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How Not to Waste Four Years in School


Life is short, but books are long. Your college years, while the dull parts might seem to drag on endlessly, will be over in a flash. Trust me. In a shockingly short time, you really will have to spend 40-70 hours per week answering “urgent” e-mails, doing tedious research for lazy superiors, treading minefields of office politics, placating narcissists and fetching people coffee.

Whatever your chosen field, it will be years before you get to the “fun” part. Think of what lies ahead as apprenticeship, “paying your dues” or vocational hazing. It’s going to last for years and years, and while it’s happening, you’ll find yourself so tired at day’s end that you will rarely crack any of those unread Great Books you piled up in college and schlepped from one apartment to another. Instead, you’ll be proud of yourself for listening to NPR as you drift off into a nap. You know, just like your parents …

Never again will you have four consecutive years in which you are privileged, at other people’s expense, to hang out in comfy lounges with coffee machines, doing little but meditating on the meaning of life, the structure of history, the nature of man and how he can best live in community. This is your big chance to shape your mind and test it in habits of clear and consistent thought. You really do have time now — as you never will again — to say something like, “People keep talking about how central Hegel is. I wonder what that’s about. This book is 400 pages — okay, I’ll give it a read.”

So here’s my message to young people of faith who want to make a difference in the world someday: Sign up for hard-core, serious courses, and, for the love of God, do the reading. I wish I had.

As a college professor now, I wouldn’t be playing catch-up, racing through books I should have mastered when I was 17 — when instead I was out stamping leftist posters in red ink “KGB Approved.”

The best thing someone serious about traditional values and freedom can do at your stage of life is to become as well-informed and clear-headed as possible. Keep your diet of political magazines, websites and blogs to a minimum. Save such ephemera for later — The New Republic is meant to be read in middle age, on commuter rail, on days when you’re too shagged-out to think.

Choose your classes carefully. As you’ll learn in the pages of Choosing the Right College, most colleges’ curricula are piffle. They consist of vague distributional requirements that assign equal value to courses like “Shakespeare’s Tragedies” and “Godzilla in the Mist: Japanese Postwar Cinema.”

Unless you’re at one of the Great Books schools, your college probably won’t require you to master the fundamentals of Western civilization. So piece together an education on your own.

As my old friend, the columnist Rod Dreher, once told me: “I wanted to be a journalist, so I majored in journalism. Working in newspapers later on, I figured out that everything I ever really used in the profession I learned in my first semester. The other three years of journalism classes were a total waste of time — when I could have been learning something solid, to give me something to write about.”

Myself, I taught my liver way too much about the many varieties of gin.

If instead you choose to create a "do-it-yourself core curriculum" like the one I sketched out briefly in my last piece for IR, you’ll gain an edge in all your upper-level classes, and when you write about Western civilization or American liberty, you’ll have a deeper idea of what you’re defending. You’ll be replicating, as best we can today, the education that informed America’s Founders. So sign up for a course in each of the following:

  1. Classical literature in translation. Homer, Cicero, Caesar — the fun stuff that ends up in footnotes to all subsequent Western literature.
  2. Ancient philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, all the way up through Boethius. Lay down the intellectual bedrock before you start on the sheetrock.
  3. The Bible. Be careful about the professor here. You want your beliefs deepened and questioned, not put through a Vita-Mix.
  4. Christian thought before 1500. Here’s your chance to read Augustine and Aquinas and appreciate the source of all the “social capital” we moderns are busy squandering.
  5. Modern political theory. Where we went wrong, starting with Hobbes, up through Rousseau, Marx and Mill. Make sure you bring along the antidotes, in the form of Burke, Pope Pius IX and Adam Smith.
  6. Shakespeare. Avoid classes that mention “race,” “class” or “gender.” They’ll just ruin the Bard for you. And don’t be afraid to rent DVDs in addition to reading — the plays were meant to be seen.
  7. U.S. history before 1865. Our nation wasn’t founded by Malcolm X, no matter what they teach in high school.
  8. 19th-century European intellectual history. Most of the madness we’re still suffering through today — from feminism to radical environmentalism and multiculturalism — is a dumbed-down version of 19th-century errors. Read the addled geniuses who inspired contemporary maniacs and learn how to spot false premises in seconds, instead of decades.

