Four years of meaning

“Why are you at Williams?” If you ask that question to a group of your friends, the range of answers will probably vary widely. A casual answer might be that someone liked the vibe they got from the people when they visited, or that it seemed like a nice place to go to college because Williamstown is beautiful. Another answer might be that attending college was an expectation and/or that someone’s parents wanted them to go to the so-called best school possible. If you push a little and ask, “What are you trying to get out of it?” some will say that it is about putting Williams on a diploma to gain an upper hand in the job market. Others have come to gain certain skills – the ability to go on and enter a certain academic field, to gain technical or scientific prerequisites for certain areas of the work world or to achieve the hallowed goal of becoming a “critical thinker.” And some people are just trying to have a good time and learn one or two things that they find interesting.

Odds are, the real answer for everyone is some mishmash of each of these, with a whole host of other possibilities also on the table. Each of these responses is essentially a practical one influenced by the circumstances within which one makes a decision. You will get similar answers to questions about why someone participates in a particular extracurricular or why someone is taking a certain class.

Ultimately, there is some sort of value in each of these reasons. But if we remember college for the practical realities that surround each of our decisions here, I think it will seem like a lot of time lost and money wasted. When we think about our reasons for doing something, we shouldn’t just be thinking about the practical realities of each situation – we should also look at what we can learn about ourselves and others as a result of them.

Consider, for example, what makes a great class. There are many different types of classes at Williams, and each class we take tends to have its own unique flavor. Are the best ones those where you learn the material well and maybe a new skill or two, or those that spark an interest in the class? Are they ones that keep us engaged and interested, as is necessary for a great lecture, or, really, any enjoyable class? Is it one, like a great tutorial or seminar, where you can really learn about, interrogate and appreciate the ideas of an individual or group of individuals?

Each of these components definitely plays a role. But I don’t think the ultimate value of the class is found in each of these, at least when they are thought of in this way. The thing about having our interest sparked in a subject, about being engaged in a lecture or discussion, about thinking about others’ ideas, is that none of it matters if we don’t do anything with it in the long run. And the only way to do something with it in the long run is to reflect on each of these actualities and what they mean to us. The only guarantee someone has is that he will be himself when he wakes up in the morning. If we don’t take what we learn and apply it to ourselves, then what is the point of even taking a class? Great – you learn practical skills that allow you to go into banking or consulting, medicine or research and any number of jobs in between. But having those skills doesn’t really mean anything unless we think about why we want to have them. Life is really boring if the answer is just ‘because it seemed like a good idea.’

The same is true of the college experience in general. I think we often lose sight of the fact that college is a time of constant transition for each and every person – ourselves included – and that we all are not exactly sure what is going on and why, socially, academically or otherwise. We can learn about ourselves from that experience, and if we don’t reflect on what we learn, then we have lost a really unique opportunity to become better people. Because if we know about ourselves, we have a chance to try genuinely to understand others and to be engaged in our worlds because of authentic interest rather than because it just seems like a good idea.

Matthew Piltch ’12 is a political science major from Bryn Mawr, Pa. He is studying abroad at Oxford University.

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