Tag Archives: education

5 Books for College Graduates

It’s late May, which means that across the world, twentysomething college students are graduating or preparing to graduate: departing campuses and communities that have shaped them deeply and venturing off into the wide open spaces of adulthood in a way that is (for most of them) wholly new. The transition from college to post-college life is a significant one for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that for many college grads, being a student (that is: being forced to read things, write papers and take exams for coveted grades) is all they have known for the last 17 or so years.

For many of them, “learning” has largely been something they associate with pressure, stress, and the confines of parental control and expectation. Education is something that has been prescribed, mapped out and scheduled-to-death for them as long as they can remember. To graduate from college, then, is among other things to liberate oneself from the notion of education as bureaucracy (curriculum checklists, units, requirements, pre-reqs, to-dos, tuition payments, etc.) and to replace it with a notion of education as a choice, or (even better) education as a pleasure. That is, if it is replaced at all.

The sad reality, I suspect, is that after degrees are conferred, many graduates consider their education to be concluded. Which I guess is the expected conclusion to an educational system primarily built around preparing students for the next thing, culminating in a college degree that translates into a job. If the telos of education is practical preparation as opposed to, say, the seeking of truth and the ability to ask questions well, then of course it makes sense that once a job is attained or a lucrative skill mastered, education ceases to be a priority.

But practical training and skill development are only part of education’s purpose. Degrees are not the end goal. Education should be a lifelong pursuit. To exist is to always be on a continuum of known and unknown, discovered and undiscovered. “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

That’s why, if I were to give one piece of advice to college graduates, it would be to find ways to keep the pursuit of knowledge and truth an active and lively pursuit in your life. One way to do that is to keep reading. Embrace the fact that, for the first time in many years, you can read what you want to and you won’t have to take a test or write a term paper about it. Learn to take pleasure in it. Make it a daily habit. Reading for “fun” is one of the most important things one can do to stay motivated to keep learning.

Read anything. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, tweets, billboards, poems (please read poems!), essays, journals, Wikipedia, and so on. Also, watch movies. Documentaries. Blockbusters. TV. Go to concerts. Museums. Take walks. Run. Travel. Try new restaurants. Develop an expertise or a habit. Discuss current events. Debate a friend. Sit on your front porch smoking pipes while discussing theology (or drinking scotch while discussing politics). Do any and everything you need to do in order to grow in your curiousity about the world and your desire to understand it more deeply.

Oh, and keep reading books.

On that note, I thought I’d give a few recommendations. The following are five books that have either come out recently or will be released very soon. They are books that I think are particularly inspiring and motivating for those of us who may be in a transition moment in life but still doggedly in pursuit of the good life: living, growing, thinking, believing and questioning well.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), by Alan Jacobs

I can’t think of a better book to recommend to a graduate as a first venture into the world of post-college reading. Jacobs dispels the notion that reading should be a chore, or that only highbrow Great Books are worth our time. “Read what gives you delight–at least most of the time–and do so without shame,” he argues, making the case in characteristically elegant fashion that reading can and should be something that gives us pleasure. Happily, Jacobs’ own finesse and wit as a writer makes the book itself a pleasure to read.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013), by Douglas Rushkoff

I recommend this book as a companion piece of sorts to Jacobs’ book, with emphasis on the “age of distraction” part. Rushkoff–the media theorist guru behind the Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders–more or less attempts to connect every zeitgeist-defining thing in our world today (Instagram! Zombies! Tea Partiers!) to shape a unifying theory about how we are both more and less “present” than ever. Obvious at times but mostly quite insightful, Present Shock is the sort of “magnifying glass on your world” book that is important to read every so often because it thinks deeply and critically about contemporary life and, in turn, helps the reader to do the same.

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012), by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is my favorite public intellectual. She has that rare, C.S. Lewis-style combination of being both a winsome communicator and an intellectual heavy-hitter. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and can write better than just about any other living writer, in both nonfiction and fiction (read her Pulitzer Prize-winningGilead for proof). She is awesome, and her most recent essay collection is too. When I Was a Child I Read Booksis not easy reading, to be sure. It’s challenging. But it will inspire you to want to think as broadly and as deeply as she does about a vast array of things: religion, contemporary economics, “new atheists,” science, literature, geography, Moses, hymnology, and yes, childhood reading habits.

Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent (2013), by N.D. Wilson

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this book (which comes out later this summer) and writing a review of it for Christianity Today. I can’t recommend it enough. Following and expanding upon themes in his Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson shows that he is not only one of his generation’s most gifted and original thinkers but also one of its best writers. Featuring some of the best prose you’ll see this side of Marilynne Robinson, Death by Living is a beautiful array of memoir, theological reflection and narrative vignette that oozes wonder about the world and humility before God. For college grads cynical about things like religion, purpose-driven lives and “making a difference”–and yet unwilling to abandon these notions entirely–Death by Living is the poolside reading I recommend.

The End of Our Exploring (2013), by Matthew Lee Anderson

In a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Matt’’s latest,The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? It’s en vogue today for young Christians to put on airs of intellectualism (you know: tweed sport coats, pipes, Jacques Ellul reading groups…), but the image of thoughtfulness is not enough. Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.

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College Never Ends (Or Shouldn’t)

One of the things I love most about working at Biola University (a Christian university in Southern California) is that every day feels like I’m back in college myself. It’s an environment overflowing with ideas and discussions and lectures and interesting people. And my job requires me to interact and intellectually engage with professors and students on a regular basis. I absolutely love it.

Today, 1,300 new students arrive at Biola. The campus is buzzing with nervous freshman and weepy parents, carrying IKEA chairs into dorm rooms and making shopping lists for Target. It reminds me of the day 9 years ago when my own parents helped me move in to Traber dorm at Wheaton College, when my dad said goodbye to me in my dorm room while mom stayed behind in the car (she was too emotional to venture into the dorm to bid me farewell).

It reminds me of the first awkward orientation week of college, which was a weird and wonderful mix of making new friends, playing get-to-know-you games, and developing early crushes on girls from our “sister floor.”

It reminds me of the insane, life-altering blur that was college: Plato, theology, dorm parties, Neil Postman, media ecology, liturgy, falling leaves, Dostoevsky, art galleries, C.S. Lewis, David Lynch, late night debates about Calvinism, taking the train to Chicago, jazz festivals, football games, roadtrips, and on and on and on.

Part of me envies the incoming freshman, coming to Biola (and universities across the country) this weekend to start the journey that will forever change the way they think about the world. I lament the fact that college goes by so fast and the crazy concentration of learning and living in community is, at the end of the day, the exception in life rather than the rule.

But then I realize that it’s silly to envy these new students, because the intellectual journey they’re beginning now is one that I’m still very much on. It’s not something that has to stop, or even slow down, after graduation. On the contrary. Just because I no longer have to read 300-page books in a day for a class, doesn’t mean that I won’t still want to read 300 page books in general, as often as I’m able to.

The mark of a good college is that it trains you to want to keep learning, to keep reading, and to keep broadening your experience and understanding of the world, long after the days of worrying about credits and GPA. Sure, the “real world” of earning a living sometimes makes it hard to continue one’s intellectual journey. After an 8-hour-day at work, it’s usually not the case that I feel like picking up The Brothers Karamazov. But when I do make the time to keep developing my mind and challenging my perspective, I never regret it.

To the new students who are nervous, excited, and overwhelmed by the beginning of college, I urge you to enjoy every second of it and make the most of your education. And to the graduates who look back nostalgically on the cherished “college days,” I remind you that education doesn’t end with a diploma.

The world is far too complex, troubled, beautiful and dynamic for us to ever just exist in. It beckons us to make sense of it. To carve at least some comprehension out of the vast incomprehensibility of existence. This is what education is about. For anyone who cares about the destiny of this world, education is a high calling: a pursuit without end that is never wholly futile and never fully satisfying.

To attain knowledge, think critically, and ask questions is to engage the world in all of its furious complexity and elusive mystery — a maddening endeavor, to be sure, but one that will never grow tiresome and certainly not be exhausted by 4 years of college… Awesome and unparalleled as those 4 years may be.

Obama’s Conservative Speech

On Tuesday, President Obama—following the precedent of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—delivered a “Back to School” speech to American students, beamed live via the Internet and C-SPAN into thousands of classrooms across the country.

It was a fantastic speech. Read it here.

I always love a good Obama speech. He’s a great, inspiring orator, and in recent years he’s delivered some of the best American speeches of the 21st century (such as this race speech from the campaign trail).

His speech to America’s schoolchildren was impressive as ever, and I hope that it inspired some children to want to learn, study, and succeed in school.

Unfortunately, in the days leading up to the speech, the buffoons of conservative talk radio and Fox News preemptively labeled the speech “socialist propaganda” and basically accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate America’s children.

