The Serendipity of Learning

Whenever I'm in a bookstore -- one of my favorite places to be, by the way -- I love to wander around in sections covering areas of knowledge I may not be familiar with. I'm an economist by education and experience, and of course I'll happily peruse books on that subject and read the latest publications in my field. But as often as not, I'll make a beeline for the history shelves, or spend a while looking at science titles, or lose myself among the new bestsellers, or pick up various how-to books and allow myself to daydream: Could I really build my own bicycle? Learn to speak Urdu? Make art on my iPad? Raise goats in my back yard?Because the best thing about a bookstore is the serendipity of it -- the being open to whatever you might find, the sheer fun of browsing and perhaps coming across something amazing that you weren't expecting and didn't even know was there.

Bookstores are full of serendipitous experiences. So are universities. And so is life.

I always urge our Chapman University students to look out for the unexpected and to be open to that experience. I can't tell you how many times a freshman has come to college convinced they've chosen the right major -- only to find, a year or so down the road, that something completely new has transformed their life and their way of thinking, and suddenly they're rocketing off on a whole new learning adventure. The entire university experience is made for this type of discovery, of course. When students encounter the wide diversity of courses, majors, extracurricular activities and clubs, sports, arts events, travel abroad options and everything else that a great university offers, it's like a smorgasbord of riches.

And it can be hard to choose. That's why parents shouldn't worry when their student can't make up his or her mind about a major right away. The university gives them the freedom to sample, to try things out, to explore the unfamiliar and the new, and we most enthusiastically encourage this. Some students grumble at first about the required core courses, for example, that are outside their field of interest or major -- why should a business major need to take a humanities course, or an art major a science course? (Students can be surprisingly conservative in their thinking sometimes.) And yet most students find something fascinating in these classes, and may have their minds opened to explore fields they never considered before. At the very least, they will come away with a broader understanding of the world and its endless avenues of knowledge.

It's said that up until the Renaissance, it was possible for a very learned person in Europe to literally "know all there was to know" about the world. (Well, at least the Western European world, and at least what was understood of science, literature, philosophy and the other classical subjects of the time.) That quickly changed, however, with the expansion of travel, the exploration of previously unknown (to Europeans, at any rate) regions of the world, and the subsequent explosion of discoveries in science, medicine, agriculture, technology and other fields. Suddenly it was impossible to know "everything" any more. The great age of the specialist had begun.

The world still runs on specialist knowledge -- but the specialist is still a happier and more creative contributor to the world by absorbing knowledge outside his or her field. How creative could a budding novelist or screenwriter be, for example, without knowing enough of science to write science fiction, or enough of history to write a juicy (and believable) historical epic? How effective can a business person or attorney be in today's world without understanding politics, history and sociology? Scientists and medical specialists benefit greatly from knowing and participating in the arts (because creativity works across all disciplines) and can pick up valuable people skills by studying communication and creative writing. The cross-pollinations are endless -- and they're almost all to be found during a student's university years.

However, it doesn't -- and shouldn't -- end at your university graduation. Perhaps the most valuable thing college teaches is how to enjoy learning throughout your life. Ideally, what you learn in college, while pretty amazing in itself, is just the tip of the iceberg. As the old saying goes -- and it's very true -- the more you know, the more you know you DON'T know. That's a healthy thing, and an exciting one. Your life and the world are your universities, in the long run -- may you find great joy in the experience.