How to Survive College

For those of you going off to college for the first time, or students going back to college in search of the sheepskin (and parents who want to relate a last minute tip for their kids on how they can better succeed in the world of academia), this article’s for you. Bear with me, this is no bum steer.

And a “bum steer” is exactly the right phrase to use in this essay because it’s an old, nautical term for trying to pilot a ship into port, in reverse, to achieve a safe anchorage. This is a difficult maneuver requiring many hands, shouting out many different, oft times conflicting directions. Hence, confusion and a proverbial “bum steer.”

And, college is just as difficult to navigate. So, get ready to sail your boat through troubled waters and around uncharted shoals with precision because a common sense GPS is on the way.

Here goes:

Your college experience may not, probably will not, be the same as mine or your parents. Times change. Yet, the one constant in our higher institutions of learning over the past fifty years has been groupthink.

I’m not talking about the rules of the high school cohort you graduated with. You know, the peer pressure you certainly felt and were forced to comply with according to the dictates of the “cools” of your senior class. You are now free from that. You are now independent and should be allowed to think on your own terms. But, hold on, there’s something else coming your way, like a wicked curve after an inside fastball, which may deter self-realization and self-acceptance, and challenge religious beliefs, innate dispositions, your upbringing and family values. And it has nothing to do with your freshman peers and soon-to-be pals (I’m sorry, new found BFFs).

12 Angry Men

Based on a play by Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men (1957) is a movie with, possibly, the best cast in cinema history. I know you may not recognize these names, these great stars of stage and screen like Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, and others, but trust me, you soon will. Ironically, it is one of the most studied films in the academic world and frequently taught in psychology courses in college.

For good reason.

It demonstrates, unequivocally, the power and danger of groupthink. In the movie, Henry Fonda, an architect by trade, is presented with an impossible dilemma: to build consensus among the 11 other men on the jury in which he is the only one who does not agree that the boy accused of murdering his father, by stabbing him with a knife, is guilty, because he is not convinced of his guilt. He is simply not sure, not convinced, hence he will not send a boy to his death. His conscious will not allow him to fall in with the status quo. His dissent is mocked, even held in contempt by the other jurors, kind of like your opinions may be at college.

Inside the Box

You see, unlike your high school experience, the rules are not particularly set by the cohort of your fellow students but, essentially, and not tacitly, by your professors. They rule.

The expensive textbooks they assign you to read and the syllabi they lay out for the semester are, not only constricting, but may stunt your imagination, ergo groupthink. You are not allowed to think “outside the box” because you are suddenly boxed in to their vision and interpretation of reality, especially in the social sciences. Welcome to the Orwellian world of American education. Where conformity is rigidly enforced by “doublethink” and “newspeak.” You are now inside their box (I hate to add to your reading material but if you haven’t read George Orwell’s 1984, your certainly should).

All the money you’re borrowing, in loans (yes, dollars have to be paid back with interest), or the second mortgage your parents took out on their one precious asset, their home, in order for you to achieve higher education is now at risk if you don’t pull your own weight and succeed in walking down the aisle with a tassel turned to the other side.

Maybe you can’t stand the pressure any more. Perhaps you are ready to call it quits. Maybe, you can’t put up with the indoctrination of tenured professors who are confirmed Marxists or socialists or something else that doesn’t challenge your moral compass as your professors hoped it would, but that is totally repulsive to you and makes you want to spit. What do you do then?

How to Outwit the Fox

First, stay the course. It’s easy to stomp your feet and go back home. For some new students it just might be the best thing because their overwhelming desire for hearth and home leads them to that decision. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe, that’s where you belong right now. But, first, give your college experience a chance. Set a time limit on that decision. You’ll never truly know unless you try.

Second, do not join fraternities or sororities because they are the essence of groupthink. They take individualism away. They destroy it. Instead of building community, they corrupt the virtue of individual thinking, they dictate terms that are contrary to your very being and indoctrinate useless, oft times, dangerous, valueless, concepts that separate you from God, because they make their own commandments and demand that you accept them to be a member of their congregation.

Give them a wide berth and steer clear of their “rushes” to invite you into their sordid, disordered universe.

Third, recognize that the irony in colleges using Twelve Angry Men is that higher education is all about indoctrination and conformity. In their ivied covered castles, political correctness trumps all. Use Henry Fonda’s strategy. Test the waters to find out the social/political inclinations of your professors, their slants and biases. The required text books and syllabi will give you a pretty good idea. Then, remember this (my favorite) line from the movie: “He can’t hear you,” Fonda says to juror # 9, a feeble old man whose sense of right and wrong is just as strong as the architect’s, “and, he never will. Let’s sit down.”

Fonda is talking about juror # 7, played brilliantly by actor Jack Warden. He had tickets to a ball game that night and didn’t really care if the boy was innocent or not, he simply wanted to get to the game. He would convict or vote not guilty without the slightest remorse as to the implications of his decision. In other words he would cast a ballot to kill or let a killer go free and sleep fine that night if only he could use his precious tickets and see his baseball game.

Fonda’s character, the architect, is telling us that some people are intransigent. They cannot or will not change their minds; it’s their way or nothing. We’ve seen examples of this in the recent Planned Parenthood videos. We wonder how they can eat salad and sip wine while talking about body parts. But, it is real. Such people control much or our lives and our government. And, most importantly, for you right now, the nation’s academic community. Some professors simply cannot be argued with. Yet, you have to find a way to succeed in their class.

Don’t panic. Find a way to work around their stubborn philosophies. You’ll have to do that in real life anyway after you’ve graduated. Be stubborn in retaining your beliefs by prayer and reading your bible. I recommend to you a daily reading of Psalms 22, 23, 70, 91, and 146. They won’t take long to read, just put a post-it-note in between the pages and they will sustain you.

Stay strong. You’ll do just fine. You’ll find professors who will instill in you a thirst for learning; they are still out there and can’t wait to challenge you and help you grow. You will build memories that will last for the rest of your life. You’ll find and make friends who will be dear to you forever. Enjoy this experience. Have fun. Make it your own.

I know, it’s a little scary and somewhat daunting. But, you’ll achieve this because you know how to persevere. College will be a sea change in your life, yet it can be safely navigated and, I promise, you will reach your safe harbor. And, then, after swishing the tassel on the other side of the mortarboard, you can go out and change the world.


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