It’s not true to say dreams die as you get older, although the responsibility accompanying freedom certainly can get in the way. Freedom generally lacks masters, and yet, in achieving freedom, we each become subjected to the will of a new, more powerful master. We must all face this new master for the rest of our lives, subjected to judgment over all our deeds.
And who is this new master? Who lords over the toiling of the newly liberated-yet-enslaved graduates? Corporations? Employers? Government? Academia? No — these masters begin to lose their force and meaning with knowledge, their control merely temporal and physical, at best. This new master is vastly more intimate and powerful. No, it’s not God — it’s that face in the mirror: yourself.
Have my intentions matched my actions? Have I done the best I can? No external force in this world can effectively mete judgment upon these private matters — the self is the sole arbiter of these cases, judging the actions of the individual for the benefit of the soul — not by the letter of any law.
And here we are, seeking external affirmation where none can ever be truly received. Links in a grand chain of common heritage shared by all the children of humanity, as one phase ends, so another begins.
But what lessons have we gained from this journey? What epiphanies can be deciphered from the codex of our collegiate lives? By what standards can we judge both our performance and our progress? Concrete, one-sentence answers to these questions do not truly exist — only vague proverb-esque responses can do the questions any justice, or provide any justice to the soul in search of answers.
Arrogance and self-deception are the hallmarks of the fallen individual, bringing him or her crashing to the ground from even the highest of heights. Hubris is the downfall of man, the scourge of civilizations, the root cause for all of the faults of mankind and the incurable human condition.
And, as one’s freedom increases, so too do the consequences of uncontrolled hubris — if not from external sources, then from judgments of one’s self.
Hubris can affect us all through an observation of ourselves free of self-interest. Addicts refuse to admit themselves to be capable of such weakness of will and say, “Aren’t we better than that?” Debt piles up, but the problem never seems real, and they say, “Aren’t we wiser than that?” Creative individuals claim the absolute superiority of their art over others’ on the whim of their own personal judgment, and they say, “Aren’t we sharper than that?” Professors and journalists adamantly deny the existence of blatant intellectual bias, and they say, “Aren’t we smarter than that?”
The day an individual claims himself or herself to be above hubris is the day he or she succumbs to it.
Judgment of these ills can never come from an external source — they must come from within. Coupled with the joys of increased freedom is the affliction of responsibility to judge ourselves accurately.
To see both the world and ourselves not as we would wish, hope, pray and beg for it to be, but as how it is. To believe not what we want, but what logic and reason decree we must.
These are the lessons learned by the college student. Gaining the ability to craft an efficient computer program, balance an accounting ledger, write a reasoned thesis, paint a self-portrait, perform a masterpiece, design a newspaper page, build a circuit, solve a math problem, argue a contentious position or protest a cause are not the true lessons of a college experience. They are merely some of the skills that one can pick up along the way — data for further digestion.
The knowledge gleaned from the pages of a textbook or the lecturing of a professor is meaningless in comparison to the revelations of this life experience. College is about learning how to live on your own and what that truly entails.
Conversations and relationships with others, nights out on the town, foolish choices and the oft-regrettable consequences that seem to accompany them — these are the sources of the true lessons of college. Lessons about what it costs to be an individual, what it means to be yourself.
It’s not true to say that dreams die as you get older. We simply begin to understand what they really mean.
Zach Stern ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science, soon to study law this coming fall. He would like to thank all of the brothers of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity for teaching him the meaning of friendship and brotherhood, his fellow co-workers and friends at The Badger Herald for welcoming him as one of their own, his parents for sticking by through thick and thin, Professors Donald Downs and Scott Gehlbach, the many readers who have both praised and critiqued his many columns and, most importantly, the city and people of Madison for helping to make the past three years of his life undoubtedly the best.