Every once in a while, some poor, unsuspecting student asks me for life advice; and usually, when this happens, I begin stuttering, fumbling about, trying not to embarrass myself. Part of this is because I'm often very bad at thinking on my toes. Another part is because I'm not in any kind of position to be giving such advice, seeing as how I've basically just been winging it every single day for the past 20 years or so.
However, I do care very much about my students, and I'm not just talking about my advisees. I'm talking about any student who's ever taken any of my classes. So, in the interest of possibly having some kind of positive impact on someone's life, I've compiled a list of six things I think every college student should do in order to leave campus a functioning and relatable adult, capable of worthwhile relationships, and prepared to engage constructively with those around them, in whatever context.
Take it or leave it. Here we go.
1. Get to know the (real) reasons for your beliefs
You may think you know why you believe the things you believe, especially when it comes to matters of morality, politics, and religion. And maybe, for the most part, you're right about that. But there's a good chance you're missing something. There's a good chance you hold some of these beliefs for reasons of which you are unaware -- and were you to be aware of them, it might undermine your confidence in those beliefs. So it takes a certain measure of courage to probe your own reasons for belief. But you'll be a better person for the effort.
For instance, in my experience, it seems like a lot of people believe certain things about morality, politics, and religion for no reason other than: that's what their parents, guardians, or some other influential figure told them to believe. Interestingly, though, an equal number of people seem to hold their moral, political, or religious beliefs in opposition to what their parents, guardians, or someone else believed. But these are both very bad reasons for believing things.
I've also gotten the sense that many people believe things for little reason other than the fact that doing so allows them to maintain some sort of social status or perceived membership in an ideological group. In other words, they hold certain beliefs only because doing so gives them some measure of liberal "cred," or conservative "cred," or libertarian "cred," or socialist "cred," or whatever. I'm sure I don't have to tell you this, but: this is also a very bad reason for holding a belief.
We also sometimes believe things out of wishful thinking, i.e., believing something's true because, deep down, we want it to be true. But this, too, is not how responsible believing is done.
While you're in college, you should take time, regularly, to ask yourself: "But really, though ... why do I believe this? Why does this matter to me as much as it does? Why does it bother me so much when others disagree with me on this issue, but not others?" This can be a very scary, and very difficult, thing to do. You'll inevitably learn things about yourself that you'll wish weren't true. But look on the bright side: you'd never be able to fix these things about yourself if you hadn't had the audacity to confront them in the first place.
2. Get to know the (real) reasons for others' beliefs
When people disagree with you, learn why. Very likely, it's not because they're stupid. It's not because they're monsters. It's not because they're mentally ill. It's not because they're conniving miscreants secretly trying to undermine the moral fabric of society. We're very good at speculating about whatever unconscious motivations might be underlying other people's beliefs, while assuming that our own reasons for belief are as clear, obvious, and rationally respectable as possible. The sooner you can come to terms with how foolish this is, the better.
To this end, I'd recommend that everyone read Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Buy it now and read it as soon as it arrives. I'm very serious about this. Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU, and one of those rare academics who is able to do top-notch, cutting-edge research while also writing and speaking in ways that anyone and everyone can understand. (You may have caught his appearance on The Colbert Reporta few years back.)
As a moral philosopher, I'd be remiss if I didn't add: I think Haidt conflates two meanings of the term "morality" in his book: (1) "morality" as a set of truths or principles about what has value, how we ought to behave, etc., and (2) "morality" as a system of beliefs and attitudes about what has value, how we ought to behave, etc. So keep this in mind as you read. But aside from that, the book is pretty spot-on.
Part of being a responsible person is having the intellectual honestly required for engaging with others' beliefs on their own terms. It's the "golden rule" applied to beliefs: you'd like others to take time to hear you out, right? Well, hear them out. You might be surprised.
