What Do We Need to Know First?

November 30, 2010

“I had a long, good conversation with my advisor about thinking about graduate school. I now know there’s much more I need to be thinking about. There’s so much I wish I knew earlier, but a lot of that I wouldn’t have understood without being where I am now. I think I know what I want to do, but the thought that the choices you make now will affect the next 5 to 10 years of your life. It’s hard to know right now what the best choice is. I just have to figure it out, and take calculus.”

That’s Piper Lewis talking, a junior Geosciences and English major and one of our student bloggers.  That quotation is from her most recent post on our Life at Earlham blog to which she and a few other students contribute.

In a way, she’s making an important case for an education in the liberal arts and sciences.  If we already knew what we needed to know, then it would be easy to devise a life plan and even easier to work out a plan of study in college.  But most of us don’t know yet what we need to know.  The more we learn, the more paths open up to us, some of them completely unexpected — and unexpectable.

Piper now sees that she needs to learn calculus and wishes that she had known that earlier so she could take it earlier.  But she also understands that she wouldn’t now know she needs to take calculus if she hadn’t studied the diverse array of things she’s studied.  A more pre-structured, vocationally focused education would have worked from assumptions about who she might become that would have robbed her of possibilities that couldn’t occur to her if she hadn’t allowed herself some wider exploration.

Here’s how she puts it:  “If I’d had a better idea of what I wanted to do 
entering college perhaps I could have been more efficient in how I went about choosing classes. I’d be better prepared for graduate school, but I wouldn’t know as much as I do. I probably never would have gone to Greece or read five
 versions of Philoctetes. Those are things I wouldn’t change if I could. So, I guess I just wish I had more time to do everything.”

And it’s probably also dawning on her that the more she learns the more she’ll wish there were more time to learn yet more.  Efficiency isn’t the central value of this kind of education; it’s greater depth, and the development of a richer, more capable self.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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