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Why Go to College? Pico Ayer Offers a Clear-eyed Response

September 7, 2020

In a NYTimes op ed yesterday, travel writer and now college teacher Pico Ayer addresses the question of why college attendance is important… and it has noting to do with earning more money. Roughly midway through the article he offers this observation:

We’re caught up in an addiction to simplifications for which the only medicine lies within. We need to be reminded that not to be right doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. And that to be terribly wronged does not mean you’re innocent. The world deals in black-or-whites no more than a hurricane or a virus does.

The essay deals with the importance of developing an ability to look at the world through the eyes of other people, and the importance of open-mindedness. At the end of the essay, Ayer offers several insights from the Dalai Lama to describe how this might be accomplished:

Traveling across Japan with the Dalai Lama a year before the pandemic, I heard him say often that after watching the planet up close as a leader of his people for what was then 79 years, he felt the world was suffering through an “emotional crisis.” The cure, he said, was “emotional disarmament.” What he meant by the striking phrase was that we can see beyond panic and rage and confusion only by using our minds, and that part of the mind that doesn’t deal in binaries. Emotional disarmament might prove even more feasible than the nuclear type, insofar as most of us can reform our minds more easily than we can move a huge and intractable government. By opening our minds, we begin to change the world.

I limit my use of Facebook to 15 minutes per day and try to read the lengthy “debates” that go on in posts from a handful of conservative and progressive friends. In reviewing the commentary, it is evident that the Dalai Lama’s call for emotional disarmament is on target. It is also evident that college should be more about drawing from the wisdom of teachers like the Dalai Lama and less about accumulating knowledge that will help one garner wealth. Ayer concludes his essay with this clear-eyed response to the question of why one should attend college:

We alone among the animals, the Dalai Lama regularly points out, enjoy reasoning minds, the capacity to see beyond reflex. The best reason to go to school, even if you’re a so-called teacher, is to find out how much you don’t know.

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