I had to be on the UW-Madison campus today and it was all wonderful congestion. Cars and trucks were lined up to unload stuff into the dorms. Packs of new students and parents were being led around by perky upper classman in red shirts, pointing out where to go for pizza, books and school supplies. (No mention of bars that I could overhear.) It was hot and humid amid hazy sunshine just as it should be.
These kids are just starting what will most likely be the most adventurous four years of their lives. Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, the blues, jazz, chemistry (both literally and figuratively), changes in majors, Kafka, calculus, the decision whether to continue the long tradition of a certain off-color cheer at football games -- all this stuff lies ahead.
It can be a scary time because it's like the first step on a long trip. When you're standing at midfield, which way you step off first will give direction to your entire life. It's a very different life being a lawyer rather than a doctor or an architect rather than an engineer or, God help them all, an English major rather than a political science major. (I was a poli sci major and look where that got me.)
There's been a lot of chatter recently about the value of a liberal higher education. There are those, including the governor and to some extent even President Obama, who are arguing for more emphasis on the "value" of the final degree earned. That conversation is almost totally constricted to a question of pecuniary value. How much will a student end up earning over a lifetime?
That's a worthy consideration, but it's not nearly the whole game. College is as much about finding out what you want out of life and how you can contribute to the broader community than it is about learning some technical skill or other.
My advice to freshmen (and nobody asked for it) is to read and write a lot and spend a lot of time talking to friends and professors in the Rathskeller while drinking an age appropriate beverage. Everything else, like actual classes, is kind of beside the point.
Some of the people I like best, who I think are the most intelligent, considerate and creative folks I know, never went to college, didn't finish college or performed poorly in school. If I had to be stuck on an airplane for five hours sitting next to a stranger give me an avid reader of everything who flunked out rather than a Ph.D. with narrow interests.
Being able to think for yourself, being forever curious, learning how to express yourself by speaking and writing, learning how to listen and to separate strong arguments from weak ones, opening your horizons to different ideas and cultures and languages, appreciating what you don't know rather than being arrogant about what you do: that's what it means to get yourself educated.
There are few better places to do all that than right here at the good old University of Wisconsin. Welcome home, kids.