Advice for making the most out of school
- Back-to-school is a time to reflect on education
- Philosophical advice to students emphasizes curiosity, courage and compassion
- Education requires effort, virtue and a passion for wisdom and justice
To my sons and my students, as we head off to school, here’s a philosopher’s perspective on education.
No one can learn on your behalf. Learning is an activity. It requires effort. You must actively seek the light.
Intelligence, virtue, and happiness are not genetic. No one is born smart, kind, or happy. Everyone has the potential to improve – or to fail. But improvement is up to you. Be systematic in your studies. Cultivate a disciplined work ethic. And nurture your passion for learning.
Develop curiosity, courage, and compassion. Curiosity opens the door to new ideas. Courage follows those ideas. Compassion allows you to understand why others choose differently.
Education is supposed to be difficult. It is easy to fill your cup with trivial knowledge. But opening your mind to the ocean of wisdom is a lifelong task.
Listen carefully and question everything, including your need for certainty. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Test dogma and inquire into common sense. Distrust those who want blind obedience. Ignore those who offer cheap grace and easy enlightenment.
Challenge authority; but remember that rebellion and doubt are tools, not destinations. Cynics are unhappy and friendless. Healthy skepticism is modest. It must be balanced with a sustained commitment to what is true and good.
Find mentors – teachers, coaches, and friends – who inspire you. The best teachers and coaches encourage without indoctrinating. They increase vitality by arousing our thirst for excellence.
Teachers are not entertainers or playmates. They criticize and evaluate. It’s not easy to receive criticism. But criticism helps us improve. Learn from your failures and work harder next time.
Be proud of your accomplishments. But don’t rest on your laurels. Celebrate what you’ve achieved today. Tomorrow there will be new challenges.
Cheer for other people’s success. Friendly competition invigorates. It makes everyone better.
Choose your friends wisely. Find friends who are smarter and more virtuous than you are. Good friends energize and uplift. They support your best efforts and console you when you fail.
Bad friends undermine you and reinforce bad habits. Avoid them. But be gentle with bad people. Some are wicked. But most are misguided and unhappy. Be prudent about social relations. But never lose faith in humanity.
Avoid gossip, rudeness, and disrespect. Be careful and courteous when asserting your own opinions. Think before you speak. But always say what’s on your mind. Avoid know-it-alls; and don’t become one. Remember: no one – not even you – can possibly know it all.
There are no shortcuts for learning to live well. Cheats and liars occasionally succeed. But they cannot succeed forever, since they lack what they pretend to have.
There are no “do-overs” in life. Misdeeds can never be undone. Happiness depends on knowing that that you deserve to be happy. A clear conscience is a necessary condition for a happy life.
Of course you will make mistakes. We all do. Forgive others and forgive yourself. But hold yourself to a higher standard. You are, after all, in control of your own life.
You are not, however, in control other people’s behavior. Help when called upon. But allow others to live as they see fit.
You will be homesick at times. Nothing good lasts forever. You will eventually say good-bye to everyone you love. Grief is a part of life. It is relieved by doing good works, making new friends, and rebuilding what is lost.
Find a cause worthy of your loyalty and stick with. A meaningful life is thick with loyalties and commitments.
Fight against injustice. But avoid rage, which burns without building. Justice also requires kindness, patience, and a creative imagination.
Educational institutions can alienate and frustrate. Bureaucratic authority is often ridiculous. But you are a person, not a number. Don’t become a cog. Demand respect and give it to others.
Life is more important than school. Don’t neglect your health. Exercise and eat well. Make time for love, leisure, and laughter. Create spaces of solitude and seek out spiritual experience.
And remember that education is a privilege. Some people don’t have the chance to go to school. Show gratitude for this opportunity by filling your cup, opening your mind, and creating a good life. And share what you’ve learned with others who are seeking the light.