You may have noticed a trend in the way college frames our role in the world – but does this approach really benefit you?
College comprises a wonderful, exhausting, exciting set of years where we’re given the freedom to delve deep into the topics that interest us, build up our experience and our priorities, and start on career paths that will hopefully sustain us for years to come.
Higher education gives us the great privilege of knowledge, and as a student myself, I’m beginning to appreciate the vast opportunities college affords me that I would have struggled to find otherwise. I see these years as the time in my life where I get to really focus on what Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, indicated in this quotation:
Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without. It is not desirable that a man be left without knowledge or skills, for he is then but a barren tree. Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception and eloquent speech. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
Much of this knowledge comes from college: both intellectual skills and subtler, but no less important inner perfections: wisdom, independence, love for diversity, and the motivation to search for truth on one’s own. This last skill may be the most important one. It goes beyond doing research for assignments — it has a role in every decision we make about our colleges, careers, relationships and our ultimate purpose in the world.
The Baha’i teachings speak highly of this independent investigation for truth:
God has created in man the power of reason whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to blindly imitate his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind or the faculty of reasoning by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth; and that which he finds real and true, he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.
I constantly absorb information through educators, media and society, so I try to analyze every source of information. The purpose isn’t to be overly critical, but to make sure I know the principles between every assumption I make, asking myself: Why do I think this? Where does this idea come from? What effect does it have on the wider society?
Higher education feeds a constant stream of young professionals into society, affecting their principles and their understanding of how the world works. Schools are aware of this, and so they hype up terms in their recruitment and fundraising: words like “service,” “leadership,” “innovation” and “progress.” They build a culture on campus that seeks to inspire students to aspire to these ideals and embody them in their lives. But often, both the institution and the students reduce those terms to buzz words, and don’t really question why they’re important or what values lie behind them.
So, in the light of the Baha’i teachings, let’s unpack some of the common themes in college education, starting with:
College as an Isolated Training-Ground
The Baha’i teachings say:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 26-27.
We all believe in education as a means to prepare for work in our chosen field – a “ladder” for our ascent, as Baha’u’llah wrote. We spend four years (or more) focusing on theory, so that someday we can put that theory into practice, and make an impact on the world around us.
But many times education itself can turn into one of the things that “begin with words and end with words.” Society creates dichotomies for students: focus on your studies now, and you’ll have time for community service later. Schools prioritize grades over impact. People often think that since I’m young and studying to prepare for the “real world,” no one should expect me to put in time devoted to any commitment or complex effort – even though I’ll probably never again be in such a great position to make an impact as I am now.
On campus, learning often takes place completely divorced from real, impactful practice, simplifying reality and depriving us from developing the tools to connect to our surroundings and respond to complicated issues.
In my own school, I see that most students know very little about anything in the town that surrounds our campus. They don’t really consider the town itself as their home — they think of their community as purely on campus, or the community where they grew up. Many of my classmates will even wrinkle their noses at our town and call it “sketchy,” repeating what they’ve heard from others.
Through my Baha’i-inspired community building activities, where I teach children and youth in nearby neighborhoods, I fell in love with the beauty, diversity and sense of community that exists in our town. I’ve lived in many places before, and I feel much safer here than anywhere else. Service has helped me get in touch with the people of the area and learn to love the place, even if it’s much different from home.
So I asked myself why everyone, even outside of campus, seemed so focused on the negatives of the place we live. I realized, with some horror, that maybe one of the reasons revolves around the fact that immigrants make up a large part of the population – which means many people dressed differently, eating different foods, living a different style of community life. How interesting that some consider this city “sketchy” and it coincidentally has a larger population of immigrants, whereas I’ve felt much more unsafe in less diverse communities, which I never hear insulted.
The Baha’i teachings speak of the degree of love we should develop towards others:
… behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being. Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 1-2.
Many college students have the idea of graduating and going off into the wide world to fix problems left and right. But even in these beginning stages of higher education, racism and classism subtly infiltrate our mindsets and turn us away from the community we already live in. How much transformation could a school create if students became more outward-facing during their school years, or if their projects focused, at least a little bit, on solving the problems in the neighborhoods right next door?
Students could make an even greater impact upon graduation if, instead of starting efforts to change the world for the better after college, their post-graduate efforts merely continued or expanded on what they had already done for years.
In the next article of this series, we’ll unpack college’s take on entrepreneurship and Western education, and how that affects the way we view our careers.