Have you ever heard the song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell? It’s a beautiful poem set to music in which she reflects on her initial idealistic view of things like clouds (“ice cream castles in the air”), love (“the dizzy, dancing way you feel”), and life (“dreams and schemes and circus crowds”). She then moves to a somewhat disillusioned view of those things and observes that she has looked at them from “both sides now.” In the end we’re left with a kind of grown-up ambivalence: having experienced both sides of life, we can no longer maintain our youthful optimism, yet somehow it’s “life’s illusions” we continue to hold on to, so that we “really don’t know life at all.”
The other day my wife and I took our oldest son up to Florida State University for his new student orientation. Twenty-six years ago, my parents were taking me to that same university for my own new student orientation.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was going through my orientation, my parents were going through a parallel orientation for family members. Now that I was taking my son to college, it was my turn to go through the family orientation. While my son was choosing from a smorgasbord of interesting classes and being exposed to all the fun experiences he can look forward to, my wife and I were being told when the payment deadlines are and what can happen if our son’s GPA dips too low. The speakers at our orientation occasionally made comments about how little the students typically remember from their orientation and how important it was that we parents remember the information we were receiving.
About halfway through this process, it occurred to me that my wife and I were going through the real orientation! Then, as if I was finally seeing the “man behind the curtain,” I began to realize how much my parents shouldered the “real world” aspects of my education so I could be free to explore “great books” and “big ideas”.
A “liberal” education is called that precisely because you have to be “free” (Latin liber) in order to study things like literature, philosophy, art, science, and culture. People who work hard every day just to put food on the table do not have that kind of freedom, and so a “liberal education” is a luxury they simply can’t afford.
For me, college was a wonderful time when I got to wrestle with important ideas and competing views of how the world works, the nature of God and man, what constitutes a good life, etc. The answers I came to largely determined the course I have taken to this day.
My parents had received a liberal education (at FSU a couple of decades prior to my going there), and they had raised me to be interested in all those lofty subjects. Yet somehow, while they were interested in what I was learning, I could tell they weren’t as passionate about it as I was. They were focused on more “prosaic” things like earning a living. When I myself entered the “real world” and began providing for a wife and a rapidly growing family, I soon found I had little time to contemplate all those lofty ideas I was so focused on in college. I was simply too busy with “prosaic” pursuits like earning a living.
Today I see that the freedom I had to pursue a “liberal” education was largely made possible by the added responsibilities my parents shouldered on my behalf. Sure I contributed to the financing of my education with scholarships and summer jobs, and sure I had to take on increasing amounts of responsibility, but there was always that safety net: that knowledge that Mom and Dad would come to the rescue if I really messed things up. That freedom from worry is what really liberated me to wrestle with all those grand and lofty subjects.
It would seem I am now looking at college “from both sides.” If I were adding another verse to Mitchell’s song, I might say I’ve looked at it “from play and pay!” Yet somehow, like Mitchell, it’s still “college illusions I recall.” I know a large university is a big bureaucracy with many people who are more concerned about defending their little fiefdoms than about guiding young minds. I know the honest exchange of ideas is sometimes tainted by insecure professors and sycophantic students. I know many kids use their newfound freedom to do incredibly foolish things. I know a college degree is not a guaranteed ticket to a great job and an easy life. Don’t tell my kids I said this, but I even know a college education doesn’t necessarily make sense for everyone—especially from a cost-benefit perspective. Still, it’s an opportunity to grow up some without completely having to “sink or swim.” It’s an opportunity to wrestle with big ideas and discover for yourself what’s really important. It’s an opportunity to meet people who share the interests your high school friends never understood, as well as to engage people who think very differently than you do. All those ivy-covered illusions we have about college life still resonate with us because they represent the enduring value of a liberal education.
So while my son still has the freedom to pursue a liberal education, my wife and I will preserve that freedom by shouldering some additional responsibility. And if he starts to think us a little prosaic, I can take comfort in the knowledge that he too will eventually see college “from both sides.”