I have been reading Libby Gruner’s recent “advising” columns with interest, both because I wish I’d had someone like her to advise me when I was a floundering undergraduate, and because my son is (knock wood) about to finish the tenth grade, and we’re starting to talk about future plans in ways that are more focused and grounded than a few years ago, when his goal was to attend college in Florida because then he could play baseball all year.
He still loves baseball, but his real passion is for music, especially guitar. He thinks he’s decided not to major in music, though, because he doesn’t believe the odds of being able to support himself by performing and composing are high, and he knows he doesn’t want to teach. So he’s looking around for a way to make a living that will be sufficiently pleasant and lucrative to allow him to pursue his real love more seriously than as a hobby, but without the pressure of a career.
So far, he has considered being an airline pilot, working with computers, and, most recently, designing and crafting custom-made guitars. Because two out of three of these vocations would not require a college degree, the question has naturally arisen, why go to college at all? Why not enroll in a trade school, or apprentice himself to a master guitar maker?
These discussions have made me uneasy, and I think they make him uneasy, too, though it’s been hard to pinpoint why. On the one hand, he’s really, really smart, literate and knowledgeable — as Libby suggests, following his passions has led to intellectual growth in a number of directions. His fascination with flying led him to read and digest books on aviation physics starting at age 11, and at 13 he made an instructional video that has become a YouTube classic. He has mastered software programs that enable him to compose and record music on multiple tracks, and he has written and recorded pieces of astonishing beauty and complexity.
On the other hand, his interests and abilities haven’t always translated well into the school setting. He tends to follow his imagination rather than the assignments, and it’s only when the two coincide that he really shines academically. Other than that, he does what he needs to do to keep parents and teachers placated, and saves his best energy for baseball, music, family and friends. So signing on for another four years of requirements and assignments that may be far afield of his interests sometimes seems impracticable.
Yet I want him to go to college, and not just because a degree might help him get a good job. I had trouble articulating why, though, until I read Libby’s latest. I realize now that it’s because I want him to keep learning how to think, not just how to do things. His ability to read and think critically grows through provocative classroom discussions (a strength of his high school) and teachers’ pointed comments on his papers, which he takes in and responds to. When he has friends over, usually to play music, they tend to continue classroom debates about current, historical or fictional events, and I’m often impressed by the depth of their understanding and thoughtfulness.
Obviously, learning like this doesn’t have to stop with school. But opportunities to grow through exposure to different viewpoints, and the leisure to examine and confront differences, aren’t built-ins after academic life ends. And given his intellectual curiosity, I can’t believe he would be better off going straight to work after high school.
I’m not in charge, of course. He may decide differently, and his decision may be the correct one. But at least I’m able to articulate my reservations now, and for that I thank Libby and her commenters.