All this might sound ambitious, but it really isn’t. It will fulfill most of your school’s distributional requirements in a worthy way and won’t interfere with completing a major. As Mark Henrie writes in his short, fascinating A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum, such a program is what most of the GIs returning from World War II had to master. The guys who wrote the classic TV series and Hollywood movies were educated in this style. (Hence, all the references in Bugs Bunny cartoons to Verdi and Wagner.)

That’s why even the popular culture of previous decades stood at a much higher level than some of the textbooks you might be assigned in those pointless electives I’m urging you to avoid. If you take the time to explore each of these intellectual areas, you’re almost guaranteed to write smarter papers in your junior and senior seminars, do better applying to jobs or graduate school, and emerge as a sounder apologist for your own deepest beliefs.

Seeking wisdom, you might supplement the Great Books you’ll work through as part of your personal core curriculum with certain lesser-known classics. I recommend tracking down and reading:

The Flight From Woman by Karl Stern. Penned by a psychiatrist-turned-theologian, this book explores how moderns, starting with Descartes, abandoned the quest for wisdom in favor of the technological quest for power. Modern man seeks power over nature, over society, and, finally, over human nature itself. Embryonic stem-cell research, “transgender” activism, feminist attacks on the family — it all starts here. As a bonus, the author psychoanalyzes major modern thinkers and shows they had … issues with their mothers.

The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver. Learn why the South is still the most traditional — and in most ways, sane — part of the country. It has nothing to do with slavery or segregation — as we’re taught to think both by ideologues who hate the place and racialists who are nostalgic for all the wrong reasons. For many reasons, the American South preserved elements of traditional European order that made massive government unnecessary and utopian social experiments unthinkable. Weaver disentangles what’s true and enduring in the heritage of the South from the tragic historical and racial context.

The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk. The manifesto of the most serious thinker in American conservatism, this book shows how the liberties we defend have their origin not in the ideologies of the Enlightenment but in the feudal privileges of medieval barons and the canons of Christian common law. If you’re trying to reconcile religious faith with America’s seemingly secular founding, this book does the best job of showing why liberty thrived in the fledgling United States but floundered in other “revolutionary” regimes.

The Social Crisis of Our Time by Wilhelm Röpke. One of the great libertarian economists, Röpke was the architect of the postwar German economic “miracle.” He also thought deeply about what social and moral elements make it possible to preserve a free society and economy. Learn why voluntarily shopping at small markets and buying from local farmers helps preserve the free-market economy.

Right From the Beginning by Pat Buchanan. For the past 25 years, former Reagan press secretary Pat Buchanan has stood firm in his impassioned principles, even as the conservative movement and institutions shifted inexorably further to the left. He was duly ignored — and usually proved right. His autobiography is a moving picture of how the “Reagan Democrats” woke up to their betrayal in the wake of Roe v. Wade and a winning coalition was forged among small-government business leaders and working-class people of faith. Absent such a coalition, no conservative cause has any prospect in America, Buchanan argues, and the time for re-forging this alliance is running out.

The Solzhenitsyn Reader. If we tried to find the one thinker who did the most to bring down communism and liberate tens of millions from a totalitarian system, this is the man. This book collects his most important speeches and essays and lays them alongside his masterful fiction and surprisingly lyrical poems. The critical Christian vision that kept Solzhenitsyn from slashing his wrists in the Gulag also served as a scalpel to dissect the chronic ills of the secular West. When a man can be hated equally by Soviet bureaucrats and D.C. professional anticommunists, he’s got to be on to something.

Finally, on top of these classes and reading, it’s critical to make friends who are open-minded and sympathetic. You needn’t, and probably shouldn’t, spend all your time with folks who agree with you on everything that’s important.

In my own time at Yale, the group I joined — the Party of the Right — was deeply divided between libertarians and conservatives. We fans of the Habsburgs mixed it up with the friends of Ayn Rand, and I learned a lot more countering, point by point, the tortuous arguments of coke-sniffing atheists (it was the 1980s) than I would have nodding cozily over cigars with my friends after Latin Mass.

I heartily recommend forming a reading group with folks who don’t share all your premises and honing your debating skills over lattes late into the night. You’ll be middle-aged soon enough. You’ll have all your 40s and 50s to catch up on your sleep.


This essay has appeared in a different form in Young American Revolution, The National Catholic Register, and in the book Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, edited by Zmirak.


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