“To Carthage Then I Came”

Advice for the classical high schooler turned undergrad.

College freshmen have just completed their first semester at their chosen schools. All over the country, and indeed all over the world, dorms have been settled into, majors and classes selected, friendships begun, and books acquired (often in exchange for arms and legs relinquished).

A significant fraction of these students came into college from quite a different atmosphere—thanks in part, I’m proud to say, to the classical education movement’s successes over the past few years. I mean young people who’ve received a “Great Books” education: one focused on works of philosophy, literature, the sciences, theology, and history that have withstood the test of time and are still read by millions today. Most of these students are found in private, charter, or parochial schools or in homeschooling households across the country; in moving from there to the university atmosphere, they and their families may have experienced some shock over the past few months.

I’d like to offer four tips for families as they continue the transition from the environment of classical learning to that of a conventional college. Each person’s time at college is different, so, as the saying goes, take what is useful to you and leave the rest. But equally, as everyone’s dad has told them while they pack, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

St. Augustine’s line about arriving at the ancient equivalent of college is justly famous.1. Expect the (academically) unexpected.

Many students who’ve received a classical education arrive at college thrilled that they finally have the chance to direct their own work and pursue even deeper material. Some are instead nervous about the demands of an undergraduate education. Many students from both groups are therefore caught off-guard by their coursework—not so much that they have to take a junior English class to satisfy their gen-ed requirements, but that junior English apparently means learning the same things they already mastered … freshman year of high school.

If this is the kind of frustration you ran into, first of all, congratulations: This is proof you received an excellent high-school education! It’s often possible to “test out” of classes under these circumstances; your academic advisor will be able to answer questions about your particular college’s policies. But this might also be an opportunity for you. A little review never hurt anybody—especially if you found the subject in question hard to wrap your mind around in high school. On the other hand, the lighter burden imposed by an easy class may give you an opportunity to get involved in humanitarian, religious, or artistic groups and endeavors you might have had too little time for otherwise.

2. Beware of the slide.

St. Augustine’s line about arriving at the ancient equivalent of college is justly famous: “To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang about my ears.” Many religious students with a “Great Books” background are taught to expect derision or hostility toward their faith, from both professors and peers. This kind of thing certainly happens. But it is, I think, less common than we were led to expect by youth-group skits, and when it does happen, its “temptation” is generally much more subtle than those skits were.

I believe the real moral challenge posed by college is different and may or may not reveal itself in an explicitly religious form (especially since it’s rare to find any college in this country that harbors no religious student fellowship). Most of the young people around you are going to be approaching their studies with the typical mindset of American culture: We’re all here to get a degree so we can get a good job. Nothing higher. Nothing more worthy of human dignity. You won’t hear it stated aloud or intellectually defended very often, if at all, but it will animate almost every decision and conversation. And it is far easier than you may think to unreflectively slide into the beliefs of the people you spend your time with. Pay attention to why you choose what you choose—don’t let yourself be swept away by unconscious habit.

The utilitarian, money-centric attitude to education that’s considered normal in modern America can be a depressing thing to see.3. Find things that center you.

College is hard! Even if you find yourself confronted with an underwhelming academic situation, like I discussed in tip number one, your first semester is probably going to shock your system intellectually, socially, and psychologically. Maybe even physically, if you’re an athlete or going to college in Machu Picchu.

Make sure to find things that refresh your mind and spirit and to resort to those things regularly. I don’t just mean fun activities—you probably don’t need my advice to go find those!—but things that help you maintain a sense of peace and clarity in this new setting. This kind of thing varies a lot from person to person, and it might take a little patient looking. It could be a place, like a favorite café or a favorite spot in the campus library. It might be an activity, from saying a particular prayer at a given time to skipping stones at a lake near campus. It might even be a book—perhaps by one of the great writers of the Western canon, a lot of whom got there precisely because so many people found this quality in them. Try the vivid yet serene lines of “The Pearl,” one of Frederick Douglass’s rousing autobiographies, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, or the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ. Find the one that works for you, and stick to it.

4. Remember why you’re there.

This follows up a bit on tip number two. The utilitarian, money-centric attitude to education that’s considered normal in modern America can be a depressing thing to see, especially in your friends and classmates. It might make you feel alone at times, or as though there was little point in the work you did before college, or as though there’s little point in the work you’re doing in college. Feeling like you’re the only person who cares about something is rough.

That is a big reason it’s worth remembering that you are not the only person who cares. Our whole intellectual heritage was created, has been maintained, and is still being added to—because in every generation, there are people who care about it. In every generation, there are people who recognize that Aristotle’s famous maxim “All men by nature desire knowledge” is not a casual generalization but a serious assertion of what it is to be a human being—people who intend to be as human as they can. Even if everyone around you asks for nothing more than a utilitarian education, that does not chain your spirit to the same servile purpose. You can still learn with a mind as free as ever. In the celebrated words of the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,

Nor Iron bars a Cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an Hermitage.

If I have freedom in my Love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that soar above,

Enjoy such Liberty.

Jeremy Tate is the founder of CLT, the Classic Learning Test.