Holy shit, I am not very smart! I better go home and study absolutely everything!” What began as a vain desire to not appear stupid in front of my peers transitioned into a sincere desire to learn for its own sake, and I thank the U Chicago students for this inspiration.)

But most of the schools I visited did not have intellectual social climates. Why might this be? I have narrowed it down to one main reason: most college students today are going to college too early.

It is my belief that most people need to gain a great deal of general knowledge and life experience before they can unlock their deep curiosities and passions. Before a person can figure out what subject they want to devote their lives to, they need to somehow develop an intuitive understanding of how all the various subjects fit together. They need to figure out how the world works before they can figure out what role they want to play within that world. When a young person goes straight from high school into college and chooses a major that is mostly job training, they foreclose on their identities and skip a necessary stage in their development—the stage of exploring the world and searching for an identity.

The reason most colleges do not have intellectual social climates is not that the students there are not as smart as the ones at U Chicago. The reason is that too many college students have never experienced learning as fun and exciting, so they don’t even realize that it’s possible to enjoy their classes. High school is all about getting a high GPA, not about enjoying or thinking deeply about the material. Students who enjoy their classes will feel motivated to discuss with their friends what they are learning. If students don’t enjoy their classes, these discussions will never take place.

Take me for example. If I had gone to college straight after high school, I would have absolutely hated my classes. But today I think there is nothing more enjoyable than a good college lecture. The best college lectures are more entertaining than television, more exciting than sports, and more profound than drug use. When you step outside after a good lecture, the trees should look a little different.

And yet I have met, and continue to meet, so many college students who do not care at all about their classes. They treat their college classes the same way they treated their high school classes—which is to say that they view them as a necessary evil. They go through the motions of their college education because they feel that is their only choice.

My favorite poem is, “The People, Yes,” by Carl Sandburg. This book’s title is an homage to that poem. One part of the poem is called, “A Father Sees a Son Nearing Manhood,” although the advice applies to daughters as well. In the poem, Sandburg says a young person should have “lazy days seeking his deeper motives,” and that he should “seek deep for where he is a born natural” so that he may understand “free imaginations bringing changes into a world resenting change.”

If a young person ever wants to become a free imagination bringing changes into a world resenting change, she will need to have lazy days seeking her deeper motives. She will need to seek deep for where she is a born natural. She will need time to explore and to think with no outside pressure. But when in a young person’s life is this supposed to happen?

College today is too expensive to be a time of exploration. If a student spends two years studying math but then decides she would prefer to study psychology, this change in majors might be extremely expensive. It is expensive because it might require additional years at college in order to complete all the necessary credits. Because changing majors would be so expensive, the math student will not even consider switching majors. As she encounters material from psychology that interests her, her mind will cut itself off from enjoyment because she is already so invested in math. She will not daydream about a career as a psychologist because the costs of switching are too high. Her mind closes down and stops exploring.

To avoid this fate, her strategy instead should be to do her exploring prior to attending college.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog recommends that aspiring movie directors do two things: read a lot of books, and travel 5000km by foot. According to Herzog, doing these two activities will allow the young director to experience “the depth and intensity of existence.” I think that’s what all young people—not just directors—really want to do: to experience the depth and intensity of existence. Herzog’s prescription is basically two things: study and travel. My guess is that once someone experiences this depth and intensity of existence, they will become insatiably curious about almost everything. Only then should they choose what they want to do with their life. And only then should they go to college.

I am not a person who should give anyone life advice, but allow me to give advice about the one thing I know most about—the question of whether a young person should go to college straight out of high school. (Although don’t forget what Hunter S. Thompson said about giving advice: “What is truth to one may be disaster to another.”)

If you have no idea what you want to do with your life yet, do not feel like you absolutely have to go to college straight out of high school. It is a really bad life decision to invest $100,000 in professional training for a field you don’t even enjoy, because now you’re $100,000 in debt and the only way to pay it off is by doing the thing you don’t like. I have far too many brilliant friends who are in this situation right now, and I have seen that it is a very bad situation to be in. If you have absolutely no idea what you would like to do with your life, why would you invest heavily into education for a specific career?

Your goal when you are young should be to discover your life’s task. This is not something you can easily discover by flipping through a course catalogue when you’re 17. You actually have to go searching for your life’s task. It could take a decade. But once you find it, your entire life becomes imbued with meaning and significance. Now you know what you’re trying to do. You have a goal and a purpose. You will be excited to wake up in the morning, and you will enjoy your work. No setback or obstacle will get in your way.

I’m sure there are some college programs that actually expand minds, that allow students to explore, and that help students discover their purpose in life, but I almost never saw this happening. Instead what I observed was that most students were being initiated into a specific and singular worldview, they were being taught job skills that made them useful in one and only one sector of the job market, and they were having their minds closed down to the possibility of ever pursuing something else. College, for most of the people I wrote about in this book, represented a great narrowing of possibilities.

What could you do instead? Another option is to travel around, work odd jobs, and give yourself a broad general education through personal study. Sleep in your car if you need to keep your costs low. Read lots of books, or take long walks while listening to lectures. Study a little of everything. The adults of society will try to recruit you to their own worldviews, but you must resist this. Read books from all political and social perspectives, and keep an open mind. If you grew up in one political or social or religious climate, read works from the people who disagree with you, and try to understand their perspectives. It is physically painful to read books written from a worldview other than your own, and physically pleasant to read books written from your own worldview. You must chase this pain and avoid this pleasure. If you are able to put a label on your beliefs, and if you feel solidarity with other people who label their beliefs in the same way, then you are probably viewing the world from only one perspective. Your goal should be to view the world from as many perspectives as possible.

Follow your curiosity wherever it takes you. If you follow your curiosity, you don’t need any self-discipline, because the curiosity will be pulling you from ahead. Do not worry about “following your passion,” because most people don’t start off passionate about anything. Instead, follow your curiosity, and have some faith that it will lead you somewhere good. Do this until you feel called into a specific profession, until you feel so completely obsessed with a specific field that you want to devote your life to it, and then go to college. Some people call this a gap year, but it may take two or three or five years. What’s the rush? This is your life, your one life.

If more college students went to college not because they felt forced to, but because they wanted to pursue a vocation, a calling, then maybe more students would be excited to go to class, and then maybe more students would want to discuss outside of class what they are learning inside of class, and then maybe there could be an intellectual social climate at every school.