Six Unconventional Questions for Choosing a College

It’s college-picking time of year again. Here are six unconventional things to consider before you embark on a journey to the ivory towers.

  1. Do you really need to go to college? You probably won’t hear this question much, because colleges all want you to pick them, because governments want to loan you money so they can have more control over you and your finances, and because going to college has become so typical that few people bother to think about alternatives. But you should think about them. Do you know what you want to do with your life? Do you know what interests and skills you have? You may have some idea, but you may not. If you don’t know, going to college might not be the best thing you can do because you don’t want to waste time studying a subject or developing a skill you won’t actually use much. Sometimes you just need to try new things, work or volunteer in new places, read about new ideas, travel, and pick up new hobbies before you know what your real strengths and interests are. Many people change their majors when they get to college – sometimes multiple times – often wasting the credits they’ve earned from classes they no longer need to graduate in their new major, because they had not given enough thought to what they wanted and needed to study. If you do decide to go to college immediately after high school, consider a strong liberal arts college (such as those in the list at the end of this post) where you will be able to further develop your ability to think, evaluate ideas, debate, and write – these are all skills that will help you in any vocation. Remember, the ultimate purpose of education is to allow you to be more fully human, for example in building your good character, in exercising your mind and creativity, and in appreciating the things that matter most.
  2. What ideas do you want to be taught if you do go to college? This is another very important question that doesn’t seem to get asked enough. Everyone has a worldview, and many professors do not have a worldview that aligns with the classical Christian worldview you’ve taken in during your homeschool/classical school/private school years. If you know your strengths and interests well enough to decide that you do want a college degree to develop your knowledge or gain skills you will need for your vocation, look up the biographies and (particularly) the writings of the professors you are likely to have in your major field at your college options. You want to know how your professors think and what they are interested in. Do the professors’ writings address their subjects in a balanced way by looking at both sides of an issue, or are they only one-sided? You will also want to know about the courses you’ll be taking. Look at the graduation requirements for your major. Will you be allowed to take courses in a variety of subjects, or will you be limited to courses only in your major? Course titles can also tell you a lot (does the English department offer many courses about “gender studies,” “deconstructionism,” “race,” “post-colonialism,” or “Marxism”?). (By the way, if you don’t know what “deconstructionism” is, read #4…) So can course descriptions (do philosophy course descriptions include Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, or are their subjects concentrated in the 19th and 20th centuries?). Read these carefully. Ultimately, even if you go to a left-leaning university, you will want to have the option of continuing your study of the liberal arts; James V. Schall, S.J., offers tremendous help in this area through his book A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (which I highly recommend for all graduates, whether or not they are college-bound).
  3. Are you solid on your beliefs, ready to have them challenged, and able to listen carefully and courteously when others talk about their ideas that contradict yours?  This question is fairly straightforward, but you have to be prepared to hear everything from the absurd to the terrifying without totally abandoning what you already believe and without exploding like Vesuvius at the person who’s speaking to you. Unfortunately, for many students today, colleges and universities are increasingly establishing policies of “trigger warnings,” to let people know that what they are about to read might make them feel uncomfortable, and “safe spaces,” to let people go to areas where they will not hear ideas that conflict with their own – ultimately restricting your rights as an American explained in the First Amendment. A few colleges – like the University of Chicago – are not doing this. True liberal arts or great books colleges traditionally welcome discussion of all kinds of ideas; this is exactly what you need to be able to do as a student. If you do decide to go to a college that does not have this philosophy, you need to be prepared to deal with serious challenges to your beliefs. If you will have your grade docked because you support a politically incorrect viewpoint, or if you won’t be allowed to pass the class or graduate with honors unless you change your opinion in a final paper, for example, are you prepared to have your grade docked, fail the class, or not have your hard work recognized? Are you prepared to face fellow students who protest even reasonable ideas or who harm private property? Are you prepared to get out of bad situations to protect your person and your integrity? To sum up, is your reason for going to that specific college worth dealing with pressure to change your beliefs?
  4. Are you prepared to learn academic jargon? Elizabeth Kantor’s Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature offers an excellent list of terms you will almost certainly encounter, particularly in the discipline of literature (though there is quite a bit of overlap in the discipline of history). Here are a few (I’ve added some others that I thought of after reading her book): in academia, a work of literature is called a “literary production” or “product”; people are called “subjects”; good and evil are called “binaries”; imagination is called “the imaginary”; things that help people or civilizations are called “privileges”; biological sexual differences are called “gender” (and the term is almost always followed up with the wholly unfounded assertion that “gender” is a “social construct,” that is, “something people just made up” – as a firm denial that differences between men and women and the ways in which they complement one another were created by God); the idea that people are fundamentally material (rather than a combination of spiritual, intellectual, and physical) beings, is called “Marxist thought”; and last but certainly not least, the idea that readers can make up whatever they want about what a piece of writing means, rather than pay attention to what the author intended it to mean, is called “deconstructionism.” Even if you plan never to do anything else in “academia” (a fancy term for institutions and professors of higher education), you will most likely have to become familiar with these – and many other – terms in the course of your undergraduate studies. (If you attend a great books college, however, you are less likely to have this problem.)
  5. Are you prepared to do double duty? No matter where you go to college, if you go, you should be prepared to pursue the truth. If your professor says something that sounds “off,” something that seems to contradict what you know, you should make a note and look it up. Consider asking your professor about it. Those who are truly open to discussing an idea should be able to explain what they have said. Most people who wants to suppress discussion will not want to explain what they have said. Even if you go to a strong liberal arts/great books college, you should still be ready to look up facts and ideas you’ve never heard of before – the process will help you better understand (and remember) the concept and get more out of the class.
  6. Do you have a way to deal with stress? Specifically, do you have a safe, inexpensive, and easily-accessible place to exercise (even if it’s only going for a brisk walk)? This was something I didn’t learn until stress became a serious problem for me during my freshman year. You have to exercise, your body has to have a way to relax, and your brain has to get an intentional break from studying – that includes a break from looking at the computer/iPad/cell phone! Getting distracted from homework by checking Facebook doesn’t count. Personally, I aimed to get one hour of exercise or activity that had nothing to do with studying, computers, or even being inside every single day. Your method of exercise and your method of resting your brain may not be the same, but they can be. The important thing is to intentionally exercise both your body and your imagination. (It “goes without saying” that eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep are also crucial.) All this may seem silly, and you may not need to consider these aspects if you are staying at home while you go to a community college, but if you have a complete change of pace because you’ve moved altogether, these considerations will be extremely important.

Below is an alphabetical list (with links) for a few colleges that support the traditions of western civilization. (Note: This list is not exhaustive, and I do not receive any money for making readers aware of these institutions.)

Here are a few resources, in addition to those mentioned above, on choosing colleges. (Again, I do not receive any money for recommending these sources.)

Image: A window in the Great Hall at Winchester, UK