Why Are You Here?
College As A Health Club for The Mind

A speech delivered to the New Student Welcoming Convocation 
in Cowan Hall at Otterbein College on September 7, 2001

Andrew P. Mills

Good Morning. My name is Andrew Mills and I teach philosophy. As a philosopher, I get to ask the deep questions—questions like, "What’s the meaning of life?" and "Is there a God?" and "Why do hot dogs come in packages of 10 but hot dog buns come in packages of 8?" Unfortunately, I don’t have the time this morning to deal with these very weighty questions. But I do have a philosophical question for you: Why are you here? I don’t mean, "Why have you been born?" or "Why are you here in this auditorium?" But, "Why are you here in college?"

My guess is that most of you came to college because you want to get a good job after college. This isn’t the only reason to go to college—it may not even be the best reason to go to college—but it’s a popular one, and worth talking about. If you’re here because you want to get a good job when you leave, the way your college classes will help you seems pretty simple. If you're planning to be an investment banker you're going to take accounting and finance classes, and if you're planning to be a doctor, you're going to take classes in biology and chemistry. Other courses seem just plain irrelevant and a waste of time. Biologists don't need to know about international economics, and bankers don't need to know about biology. And nobody, it seems, needs to know about Shakespeare or Plato or Napoleon. After all, you're not going to be quizzed about Macbeth on your job interview at Huntington Bank.

But there’s a very good reason why the banker should be studying philosophy and chemistry and political science, and why all of you should be choosing classes from throughout the course catalog, regardless of how the subject matter relates to your future career. Because every one of these classes—especially the hard ones, especially the ones with long reading lists, especially the ones that seem hopelessly irrelevant—every one of these classes will teach you how to think. That's the whole point of a college education: to turn you into someone who can think. And it's thinkers who get the good jobs.

What does it mean to think? It’s not just knowing facts and figures and formulas. Being able to think means being able to write well and speak clearly. It means being able to organize your time, being able to offer creative solutions to intractable problems, and being able to deal with new and challenging situations. Above all, being able to think means being able to ask the right questions, make smart decisions, and teach yourself what you don't know. If you're here because you want to get a good job when you leave, then you need to spend the next four years turning yourself into someone who can think. The more papers you write, the clearer a writer you become. The more challenging books you read, the better a reader you become. The more class presentations you give, the more comfortable a public speaker you become. The more you wrestle with the intricacies of math and science, the more you confront unfamiliar ideas, the sharper your mind becomes. Every class you take—especially your Integrative Studies classes—provides you with an opportunity for becoming an outstanding thinker.

Of course—and here comes the sermon—a lot of the responsibility for acquiring these intellectual skills and becoming a thinker during the next four years falls on your shoulders. I like to think of college as a sort of health club—a health club for the mind.1 Those of us in the gowns and funny hats, we’re your personal trainers. And the books and papers and assignments and classes—these are the machines. The trainers and the machines in this health club can improve your mind just like the weights and stair climbers at the gym can improve your body. But, just as at the gym, all of this equipment can’t help you if you don’t put a lot of effort into it. Merely buying a health club membership won’t turn flab into muscle; and merely paying tuition and sitting in the classroom won’t turn a high school graduate into an educated person. Doing the reading, actively participating in class, visiting your professors in office hours, pursuing research topics outside of class—this is the sort of intellectual exercise that will turn the gray matter inside your head into well-toned mental muscle.

George Abernethy, who taught philosophy for many years at Davidson College, put the point this way. "You have to want an education very much to get a good one," he said. "You have to pursue it in season and out of season. You can't work for it only on Tuesdays. It is a seven day pursuit. It is like writing a novel, making a scientific discovery or doing a fine piece of sculpture--it requires blood, sweat and tears and not just the tag ends of your energy. A student may graduate from college on a three or four day week, but you can be assured that he has not acquired a good education."2 Abernethy makes the next four years sound hard, and they should be. If they were easy, you wouldn’t learn anything. If they weren’t a challenge, you wouldn’t grow. If they didn’t require your "blood, sweat, and tears" then you wouldn’t leave college any different a person than you are today, as you sit here at the beginning of the most exciting phase of your life.

Above all, I implore you to challenge yourself during these next four years. Seek out the new and the difficult, both inside class and out. Take the hard classes, from the tough professors. A personal trainer who never makes you break a sweat is worthless, so you should demand that your professors push you and complain when they fail to make you work hard. Take classes that sound weird and strange and are outside of your comfort zone. Find people on campus who seem weird and strange and get to know them. Try out for a play, if you’ve never done that. Or write for the newspaper. Or organize a campus project. Be intellectually adventurous. Only when you push yourself into unfamiliar and frightening situations will you be open to those life-changing experiences which will forever mark your college days.

Good luck, work hard, and let me know how the next four years of mental training turn out. Thank you.3

1 It was Craig Froehle who introduced me to this metaphor, and I am eternally grateful to him for it.

2 This quote from George Abernethy is from his memorial notice written by Lance Stell published in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, May, 1999, vol 72, no. 5, pp. 199-200.

3 For invaluable assistance in the preparation of this speech, I would like to thank Lisa Pollak and Charles Salter.  Their hard work on my behalf was an inspiration to me, and this brief essay is much improved due to their labors.

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