Dear Freshmen (and everyone else, but especially freshmen):
So, here you are, newly arrived in Washington, D.C., at a college. Amazing thing, a college. A self-contained community with janitors, sports teams, doctors, counselors, cooks, police, etc., all for the benefit of a faculty whose main role in society is to teach (hopefully well) and think (hopefully rigorously) about whatever strikes them as important, and a student body whose main role in society is to take advantage of that faculty. In the next four years, you will consume more social resources than most people will in their entire life and be exposed to more ideas than most people dream of.
And it would be a profound shame if you were not to take maximal advantage of it.
If you are like most of our students, you come with a fair idea of your career path. And my goal in this letter is to convince you to forget about that, at least for a while. In my own case, the two professional passions of my life come from a course I had no interest in and a conversation I found offensive.
When I went to college, I was the best high school orchestral trumpet player in Ohio, and I fully intended to study music until I was picked up by a major orchestra. Oh, I planned to take a few math courses – yes, I was a music major who loved math, putting me pretty far out on the margins of the geekiness curve – but I hadn’t the slightest interest in anything else the university offered.
Unfortunately, there were those annoying requirements. So one day I found myself in Introduction to Philosophy. And it changed my life in the most profound way possible. I found not only something I was talented at – more so than music, as it happens; that call from the New York Philharmonic was probably never going to come – but a whole way of life that simply felt “right.” I signed up for a second course, then another and another, started spending days in the philosophy lounge and nights in bars arguing with other philosophy students. And somewhere along the way, it became clear that I was no longer a musician, but a philosopher who played music.
When I went to college, politics struck me as boring and of no real importance to my life, but insofar as I cared, I was a moderate Republican. Then one day I spent eight or nine hours arguing with a group of students who ended up convincing me that I was pig-ignorant about what went on in the world. In order to prove them wrong I read lots of books and spent a year checking footnotes and following up leads in the library. (Yep, still a geek.)
They were right, and I remain a philosopher and political activist to this day.
I tell these stories not because you should become anarchist philosophers (though it’s OK if you do) but because you should not suppose that you know who you are. It isn’t that you lack passions, loves or beliefs. Your family, your hometown and the belief system you grew up with are all gifts, ones that will matter to you forever. But if you are lucky, if you take advantage of where you are and the unbelievable range of expertise at your beck and call, your whole life is about to be tested, to be exposed to a breadth of experience that goes beyond anything you have imagined before. And there is no better thing than that.
Is there some department in the college bulletin that you have never heard of? Great reason to take a class. Is there some professor who is known for political views you find horrible or incomprehensible? Go listen. Is there something you have always assumed you have no talent for? Find the best teacher of it and try.
The worst thing you can do in your years at Georgetown is to play it safe, try to protect the beliefs and inclinations you arrive with, to slide by distribution requirements without enthusiasm. Are you a leftist atheist? Take a course on Christian philosophy with Mark Murphy. Are you a conservative Catholic? Take a course on virtue ethics with Karen Stohr, or a literature course with Ed Ingebretsen or a course on Islamic history. Have you always wanted to study Russian politics? Take a course in abstract algebra or astronomy. Math geek? Film noir.
What’s the worst that can happen? You might be bored for a few hours a week for 15 weeks. But more likely you’ll be fascinated, intrigued, maybe infuriated. That – not explaining some book on a topic you already know a lot about – is what college is most fundamentally about. Our job here isn’t just to train you, or to tell you things you need to know. It is to challenge you, to make you uncomfortable, to upset your unexamined convictions, to make you argue for things that you assume without thought and to consider arguments for views you never took seriously. Maybe a course will change your life. Or maybe it will just make you better able to argue for and articulate the life you already have.
Either way, it’s a damned exciting prospect.
For those who read this column last term, I’m as surprised as you are that I’m back. As before, I’ll be contributing to THE HOYA’s viewpoint page every two weeks and doing my best to offer challenging perspectives on social and political issues. For those who don’t know me, you can still find my columns from last year on www.thehoya.com. In the first, I introduced myself and told you a few random things about who I am.
ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.