What Matters When Choosing a College: The Central Role of Place and Community

The liberal arts college surrounded by nature, set apart from a major city, where you could devote your time apart from society to reading, socializing with a select group of peers and finding oneself and establishing one’s view and identity has always been infinitely appealing to me.

But it is a false ideal, built on false notions of what it is to be human. We are happiest and operate best in a consistent community of others, not embedded in far off places for short periods of time. The idea of leaving one’s home to find oneself is a troubled and wrong-headed one because it discounts the intimate role our parents and our cultural history play in who we are.

We do not become who we are by spending 4 years in an isolated community any more than we become who we are by hiding under a rock. Our connections to our families and communities are what really matters Рand without that tere will be aspects of ourselves that flounder.

I cannot deny the appeal of the idea of a fresh start, of leaving the home town as a sort of initiation ceremony for being one’s own man, an external sign that one is now an adult on one’s own and responsible for oneself.

However, going to college is weak for this because the laws of our country have set up the college as en loco parentis – as parents in place of your parents while you are away. You actually have very little autonomy on modern college campuses, and little opportunity for meaningful contact with much of anyone in school set up situations. You are in many ways as much on your own as if you were in a major city. There are so many rules on school trips and so many protections in place for anything bad (and correspondingly also protections against anything good happening) that what typically happens is nothing unless you arrange it. And sitting in a lecture hall does not automatically make for a perfect spot to develop fast friends. You are sitting listening. There is rarely much interaction, and when it is it is usually on intellectual topics, purely from the head and with little opportunity for expressions of personality.

So go to a college in a city or larger area where you could see yourself settling down in – where that at least would be an option – and ideally an area within an hour of your family. The danger of this of course is that you would lean too much on your old friends from high school and your parents and then wouldn’t take advantage of the social opportunities in college – to make new friends as you matured. But I think that will happen on its own.

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