Whatever Happened to Carpe Diem?


by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

From coast to coast, the following is happening in homes across the country: Parents are walking past open bedroom doors and pausing. These empty rooms have bedcovers that remain smoothly in place and drawers and closet doors that remain closed. They have no keys thrown on a desk and no half-empty bottles of Gatorade or iced tea perched on a shelf; no corners filled with sweaty socks and not one piece of electronics plugged in and charging.

Behold the arrival of the “neat room” for the first time in a long time. Parents haven’t seen it in years, mostly because the space was inhabited by the preadolescent-then-teenager in their home. In my case, those “lived-in” spaces were filled with towels that never once found their way back to the bathroom rack, clean clothing that never found its way back into a drawer, and 4,873 scraps of paper that were all “important,” not one of which had anything to do with homework.

The “neat room” makes its startling appearance when your son or daughter leaves home for college. (Years from now, it will become someone’s “old room” and get reinvented yet again.) Me? I never quite got over the “neat room.” I found myself smoothing out pristine beds; straightening pictures that weren’t crooked and thinking that “hang up your towel” would be the last words I spoke on this earth.

But parents, as you walk by the “neat room” for the hundredth time since your children left for school, let me ask you this: What are your dreams for them? What do you want to see happen? For many, the answer is quite rightly, “To watch them follow a path to success.” Or “To offer them the education they need to compete in the world.” Fine. Lovely. But when you really consider what’s at stake here, those sentiments seem to fall a little short, don’t they?

Maybe a better question is: What do you expect your children to gain from their college experience? Many institutions now establish curricula stuffed with requirements and offer degrees with little (if any) opportunity to engage in anything outside a selected course of study. These programs are led by a myopic faculty and an administration that dismisses or doesn’t welcome points of views that diverge from its own. For many, higher education has become a means to an end; something to be accomplished, checked off, and added to the “been there, done that” file.

I find that tragic. What happened to the joy of learning? Where are the stimulating and surprising classes and conversations that stay with students for decades? (Ask me about my D.H. Lawrence senior seminar someday, or my Old Testament course or the History of African Civilizations. Only one of those classes had anything to do with my major course of study.) In the spirit of Dead Poets Society‘s John Keating, where is the carpe diem of it all?

This isn’t just me. In his new book, Excellent Sheep, author and professor William Deresiewicz laments the lack of curiosity, passion, and purpose found in today’s students. Among other things, Mr. Deresiewicz recognizes the demise of “liberal arts,” which has long been cast aside for the “benefits” of an agenda that supports a fragmented and specialized curriculum. One of the studies he cites is particularly grim: “In 1971, 73% of incoming freshmen said that it is essential or very important to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life.'” That same year, 37 percent said it was important to “be wealthy.” Forty years later, we’ve made progress—if by ‘progress’ you mean we’ve gotten greedier. In 2011, 80 percent of college freshmen said being rich was a very important priority. Forty-seven percent were interested in life’s “big questions.”

How foolish. How sad. I’m positive Mr. Deresiewicz has much more cogent insight into the state of education, but here’s my two cents for parents: If your son or daughter arrives home for that first Thanksgiving holiday and doesn’t feel the slightest bit different to you, going to college is a waste of your money and their time. If by the end of year one, they haven’t met a professor, talked with an administrator, or taken a class that introduced an entirely new concept, helped them see a situation in a different way, or engaged them enough to think about or consider something for the very first time, that is truly unfortunate.

If your son or daughter graduates without ever signing up for a course purely out of curiosity or for the love of learning, he or she has lost out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. At what other time will they spend every day around instructors who should be doing nothing more than stimulating their minds and helping them learn to think?

Students should spend at least part of their college years “trying on” life to see how it fits. What feels comfortable? What feels constricting? A graduating class wearing the same suit, cut from the same cloth, brings identical—and predictable—behavior to a workplace or society.

Imagine investing tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to learn how to think just like everyone around you! I can think of a lot more productive ways to spend four (or five) years.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.



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4 Responses to Whatever Happened to Carpe Diem?

  1. Paula September 12, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Amen! And how about starting to encourage “carpe diem” and curiosity even earlier – like in grade school – so when students get to college or other post-secondary opportunites they can consciously reject curricula that lead to “progress”, “success” and, inevitably, a sense that something is missing.

  2. Renee September 12, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks for your thoughts, Paula, I’m with you – clearly, I’m with you ! But in many cases, it appears that teachers (and school districts) have to meet guidelines and standards established by their district or their state that leave little room for anything beyond the core curriculum within any subject.

    In other words, we may be teaching children to do well on standardized tests so we can prove that we’re teaching them well enough to pass a standardized tests. “Carpe testing,” it would seem.

  3. Colleen September 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Renee, it seems my daughter may have been on of the lucky ones. An eighth grade teacher taught her English class as if they were adults, & discussed so much more than just literature & sentence structure. She remains one of her favorite teachers.

    In college my daughter always looked to different lectures ‘just because’ & they were the ones I always heard about.
    I always believed that she should go to college to pursue her passions, interests, apptitudes although they don’t necessarily translate into a financially stable lifestyle (history, photography, archaeology). The future remains to be seen, although I feel more hopeful…
    Thanks for your insight – always makes me think 🙂

  4. Renee September 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Thanks Colleen – appreciate you sharing your story and your kind words! I tend to think of it this way: with some exceptions, many people earn a degree and then end up in a job or a career that may not be entirely what they anticipated nor expected; but they enjoy their work and lead a reasonably fulfilled and “successful” life.

    So if that’s true, and it feels mostly true, why not use at least part of your college years to absorb all kinds of interesting information along the way to your degree? You won’t get that time or that chance again!

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