The Means and the Ends of an Education

When it comes to thinking about university study in the United States, the challenge seems simply to be getting in.

As admission rates get ever closer to zero percent and the process becomes ever more stressful, it’s really no wonder we begin to think the challenge of university ends once we are in. From there, just make sure you pass, develop a niche, get a prestigious internship, and all will be fine, the thinking goes.

We focus so much on the admission that we forget all about the point of it all, which is what we do once we are in. Education, then, starts to seem like something that happens to us during these four years, rather than something we grab hold of and shape.

One’s approach to university from the very first day shapes not only the four years there, but one’s entire life. That’s because education in the liberal arts tradition is, at its core, about learning how to live. It’s about learning what good and bad means to you, not the person next to you. I’ve only learned that recently, late in my time at university. And yet learning it has changed everything.

But because the admissions process has conditioned us to think of university as a competitive machine that will give us a path to a higher-paying job, we ignore what it is that university truly offers us.

Universities have all the tools necessary to learn about life and its mysteries as one wants to learn about them. But because we think the difficulty of our education has happened in the admissions process, we ignore the real effort required of us. That effort lies not in essays or assignments, but in deciding what it is that we actually want out of our time here—and then going and getting it, however tiring and difficult it at times may seem.

Admission to university is the means of an education, not its end. What a simple idea that is so incredibly difficult to keep sight of—even once one is “in”.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

Why should we go abroad?: On connecting the dots of our lives

There were a few great lines about “finding yourself”, to use the cliche, in a Wall Street Journal article the other day. The article, titled “The College of Chinese Wisdom”, was wide-ranging and disparate, and I felt that the interpretations of Chinese philosophy for an American newspaper left something to be desired. But nevertheless an anecdote unrelated to Chinese philosophy in the middle of the piece left me thinking, and is worth quoting in full:

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy.

So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do.

Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going.

Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.” [Emphasis mine]

The difficulty comes in how the structures of our decisions are imposed on us from above. In his application to study abroad in Spain, the student will have had to outline how the experience will fit with his pre-defined goals. For instance, in my application to study abroad (I’m currently spending a semester abroad at Yale in the U.S.), I had to answer the following:

“Please explain why you are interested in studying abroad at this institution. Include in your answer a tentative list of courses that you would be interested in applying, and how might these courses help you achieve your academic and/or professional goals?” [Dodgy grammar was theirs, not mine]. 

We may well want study abroad to be a transformative experience, exposing us to new interests and ways we could live our lives, but taking this approach will make being accepted to the program far less likely. Institutions demand that we have our dots connected, so to speak—that where we are going aligns very neatly with where we have been and what we are doing at present.

A resume, for instance, which I was required to attach to my study abroad application, needs to show why the application makes sense for you. The truth could have been that I chose my study abroad precisely to do something entirely different, and yet my resume would then have had no narrative, and my responses to interview questions would have lacked the force of someone who had all their dots connected.

So I entirely agree that there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. And yet for students to take this advice to heart, to go abroad—or choose jobs—with ideas about what they could become and where they might go will require acceptance of this approach by overarching institutions. It is not students’ mindsets that are the problem, but rather the structures of decision making and narrative building that are imposed on students by long-standing institutions. The structure of a resume dictates the possibilities that are open to us.

Perhaps the risk should simply be taken, the questions answered honestly: I want to go abroad to do something I have never done before, something that might not make sense for my academic and professional goals but which I think I should try nonetheless. It’s prisoner’s dilemma, of course. The students who take the chance risk losing out over the students who answered the questions by connecting the dots of their lives. But ultimately losing out in an application that aligns your life along one straight path might be precisely the opportunity you needed to do something transformative that you had no seemingly good reason to do.


Thanks to Maria for sending me the link to the WSJ article.

Looking Back: Yale-NUS College Class of 2017

Someone reminded me recently of an article I wrote in April 2013, not long after I accepted my offer to attend Yale-NUS College. The article was published on my personal blog and on Yale-NUS’ Admissions website. It’s interesting for me to look back at the reasons I gave at the time for wanting to attend Yale-NUS—I still maintain those reasons given, and my expectations have been exceeded in almost every regard. (Also interesting to see how much my writing has changed!)

Over the past couple of years I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want out of attending university. Something I often thought about was what my perfect university would look like. I decided my perfect university would be in Asia, and would offer me a liberal arts degree that bridges Asia and the West.

