Monday, June 02, 2003

The Volokh Conspiracy's Orin Kerr reports from his college class' tenth reunion, where he asked his classmates what advice they would give their freshman selves, in retrospect:
[M]any classmates answered that they would have taken better advantage of all that college had to offer. People who partied a lot said that they should have taken their studies more seriously; people who spent all day at the library would have done more extracurricular activities. Classmates would have attended more lectures by famous speakers, tried more new things, and generally attempted to suck the marrow out of the college experience more than they did. I guess that college, like youth, is wasted on the young.
I am reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", in which four elderly, dissipated souls are offered a (possibly illusionary) taste of the legendary fountain of youth. Although they all assert in advance that they will behave with the wisdom of their experience the second time around, the euphoria of recovered sprightliness in fact leads them into exactly the same follies that brought them such disaster in the past. The errors of youth, Hawthorne suggests, arise not from ignorance but from innate character flaws, and age only removes the ability to indulge them, not the urge to re-commit them.

Considered in this light, Kerr's classmates' advice to their younger selves sounds less like, "I wish I'd done all these things I had the opportunity to do", than "I wish I'd been a more well-rounded, ambitious, experience-seeking person than I was--the kind of person who would have done all of these things I had the opportunity to do". After all, how many of the opportunities college affords really disappear completely after graduation? One can still take classes, go to wild parties, hear famous speakers, and try new things later in life; those who don't bother are probably at least partly using lack of time or opportunity as an excuse, to cover up for lack of initiative or even lack of inclination.

Certainly I made my share of mistaken choices during college, but if I'm brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't think of a single major one that I made out of ignorance, rather than, say, laziness or timidity. I'd be interested to hear (via comments, perhaps) whether readers see their college years differently.

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