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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Why we should give up on finding that ‘dream school’

<triotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”
    -George Bernard Shaw

A few friends of mine -let’s call them Elaine and, oh, Corwin – recently started their freshman year at a college in Massachusetts with an alternative educational model – a build-your-own-major kind of curriculum. It seemed like a good fit. Corwin is a robust, outgoing kind of guy, and he seems to be having fun, but Elaine doesn’t socialize quite as well.

She called me last week and told that she’d spent the day with another of our friends – we’ll call her Andrea – who is in her sophomore year at a women’s college elsewhere in the state. They’d spent a day wandering around campus together, and Andrea had told Elaine about the school, and now Elaine told me was thinking about transferring. Her school just didn’t feel right, she said.

That surprised me. This school had been Elaine’s top choice. I couldn’t believe that she would just turn around on it. But on the other hand, it was totally unsurprising, because Andrea had done the same thing.

Andrea had decided in the middle of her freshman year that her school wasn’t right for her, and that she wanted to transfer. It had been the same situation – her top choice school, somehow, had just not felt right once she got there. She ultimately ended up staying where she was not because she had learned to love her school, but because nowhere else felt right.

I couldn’t help but feel, in my heart of hearts, that Elaine was somehow betraying her college – and, in reflection, betraying herself. Hadn’t the school felt right when she visited? Didn’t that imply compatibility on the part of both the student and the school? How could she just want to turn around and leave? That would be like admitting personal inadequacy.

The problem, I realized, is not indecision. The problem is the ridiculous idea that there’s a right college for anyone, and that once you get there, like a bolt from the blue, you’ll just know.

Few other platitudes are simultaneously so trite and so toxic. Every high school guidance counselor, every book from Fiske, the Princeton Review and Barron’s, every doting high school teacher in the country regurgitates this worthless chestnut like it’s the Gospel truth, that there’s just something special about the right college, and you can feel it in your gut as soon as you step on campus. And the only effect it has is that a generation of naïve Americans feels vaguely ripped off for four years because they aren’t always in the throes of euphoria.

I assure you that not a single Carleton student thinks this school is magical. Everybody here has been fed up with Carleton, some godforsaken Thursday of some godforsaken 9th week. But we know it’s supposed to be magical. Everybody says so. Carleton’s not just supposed to be the school we go to, it’s supposed to be the school for us.

This line of reasoning treats the concept of a “soulmate,” which is dubious at best in the real world, as established wisdom. There is a college out there for us, we tell ourselves in high school, a perfect college, as we sit curled up in our window seats, staring misty-eyed out at the stars. And we’ll know it when we get there. We’ll feel it in our gut.

And once we do end up on a campus, we’re cowed into thinking that it must be the right one. We delude ourselves into thinking it’s the one for us. How could it not be? We visited so many. Is this how “feeling right” feels?

We trick ourselves into feeling something like patriotism for our school – alma-matriotism, if you prefer. It’s not enough that we’re giving Carleton our money; we have to give it our love and our identities as well; we have to be misty-eyed alumni years from now, looking back on the Grand Old Days in Northfield.

In light of all this, transferring is a form of betrayal. It’s like divorcing Mr. Right. Deciding that a school is right for you entails internalizing part of that school’s identity – in effect, becoming right for the school. Leaving means ripping that part out of you again.

There’s no need for all of this hysteria. A college should provide, not consume. Fundamentally, a college is a place to get an education. Niceties of culture aside, a good student can do that anywhere. The personal agony we create around transferring, and around college identity in general, the idea that we’re wasting the best four years of our lives if we’re not always having a blast, is hysterical. That hallowed American collegiate pride was invented to sell football tickets, and we get into Carleton games for free.

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