A Letter to College Freshmen: Be Explorers

A college education is not a guarantee, of course, of finding your identity or the ability to express it. But it can help you immeasurably in determining your commitments and how best to channel your talents and energies to produce maximum benefits to others and satisfaction to yourself.
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Co-authored by Thomas Ehrlich, professor of education at Stanford University.

Dear Freshmen:

We congratulate you as you start your first year of college. We are emboldened to offer you some counsel based on our own experiences. Ernestine Fu is currently a graduate student, having just completed her undergraduate education, while Tom Ehrlich has spent most of his career as a teacher and administrator in higher education.

Our urgent plea is that you be bold in exploring opportunities on your campus. In the process of discovery, if you are willing to reach out and to take chances, you will gain insights about all that is around you, what has come before, and what may lie ahead. Most of all, you will become increasingly excited about your own potential and the ways in which you best can contribute your special talents for a better world.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Eudora Welty wrote a book about her childhood in Jackson, Miss. In closing, she stressed that hers was "a sheltered life." But, she added, "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within." That is the core of our message to you -- your daring should start from within.

In academic terms, it is easy enough to choose a set of courses that are wholly within areas of your career interests. But a seminar in art history when you know nothing about art, or a course in psychology when you have no knowledge of the field, that takes the special daring that we urge. If you do reach out, you will find yourself enriched for life. You will gain each time you enter a museum as you see art in new ways, just as you will gain understanding of those with whom you deal personally and professionally from an exposure to psychology.

Exposure to a variety of disciplines will show you how different academic fields view what evidence is relevant and why it is relevant. They will give you a sense of the process of discovering new knowledge, from the flash of insight to exhausting hours of search and much in between. A vital dimension of your undergraduate years will be a shift to a process of life-long education, and forays into the intellectual unknown will enrich that process.

Necessary Attributes: The Courage to Inquire and the Morality of Reason

In exploring diverse disciplines, two attributes are particularly important: the courage to inquire and the morality of reason.

The courage to inquire is based on the premise that whatever the dangers inherent in knowledge, those inherent in ignorance are far more ominous. An act of faith is involved, for it cannot be proven that more knowledge today will lead to a better life tomorrow, though all the evidence of the past supports this assertion. Colleges and universities are committed to the relentless questioning, revising, rejecting, and reaffirming process that is always skeptical of anyone's answers, though fully aware that decisions of enormous consequence must often be based on those answers.

The morality of reason guides the courage to inquire. Reason does not, of course, provide the only morality, even for a college or university, but it is the one we recognize in our academic work. It is the morality that demands reasoned analysis of each problem, full development of those analyses, and full recognition of the limits of rational exploration. All of us come to our college or university with conceptions and preconceptions. How could it be otherwise? But that college or university should require you to state your premises, why you have chosen them, and the reasoning processes by which you move from premises to conclusions.

No one would suggest that success as an undergraduate is guaranteed with only the courage to inquire and the morality of reason. Significant brainpower and substantial willingness to work hard are also essential. So is the spirit of cooperation because while much learning is lonely, much requires joint effort. And there are other attributes as well. But if you have those two primary ones, we think you will find the special exhilaration that is the joy of education.

Be Skeptical, But Not Cynical

A rich diversity in your curriculum will also aid you to become appropriately skeptical without letting that skepticism corrode into cynicism.

"Beware of labels; they may be on the wrong suit," is one of Tom's favorite sayings. A college or university has no place for absolutes; it calls for constant questioning and reexamining with an open mind. We do not mean that there are no ultimate questions that cannot be answered by more knowledge in an academic sense. Much of what is most important in our lives is and should be beyond rational inquiry. The special province of places of higher education, however, is the inquiring mind at work -- probing, exploring, questioning, and always seeking. An act of faith is involved, but it is faith that new knowledge is important and that the search for that knowledge must continue.

Cynicism is so dangerous because it is a facile excuse for laziness. The cynic is comforted by the thought that nothing she or he does makes a difference. Accordingly, the cynic does nothing except complain. On countless occasions, we have seen individual students make extraordinary contributions because they cared and tried. Many are described in our new book. We hope you will follow their lead.

Find Your Own Voice

Perhaps most important, over the course of your college years, the exposure to diverse disciples will help you to find your own voice. In the community of explorers, you are unique and the expression of your own identity in a manner you find appropriate is essential. The late John W. Gardner, put the matter this way:

"You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments - whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life's work, to loved ones, to your fellow human beings. People run around searching for identity, but it isn't handed out free any more - not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. Your identity is what you're committed to."

A college education is not a guarantee, of course, of finding your identity or the ability to express it. But that education can help you immeasurably in determining your commitments and how best to channel your talents and energies to produce maximum benefits to others and satisfaction to yourself.

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