Just add “why”

College: Not just about who you are anymore

| Managing Editor

The conventional wisdom (or something I just came up with the other day—not sure which) is that college (we actually don’t really talk about the relevance of high school anymore—sorry) is your four years to figure out “who” you are, and then the rest of your life is focused around “what” you do.
I think you’ll find that that’s the case, especially as you ease into senior year realizing that where you live, who you know, and maybe even what you eat will shortly be defined by what you produce for about eight hours a day. At that point, you’ll look back on this big abstract thing we call college and you’ll realize the point of all of it wasn’t to put out an incendiary newspaper, or to guide younger students, or to produce really engaging analyses of literary modernism, even if you did all these things, but rather to consciously formulate a conception of selfhood that you can hold at graduation and say, “Well, at least I have this now.”
Not that many of us even make it that far. To say we’ll be fully formulated after Wash. U. is a stretch indeed. But you’ll find the truth of this who equals now/what equals later axiom when you stay in St. Louis for the summer and meet graduated seniors stumbling around and they tell you, “Right, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing yet, but you know, there’s a couple things I’m hoping may pan out, but maybe, maybe not,” without really ever seeming too worried about it. Nobody has any idea post-graduation what they want to do, really, with their lives, but they do seem to know that they are themselves and that their next steps, whatever they are, will be sufficiently and stably embodied.
The thesis of this article is that in my view it’s not just about this “who” vs. “what” thing anymore: To this college “who” you need to add the concept of “why.” It might be “why” that’s the core of the difficult transition between identifying selfhood and identifying where to make money, insofar as “why” underlies who you are, and what you do is ideally the putting into practice of those principles.
Why is emphatically not “coming to understand what you stand for.” You liking the political left, the environment, animals and free trade is all a part of the “who” process. (And we remember now that all that will change. Perhaps none of this is terribly permanent.) That stuff is all part of identifying what crowd you hang with and what general attitude you take toward the world. In my view, many of these likes and dislikes are based on passion and social environment, and are expressions of sameness.
What will really differentiate you from other people, and what most newspapers don’t cover, is the real “why”: your consciously examined/experientially refined collection of underlying values. “Why” is best examined under the auspices of infinite regress, e.g.: “I like taking a warm shower in the morning. That’s important to me and something I always want to have.” Why? “Comfort and feeling clean are important.” Why? “Because they’re admittedly socially constructed phenomena that make me feel good about being alive. Maybe it’s different somewhere else. But I like it.” Why? “Because I like to feel good about being alive.” OK.
When you pile on your “whys” like this, you get past a lot of the superficial stuff most people spend their time asking about. “I like TV.” Why? “Because it’s good. Have you seen this ‘Wipeout’ show?” I.e. most people don’t question what they’re really putting value on when they act.
The point, as I run out of space, is this: Understanding “who” you are is merely understanding the basic patterns of thought and action that make up your life. College has been solidly superficial if left at that. To our time here, we should add, I think, the duty of understanding “why” we are who we are, and of refining those underlying values consciously. This may not come until you are a few years into this thing. But at some point, you’re going to wonder, my hope is, what exactly the point of all this has been and will be—“why” you do what you do, and whether it makes any sense at all.

Dennis is a senior in Arts & Sciences and a managing editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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