Why is that my perfect university? I’ll explain each part. Quite frankly, the specialisation inherent in the UK system of tertiary education (what NZ follows) scares me. I know to a certain extent where my primary interests lie, but beyond that I want to try a huge number of different things and learn about completely different fields. In New Zealand, doing that is only partially possible if doing an Arts degree, which comes with other setbacks. Only a four-year liberal arts degree based on the US system would give me what I want.

And why Asia? Since I lived in the Philippines some years ago, nowhere has inspired me as much as Asia. The sense that things are happening excites me in a way other places simply haven’t. I also feel that Asia will play a huge role both in my life and everyone’s lives, and I think it’s important that I try to understand Asia more fundamentally than taking a class at a university outside of Asia could do.

For a long time I thought that was just wishful thinking: I didn’t know of a single liberal arts college in Asia. So my task changed to trying to determine which half of my “perfect university” equation I should compromise on. Do I go to a non-liberal arts college in Asia, or do I go to a liberal arts college elsewhere in the world?

Then in the middle of last year I received an email from Jeremiah Quinlan, the Dean of Admissions at Yale-NUS College. I’d never heard of the place before. The email started:

“In April 2011, Yale University and the National University of Singapore announced a collaborative partnership to create a new liberal arts college in Singapore, the English-speaking economic heart of Southeast Asia. Yale-NUS is not an overseas campus for Yale students; in August of next year, Yale-NUS will enroll its pioneer class of 150 four-year students to study with dedicated Yale-NUS professors on its own brand-new campus nestled within one of Asia’s strongest universities. As American universities internationalize, and as Asia continues to develop its global political and economic presence, Yale is proud to be the first Ivy League school to establish a new college bearing its name outside of the US.”

(If you want some more detailed information about Yale-NUS, check out this blog post by one of my classmates-to-be and fellow Kiwi, Andy).

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I read that email, because it came as such a shock. It felt as though someone had read my thoughts and started a university just for me. Out of all the places I thought a university in Asia would be best, Singapore would’ve been my top pick.

But it amazed me in more ways. Something that I’d always been wary of in terms of studying at university was simply slotting into a hundred-year-old system where everything was stuck in its ways. Most existing institutions are too large and “heavy” to innovate successfully or to build a curriculum that links between departments. In addition, I’ve always considered myself an “early adopter”, as I love finding the “new” and then sharing it with everybody. The fact that this is a new university, giving its first students the opportunities to set the tone of the institution for decades to come, to me is a huge opportunity.

The university is built on connecting Asia and “the West”. If you take a literature course in the US, or NZ, it will be Western literature. If you want to learn about Asian literature, you have to take a separate, specific “Asian literature” course. That is so backward. It misses how important Asia is to the world. Yale-NUS, in every course it offers, bridges Asia and the West.

Clearly I applied. It was the place I most wanted to be accepted to, but it was also the most competitive from estimates. Sure enough, Yale-NUS has already had over 12,000 applicants for 150 spots, and its admit rate seems to be about 3%.

I was lucky enough to be admitted with a merit scholarship.

I’m writing this blog post from the Auckland Koru Lounge on my way back to Wellington after a weekend in Singapore for the “Experience Yale-NUS Weekend”, where 120 admitted students were invited to spend time in Singapore together. The weekend confirmed everything I thought about Yale-NUS: that it is the right place for me.

For example, we had some sample classes during the weekend, and one was a history course comparing the historians Herodotus and Sima Qian. I’ve learned about each of them individually in a Roman history course and a Chinese civilisation course, respectively – but never have I been able to draw comparisons between them. Yale-NUS, because it’s an agile education startup with a very tight-knit faculty, is able to bridge these things in every discipline.

I have accepted my offer of admission at Yale-NUS and will be joining the inaugural class from July this year.

Surprisingly, Yale-NUS wasn’t the only place I was considering. Another liberal arts college started up in Asia this year, and I was admitted there too: New York University Shanghai. Why am I not going there? I just don’t have as large a connection to it – it’s not as “me”, even though it will be a fantastic institution. I was lucky enough to be flown to different colleges to visit in order to determine what is “me” and what isn’t. For example, I visited NYU Abu Dhabi. While it’s a great college, I didn’t have anywhere near as large a connection to it as I did to Yale-NUS.

I was admitted to a number of other colleges around the world, and in turning them down to accept at Yale-NUS I have no worries or concerns. In decisions as big as this it would be normal to have some concerns or reservations, but I have none. I’m thrilled and excited and am so looking forward to the next four years.

After the past few years working towards gaining admission to the right university for me, it’s great to finally be able to say with certainty where I’ll be going.