Foreign policy guru Walter Russell Mead reprints an essay full of advice for those returning students, including some thoughts on a liberal education. Here’s the bullet points:
- The real world does not work like school.
- Most of your elders (including parents and teachers) know very little about the world into which you are headed.
- You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.
- Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.
- Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.
- Character counts; so do good habits.
I suggest you take a look at what he has to say, and in particular the discussion of the importance of a liberal education.
Following this advice will be hard; a liberal education is no easy thing to get, and not everybody wants you to have one. However, in times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends. You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world. Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.
For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage. You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine). What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn.
He then lays out the elements of what it means to be liberally educated, concluding with this:
[U]nless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers. The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning. It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding. You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world. The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.
That should get you through registration.