So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”
Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.