Friday, August 26, 2011

Seven Quick Takes (v 6): Seven Pieces of Advice for New Students

The semester at UT officially began on Wednesday. As the semester gets busier, I anticipate that my blogging output will decrease. But for now, here are seven short pieces of advice for new students (none of which are duplicated from my previous letter of advice).

"Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes" (G.K. Chesterton). Suffice it to say that during the course of college, you will encounter many ideas that are at the very least new to you: most of these will be bad ideas.

"Ideas have consequences" (Richard Weaver). Many ideas look good on paper, but they don't turn out so well in real life. The ideas which we embrace will be a large part of what kind of person we become, indeed they may be the most important part. Unfortunately, many of these ideas can be self-destructive for the individual or deleterious for society, however good they may first sound. The most important thing to know about a man is his philosophy, Chesterton tells us in Heretics. Test all things and hold fast to the good, Saint Paul advises (1 Corinthians 5:21). This is especially true of ideas.

"The individual is foolish, but the species is wise" (Russell Kirk). Many bad ideas are exposed through having been tried before; others we may avoid by respecting convention and prescription, by heading tradition and the wisdom of the past. Don't forget what you have learned from your family and your community when you leaves those things behind for college; some of that will be false knowledge, but much may be true time-tested wisdom.Read old books as well as new ones; C.S. Lewis once advised that we should read at least two old books from previous ages for every contemporary book (introduction to Saint Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God). You can learn more of value from Plato and Aristotle, Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, or even Lewis and Chesterton than you are likely to be taught in all of the core classes of your undergraduate institution. Joining (or starting) a book club can do more for your education than many classes or even degrees.

Our last piece of advice comes from a motivational speaker. Maybe we should get this guy to do our freshmen orientation (ok, barring the fact that he's no longer alive):

This may seem a bit shocking for advice at orientation, but it's actually pretty good advice to consider. I wouldn't quite go so far as Chris Farley and say that the average freshman is going to end up living in a van by the river, or even that their life will amount to nothing. What I will say is that there is much, much more to life than paychecks and promotions. The most important vocations are the ones which don't amount to jack squat in the eyes of the world: husband, wife, father, mother, priest, religious. It is far more important to discern your own vocation--what are you being called to do?--and to pursue that, than to pursue the degree which is most likely to yield the highest paycheck. After all, there is a large surplus of lawyers, and most of them hate their jobs almost as much as everybody else does; but I have seldom met a man who chose to be a good father first and later regretted it, or a woman who tried to be a good mother and wished that she'd just stuck to that government job instead.

It is difficult to seek wisdom or happiness with a disordered soul (Aristotle and Plato). A true education is not only mental but also moral. A man who has spent his life acquiring knowledge is no better off for it if his life is still disordered, if he remains enslaved to the same passions and vices. Now, an education itself does not treat the root cause of these things:  we cannot educate away sin. However, the education should help lead us to curb our appetites, and to recognize that we need help which comes from beyond ourselves. We cannot seek wisdom if we are constantly distracted by lust or envy or wrath, nor can we find happiness if we are too busy looking after our worldly possessions or engaged in overindulgence (gluttony) or too lazy and unconcerned to to the searching (sloth); and if we are so filled with pride that we think we have all the answers already, then we will be unteachable. As the late great Pope John Paul II said, "True freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the [ability] to do what we ought." This ultimately means learning moral discipline and self-control in addition to book-learning. It means inculcating virtues and attempting to overcome vices.

Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do (Saint Thomas Aquinas). These correspond, roughly, to truth, beauty, and goodness. These are the three things which ultimately matter, the three things which move our hearts and which our minds seek. These are also the three things about which an education ought to teach us, first and foremost. Unfortunately, they are also the first three things to be forgotten on the typical college campus, where training and certification--or worse, ideology and propaganda--often become the orders of the day.


"The Truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). This is ostensibly one of the mottoes of the university where I am doing my graduate work. These are words to live by, especially for college students. The purpose of an education is not to get a degree and a higher paying job, though these things may be a benefits which come with education. Rather, the purpose of an education--we might say a "liberal education"--is to set us free. Ironically, the truth sets us free in part to seek more of the truth, and so an education ought to free us to pursue truth, to love goodness goodness, and to enjoy beauty. The truth will set you free--be it moral truth which attempts to free us from the slavery of sin or the intellectual truth which frees us form the shackles of ideology--this is the true end of an education.

Seven Quick Takes Friday is hosted by Mrs Jennifer Fulwiler at Conversion Diary. Want more advice? The Aggie Catholics have some good advice here.

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