Sean Hannity claimed that “it seems very close to indoctrination,” while Fox News commentator Monica Crowley said “just when you think this administration can’t get any more surreal and Orwellian, here they come to indoctrinate our kids”; similarly, Michelle Malkin claimed that “the left has always used kids in public schools as guinea pigs and as junior lobbyists for their social liberal agenda.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but a careful read of Obama’s speech reveals that it is far from a propagandistic sales pitch for the social liberal agenda. On the contrary; It’s actually borderline conservative. Why? Because the point of the speech is personal responsibility. Obama makes it clear that we all have circumstances that make achievement difficult. We have absentee fathers (Obama talks about his own), poverty, prejudice, and a whole battery of other challenges that make success in life difficult. But they are all excuses. Here’s something Obama said in the speech:

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Isn’t this sort of what conservatives are always saying? That it’s all about moving beyond handouts and pity and taking ownership over one’s destiny? Here’s another excerpt from the speech:

We can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

To me, the speech is about as American and far from socialism as you can get. It’s a speech about believing in yourself, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, overcoming adversity, etc. What was Fox News thinking in their overanxious denouncement of it?

Meanwhile, other conservatives—like Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich—have responded to the speech by praising it. Here’s what Gingrich said about it on the Today Show:

“If he could give a speech tomorrow night in the tone of his speech today to the students, this country would be much better off … It’s a good speech, I recommend it to everybody if you have any doubts.”

So, lesson for conservatives: Don’t be too quick to throw out something of value just because Obama’s name is attached to it. Maybe try listening to what he is actually saying and evaluating it on its own terms.

The Problem With Kids Today

Roger Ebert has gotten mighty cantankerous of late, and I love it. He’s always been one of my favorite critical thinkers, and his latest blog rant endears me to him even more.

The piece, entitled “The Gathering Dark Age,” is mostly Ebert complaining about the fact that young filmgoers are increasingly apathetic about reading reviews, which is exacerbated by the ever more insipid mass media machine that refuses the sort of intelligence and critical thinking which characterized older eras of journalism. Instead, the marketing and advertising arms of media conglomerates are setting the agenda and setting it low. With few in the media asking challenging or provocative questions of films anymore, it’s no wonder that most people under 25 have learned to consume media without the filter of critical thinking.

But it was this paragraph of Ebert’s article that particularly struck me:

“If I mention the cliché “the dumbing-down of America,” it’s only because there’s no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can.”

The problem with kids today is not that they aren’t motivated to be successful and/or change the world, it’s that they aren’t curious about the world. They aren’t interested in thinking critically, deliberately, and probingly about anything, unless it spells immediate pleasure and or advancement for their life. They are utilitarians in the first place, bored by any inquiry that lasts more that a few minutes or which requires more than a few Wikipedia searches.

Some people will say that this is because young people today don’t read. They don’t read newspapers, they don’t read journals or magazines, and fewer and fewer of them read books of any real depth. I’m not sure this is the source of the problem as much as it is one side effect. Media changes. If the future of media is indeed “bite sized” or visual or interactive in some way, so be it. Meaningful ideas will always find a way to be mediated, whether it’s books or films or Kindle. The real question is: will anyone be interested in ideas in the future?

The real problem—the true crisis that needs to be addressed in our lifetime—is that kids these days are raised with no enchantment of the world. They’re born into a world where every answer is at their fingertips (just a Google search away), every wonder and excitement is available on X-Box or Netflix, and little in existence is shrouded in any sort of mystery or transcendence. There’s a lot that entertains us but very little anymore that intrigues us. There is a ton of stuff that provides us pleasure but hardly anything that piques our interest.

One of the big culprits of this predicament, as Ebert noted, is the failure of our education system. Our schools are more like factories these days than they are centers of learning. They are places of standardization where students are numbers, degrees are barcodes, and ideas are merely yes or no questions on the SAT. Where are the schools that are truly interested in inspiring students to want to learn? Where are the teachers willing to model an inquisitive spirit for their pupils? They are out there, to be sure, but the system does so little to support them.

More important than systems and bureaucracies in all this, however, are families. Parents. If we want our kids to care about learning and thinking and discovering, we have to model this curiosity for them and raise them in that spirit. We have to read books to them constantly, take them to the zoo, the museum, but we also have to keep them shielded from the desensitizing, demystifying influences of mass culture. Turn off the TV. I don’t care if it’s PBS. Give your kids a paintbrush instead. Take them to the park. Show them the stars and constellations. Teach them to ask questions.

The crisis of the 21st century will not necessarily be a lack of intelligence or the inability to think. Rather, the crisis will be the lack of knowing what to think about or caring to think about anything in the first place.