What is College Really For?

Today I’ll begin teaching a humanities class for Wofford first-year students called “Into the Wild.” We’ll read a number of stories and essays about approaching wildness, books like John Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” the story of Chris McCandless and his retreat from civilization and tragic death in wilds of Alaska.

Along with “Into the Wild” we’ll also watch Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” the true story of an idealistic (and slightly mad) animal lover who goes into the Alaska wild and gets eaten by a bear.

The whole class will not be about Alaska, but the coincidence of John McCain’s choice of an unknown governor from there as his running mate will not be lost on me or on my students if I can help it. “What a wild choice,” many pundits commented when Sarah Palin was chosen. I’ll take my wildness whereever I can find it.

After 14 weeks the students will have written papers about wildness and discussed the ways in which they perceive the concept and how the larger culture defines it. By December, they will probably have thought and written more about “wildness” than any other students in the region.

This humanities 101 class is a Wofford requirement for all first-year students, and it is designed to engage them in “humanistic inquiry” with special attention given to value questions and issues. My humanities colleagues at Wofford will offer other courses about issues such as apocalypse, images of childhood, making imaginary worlds, “madness, murder, and misbehavior.”

We’ll all have a mix of first-year students. Some will already know they want to major in biology, finance or French. Others will be undecided as to what their major will be. None, if I quizzed them, would probably believe they’d taken “Into the Wild” in order to get a fix on what they want out of life. But it just might happen that way.

Strangely enough, as I was preparing the syllabus for “Into the Wild” I received an e-mail out of the blue from a former Wofford student about her move away from a traditional career path into the actual wild:

“I’ve cast off the irons of corporate life in Atlanta, broke up with the uber-serious boyfriend, sold the big screen TV and the assorted furniture from Rooms-To-Go, packed the car and left for Montana. I’ve finally fulfilled that dream of being a cowgirl. I now work 16 hours a day in the Gallatin National Forest with crazy horses and hilarious cowboys… In all seriousness, I love being out here in the wild and it’s made me happy.”

Completing a major in English might look like a waste in Hallie’s current temporary dream position as a cowgirl, but I don’t think of it that way. It could have been a first-year class like “Into the Wild” that set her on her path toward her own personal brand of inquiry. Hallie also wrote to reassure us back at Wofford that she doesn’t plan on staying in Montana. In a year or two she wants to go to graduate school and eventually teach literature. She’s talented enough, and she may even end up writing some day. That’s her dream.

E-mails like this always make me smile, and they reassure me that for a few of the first-year students I’ll meet today, college may not be so much about an inventory of knowledge and skills. College may be the first baby step toward chasing dreams and even finding happiness. Some idea of wildness they consider in my class might be the portal through which their dreams must pass. Being a teacher has always meant helping move those dreams along.

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