3. Serve someone.
College is an extraordinarily self-centered time in people's lives. As college students, you're encouraged to find yourselves, find your passions, hone your skills, build your resume, market yourself, pursue your dreams, etc., etc., etc. And listen, I'm not saying any of this is bad advice. But pretty much every major study of human happiness has found that setting aside one's own concerns and devoting oneself to the wellbeing of others is among the most effective means to a happy life.
(I should say: I actually think it's a bad idea to make happiness one's goal in life. Probably, the world would be a much better place if, instead of pursuing happiness, people pursued something like virtue. But if it's happiness you want, you might as well pay some attention to what we've actually learned about human happiness.)
Both in philosophy and in lay discussion, people sometimes distinguish between happiness and true happiness (or real happiness, genuine happiness, etc.). The former apparently refers to the feeling of happiness -- i.e., an emotional experience, and as such, something temporary and fleeting. The latter apparently refers to something like meaningfulness. Of course, we all want to feel happy as often as possible. But on our deathbeds, we don't look back and add up all the moments we spent feeling good, then all the moments we spent feeling bad, and subtract the latter from the former to figure out how well our lives turned out. Rather, we look back and recall those things that added meaning to our lives, even if they weren't always sources of pleasant feelings.
And here's what we've learned: somewhat paradoxically, you add much more meaning to your life by improving the lives of others than you do by improving your own life.
While I'm making recommendations, I'd recommend that you watch the documentary "Happy," directed by Roko Belic. (Belic actually visited Dickinson not long ago.) Invite some friends over to watch it with you. Talk about it together afterwards. And maybe also read this book.
4. Regularly engage in some form of manual labor.
Words, words, words.
Connection to relief of symptoms of depression and anxiety
5. Take breaks from social media.
Speaking of depression and anxiety, ...
Something weirdly existential about this: studies of "false selves" and social media, at precisely the time in people's lives when "finding themselves" is supposed to be foremost
Benefits of self-control
6. Consider at least minoring in philosophy.
I know, I know. Of course the philosophy professor would say this, right? But hear me out.
There's an old stereotype, still filtering its way down from one generation to the next, according to which philosophy is among the least practical of disciplines. My parents were raised in the post-WW2 economy, and recall hearing many say things like, "If you go to college, the only things worth majoring in are business, law, biology, or chemistry," ... since, the assumption was, the only viable careers are business, law, and medicine. And then, when computers came along, computer science was added to the list. Everything else, people thought, is a waste of time (not to mention lots of money).
Even if there was some truth to this in the 1950s, we don't live in the 1950s anymore. The world has changed, the economy has changed, and more and more people are waking up to the practical benefits of philosophy. In fact, a recent article at The Atlantic wondered whether philosophy might be "the most practical major." Another article at HuffPo notes "the unexpected way philosophy majors are changing the world of business." As I tell my students all the time, it's very likely that, when you apply for jobs, you'll be one in a stack of hundreds of similarly qualified candidates. How are you going to stand out? Well, here's a suggestion: minor in philosophy.
Philosophy majors have a higher median mid-career salary than all other disciplines in the humanities. In fact, according to the Payscale study cited in that article, philosophy majors also have higher median mid-career salaries than all of the following majors: marketing, advertising, business administration, pre-law, foreign languages, and a number of sciences. Philosophy majors also tend to outscore all other majors on graduate entrance exams, like the GRE and LSAT. For a round-up of helpful charts and graphs, check this out.
But in addition to all of these practical benefits, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this: studying philosophy improves the lives of those who take it seriously. You've heard the expression "knowledge is power." I used to think this was referring to a kind of "power" to influence other people, to convince them of your views, etc. But now I'm inclined to think the real power of knowledge is the power of actually being secure in one's deepest beliefs and values, as opposed to having to compensate for one's insecurities by shouting people down, calling names, and the like. This is what philosophy has given me. I'm always curious, open to new ideas and arguments, open to being wrong. But in the meantime, I'm confident and content in the beliefs and values I have now, knowing the reasons I have for them. And my life is better for it.