What is college for?

These days, there is a widespread attitude about college that its purpose is essentially job training, that the measure of its effectiveness is job placement, and that this–job readiness and placement–is the key to the importance of a college education in promoting social mobility.

An outstanding college-prep program at Columbia University for disadvantaged students demonstrates a different, more essential truth: that the real transformative power of education is in students taking part in the Great Conversation. The program takes low-income Manhattan who are aiming to be the first in their families to go to college and places them in seminars where they read and discuss dense, seminal texts: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, J.S. Mill.  Engaging with the big ideas and the foundational texts that have shaped our world gives students a sense of confidence and competence that changes them on a fundamental level, and that has the power to transform them into fully-functioning, fully engaged members of our political society. 

But the distinction of this [program] and the reason it should be replicated is that it doesn’t focus on narrow disciplines, discrete skills, standardized tests. It doesn’t reduce learning to metrics or cast college as a bridge to a predetermined career.

It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.

Montás also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums ago, and they understand "their fundamental stake in our political debate."

"They read the news differently," he said. "They see themselves as political agents, able to participate."
The New York Times, Plato and the Promise of College

This is the shining glory of a liberal education, and the core significance of college: for the individual, depth, breadth, agency, voice; for society, all of the promise of democracy itself.  

Problems and solutions

Why is our mascot an octopus, you ask?  

Well, because you are an octopus.  

And because if you're ever having a moment of self-doubt, or if you're feeling defeated, or if some problem of yours feels impossible to solve, I want you to think of the octopus.  What would the octopus do?  Would he curl up in the fetal position and hope the problem goes away?  Would he say, Screw it; I'm just gonna play Guitar Hero?  Would he throw in the towel?  


Check this guy out*:

To review: this octopus is out of the water, stuck on the floor of a boat with no obvious escape route, and surrounded by hecklers. Things are looking less than great, no?  But does our hero cry and whine to his captors?  Does he call in a favor?  Does he accept defeat and give up?  

Nope.  He hangs in there and he figures out a solution, and then he fights for it until he––against the odds––succeeds.  That's called grit, and it makes all the difference.  We're all on the floor of a boat surrounded by hecklers sooner or later.  And when those moments arise, we would do well to recall the staunch and cunning octopus.  


* Let's just all agree to ignore the obnoxious wedding dress remark in the background, ok?

Why German?

Why might you choose to learn German?  Well, maybe you're going to be visiting your German relatives, and you want to impress Oma with your mastery of "Please pass the mineral water!"  Or perhaps you're going to be an au pair in Vienna.  It could be that you need to read heavy German texts for your dissertation, or pass a language competency exam.

But it could also be that once you discover that the German for sloth is Faultier ("lazy animal"), skunk is Stinktier (if you guessed "stinky animal," you're catching on), and turkey is Truthahn ("threatening chicken"), you find yourself too enchanted NOT to learn more.

...in which case, you're in for a treat.  Wait till you find out how to say "lightbulb."

You are an octopus.

Let me explain.  

Some years ago, a friend of mine was interning at a major aquarium.  His job was to tend to the octopus.  As it turned out, this was sort of a high-stakes assignment.

real live octopus 2.jpg

The aquarium's resident octopus was a vigorous young female.  When she'd first arrived, she had amused the aquarium employees with her various antics, her speed, and her uncanny ability to hide.  Her tank was spacious and conveniently located, so she often had an audience, and she had seemed to like to perform.  

As time went on, though, the octopus became less and less playful.  She began to seem dull. Her handlers worried, but didn't know how to help.  The octopus's physical health checked out, but her overall condition continued to deteriorate.  

Then she stopped eating.  Things were dire.

The aquarium folks sprang into action.  Experts were consulted.  The octopus, they hypothesized, needed more stimulation. They began giving her toys and puzzles to manipulate*, and she perked up a little.  But she was still refusing food, and wasn't likely to survive her hunger strike much longer.  

At last, someone had the clever idea to serve her daily rations in a locked box.  Presented with a padlocked coffer, the octopus investigated, quickly popped the latch, and tucked right in to her dinner for the first time in weeks.  The next day, same scenario: problem solved.

Reader, that octopus had nearly died of boredom.  

Look, here's the thing:  an octopus is a very intelligent creature.  A member of the family cephalopod, it is considered one of the brightest of all the invertebrates.  Octopuses have a very high level of dexterity. They use tools.  They play.  They have an uncanny ability to adapt.  Studies have demonstrated that they have individual personalities.  Much of octopus behavior suggests that they engage in meaningful cognition–which is to say: octopuses think.  Their brains need to be occupied.  They need things to think about, problems to solve. 

In captivity and without meaningful engagement, an octopus can become bored, and a bored octopus cannot thrive.  When its brain has no consequential work with which to engage itself, a captive octopus will tend either to become listless and resigned (as in the case of my friend's charge, this can spell death) or to make a nuisance of itself: octopuses have been known to break glass, to squirt visitors and handlers, to toss objects out of their tanks, and to instigate other such shenanigans.

Back to my friend the octopus intern, whose job it now was to keep this particular octopus occupied and in good health.  This was, he explained, not an altogether straightforward task.  Incarcerating her food in elaborately locked boxes did work, but after an encounter or two with any one lock, the octopus would have it figured out and lose interest.  The locks on the food boxes had to be constantly changing, the challenges fresh.  Otherwise, she'd get mopey and unruly.  

So, what does this have to do with you?

Here's what I'm driving at: We humans are very similar. Our minds crave meaningful engagement.  We are designed to struggle, to strive, to exert ourselves.  We thrive when we have problems to solve, when we have significant work of one kind or another to do.  Our great big brains don't tolerate idleness.

You've probably noticed about yourself or others that going unchallenged or uninspired tends to lead to restlessness, lethargy, agitation, and even depression.  If you have children, you've almost certainly noticed that shiftlessness very often gives way to surliness, misconduct, and–my personal favorite!–the harassing of siblings.  And if there are teens in your life, then you know very well that a rapidly-developing, challenge-craving young person, when she is not sufficiently engaged with her world and her work, may become apathetic, distressed, or disconnected, or she may exhibit behavior that is destructive to herself or others.

This clever octopus is using a coconut shell as a makeshift shelter.

This clever octopus is using a coconut shell as a makeshift shelter.

Consider the octopus.

We all hunger for meaningful engagement with work that feels significant.  Like the octopus, we cannot truly thrive in its absence.  So if you find yourself struggling, or if you notice that your child or your student is underperforming or seems spiritless, out-of-balance, or anxious, consider the octopus.

I certainly do.