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The Scenic Route to Self-Knowledge

A student discovers that intensive study can instill a new love of learning.

By Daniel Carpenter

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May 02, 2013

I started my college experience while working full-time as a systems/network administrator in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was born and raised. This came about because, while in high school, I developed an interest in building and programming computers. I became skilled enough to land a job as a junior systems administrator straight out of high school.

During the six years I was a tech administrator, I also attended the University of Alaska-Anchorage part-time. I made it through several years of coursework and did well enough, but ambled along haphazardly, lacking direction. Everything from French to biology captured my interest and effort, but because of the way I was going about it, I soon became dissatisfied. Though I was doing well in the IT world, and reading and educating myself as best I could, I was yearning for something more.

Working in the tech world introduced me to the stories of dozens of tech entrepreneurs, such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page, who consistently voiced the mantra of “follow your passion.” Listening to them, it seemed that one first found their “passion” and from this they had the impetus to succeed and achieve the life they wanted. Enamored by this idea, I bought all kinds of books on finding one’s passion. Suffice it to say, found them contradictory, vague, and ultimately unhelpful. The whole process seemed like putting the cart before the horse.

My problem was that I wanted to find a passion and then educate myself around it; feeling that to get the most out of an education, I needed to have some great intrinsic interest in what I studied. I kept searching for my “passion” but just couldn’t seem to find it.

Almost by chance I stumbled across an advertisement for a small “Great Books” school, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.  A great books school covers many of the traditional subjects but does so all through the reading of the original works. To learn chemistry you read Lavoisier and Mendeleev, for calculus, Leibniz and Newton, and so on.

Because of my search for something more, I was intrigued. But I was also initially skeptical about such an unusual and apparently “obsolete” course of study.  Still, I could see that the method of the program had millennia of practice behind it and I liked the fact that students took 4 years of math and science, albeit using an unorthodox method. Thus, though I found it strange, I had to give it a shot. I met some alumni, visited the school, and was accepted the following year.

At first, I found the program disconcerting and thought it ill-designed, especially because I thought, per my experience at University of Alaska-Anchorage, that education should be oriented predominantly around what I wanted. There, except for a few minor requirements, I could pick and choose my classes according to the whim of the moment.

That’s not how it was at Thomas Aquinas, not by a long shot. Everyone got the same degree, took the same classes, and studied and discussed with the same section of students (although sections are mixed each ensuing year). The program was based on the classical model of the Trivium and Quadrivium. There was also a strong emphasis on character, both in and outside the classroom.

This approach made a big difference. I realized that true education involves surrendering. Instead of fighting the demands of my professors or the structure of the program, I needed to adopt an attitude of prudential humility in the face of the challenges and possibilities before me. Some of the philosophy and literature classes were outside of my comfort zone, but I soon came to appreciate, and ultimately relish the challenges. It was an educational leap of faith, and yet also an exercise that instills ethical and intellectual excellence.

I also came to appreciate that Thomas Aquinas College was wholly centered on teaching. Professors were not under intense pressure to publish; rather, they had the time and freedom to prepare for teaching us well and to frequently interact with students. Professors trained us to deeply read such seminal texts as Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War and Newton’s Principia and to discuss them intelligently.

The immersion into the life of the mind was intense at Thomas Aquinas. Spontaneous discussions arose on everything from Euclidean proofs to Dante’s Commedia, throughout the day. The Socratic method in the classroom, the small student population, and the beautiful surroundings were fruitful catalysts for these frequent and rich conversations. Some of my fondest memories from that time involve great conversations under a large proud oak and washed in the rays of a balmy California sun.

Nonetheless, while the program had great strengths, it also had a major weakness. A quotation from Francis Bacon seems apt: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” It turned out Thomas Aquinas College had little in the way of writing training and practice. For of all the skills I think undergraduates need to develop writing skills are arguably the most important for a wide range of careers. Broad and careful reading and philosophical dialogue can help one’s ability to organize thoughts and to write, but the actual act of writing has no substitute.

Despite that defect, I still received a wonderful education at Thomas Aquinas College. As my time there drew to a close, I found that “something more” I had sought. I discovered, through my hard work, that I had a skill and “passion” for political thought. It was a field where I could explore the perennial problems of human government by using my IT skills, quantitative training, and the tools and texts of philosophy. I had come full circle; the horse was before the cart.

The desire to study politics further led me to the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University. So far it has been a markedly different but altogether good experience. Instead of the peaceful contemplative existence I experienced at Aquinas, Claremont’s Politics program is distinctly and profoundly applied and “entrepreneurial”: lots of self-promotion and professional development, long hours, involvement in many different projects, and the necessity to learn many different skills. As I hope to work in public policy, government, or consulting this multi-faceted and applied approach is just what I need. It has so far been fruitful, and I look forward to the possibilities ahead.

In conclusion, I learned several very noteworthy lessons about getting an education since I embarked on my collegiate odyssey covering three very different institutions. One is that cultivating character is just as important as cultivating the mind. Another is that education, whatever its form, is difficult and at times unpleasant, but sticking with it leads to new possibilities, often with good results.

A larger lesson is to not fall prey to the “passion” idea. I found it more important to ask “What am I willing to learn?” both educationally and professionally rather than searching to discover some subject that filled me with a passion to learn. Students have to learn what is important, to know what skills are needed and what their strengths are. This kind of reflection and its attendant pursuit opens opportunities one may never have been aware of. Passion for something and the full fruits of education can come from the pursuit of excellence and not the other way around.

 


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