Don't Miss the College Forest for the Career Trees

Now that the members of the college graduating class of 2016 are out of high school, what can we say to them as they anxiously await the next step in their educational journey?

As I told a group of students at an orientation this past June: Although most of you want to master the skills that will enable you to get jobs, career preparation is only one piece of the college experience.

A college may not always be able to anticipate what technical skills students will need ten years from now. Thirty percent of you will one day work in jobs that don't yet exist. Studies show that nationally, 60 percent of students graduate in majors different from those in which they began. Your generation will change careers seven times over a lifetime.

College, particularly a liberal arts college, seeks to cultivate qualities of intellect and character that are essential not only for a satisfying career and useful life, but to make judgments and choices in the face of uncertainty and complexity. Learning judgment demands taking an active role in your education, and not being a passive receptacle for information transmission.

College can't serve you well without challenging you to integrate information and skills in ways you haven't before, and to apply the results to problems that may not yield clear and
simple answers.

We do know that you will need to understand and assess competing ideas. You might need to revise long-held views and oppose conventional wisdom when given good reasons to do so. Consequently, you will need courage to re-examine cherished beliefs, a commitment to work with others with whom you disagree, persistence and discipline to work through difficult problems, and intellectual curiosity so that judgment is a satisfying pursuit.

The goal of a classical liberal arts education was to prepare students to live in a community as a suitably prepared responsible citizen. In our time, you will need to be citizens not only of a local community, state, or nation, but also citizens of the world. You will need to negotiate the intricacies of community-building with classmates, roommates, faculty, and staff, in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in the residence hall, dining commons, labs, and clubs. You will likely find opportunities to practice cooperation, to engage in civil discourse, to disagree without being disagreeable, and to weigh the responsibilities of being a member of a community against the dictates of individual conscience.

Over the next four years you will probably change at a greater rate than any comparable period in the rest of your lives, as you develop, not only your intellectual capacity, but also your character, your aesthetic sensibilities, your moral compasses, and your relations to the community of humankind.

The experience you are about to embark on can be costly, as media continues to remind us. But regardless of price, you must avoid the danger of wasting your education. I quote another college president, John B. Watson (1869-1942), the first president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College, predecessor to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, at a time when African Americans were often shunted to vocational studies rather than encouraged to pursue the liberal arts.

President Watson said, "The first aim of a good college is not to teach books, but the meaning and purpose of life. Hard study and the learning of books are only a means to this end. We develop power and courage and determination and we go out to achieve Truth, Wisdom and Justice. If we do not come to this, the cost of schooling is wasted."

Please don't waste the cost of your schooling. Developing mastery over a body of knowledge will enable you to make a living after graduation. But as important as knowledge is, if that is all you expect from college, you will have missed the larger ends of your education. Learn how to make a life of purpose, wherein your personal flourishing is intertwined with the welfare of others.

This story originally appeared in Issue 6 of our new weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.