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Hillestad ’15: The dangers of a Brown education

As a Brown student, odds are you’re going to make a lot of money. You’re probably going to translate your Ivy League education into a lucrative and successful career. You’ll go into tech or consulting or finance, and you’ll make bank, partly because you’re good at what you do and partly because you have a fancy degree. You’ll settle down in a big house with a big family in upper-class suburbia. You’ll do all this because that’s what’s expected of you.

If you don’t, you’ll have wasted a golden opportunity handed to you on a silver platter. You’ll have squandered all your hard work and all your parents’ money for little more than a joy ride. As Brown students, there’s a pressure — which at times can be crushing — to use your degree for a practical end.

A Brown education carries the potential to make a huge amount of money, and that potential makes us feel like we have to take advantage of it. So we do, and slowly we forget about our true passions. We forget why we came to Brown in the first place.

That is the danger of a Brown education. But the value comes when you realize you’re not committed to that life. Sure, part of the value is that you can make a lot of money if you want. But the real value is the intangibles. A top-tier liberal education teaches you to think and learn on your own, and that’s a skill you can use for anything you want.

Admittedly, there are plenty of Brown students who genuinely enjoy pursuits that happen to net them a lot of money. There are also a number of students who have to take high-paying jobs to pay off student loans or support their families. Their hands are forced, but the rest of us have a choice. For those of us who prefer music and art and philosophy and poetry, my message is this: Don’t listen to the people saying your life has to have a practical purpose. Go to graduate school and keep studying Russian literature or art history. Keep playing in your band and live off what you can earn from small gigs at dingy bars. Travel the world. Stay the course. Don’t let the pressure of using your degree for something practical push you onto the path society has deemed most valuable.

The propensity to make money with a Brown degree — or any degree for that matter — is a double-edged sword. The same thing that makes it dangerous is also a boon. On the one hand, it could pressure you into a career you hate just for the sake of making money. But on the other hand, those very same skills you could use in the pursuit of wealth can be used in the pursuit of happiness. And if that pursuit also happens to make you loads of cash, all the better.

Just as the Brown degree is a double-edged sword, the freedom offered by the open curriculum is both a danger and an asset. Many Brown students, myself included, come here with very little idea what they want to pursue. With no guidance from a concrete curriculum, maybe we take a couple computer science courses, we dabble in development studies, we take a biology lab between English and calculus, and even a history seminar here and there. And before we know it, it’s time to declare a concentration.

That’s where the pressure to do something practical comes back. Too often our lodestar is the concentration with the highest future salary — and if we happen to like the material too, that’s just a bonus. This is the safe route. As it turns out, the open curriculum doesn’t cultivate a culture of free and open intellectualism as was intended. The freedom is intense and frightening, so we fall back on what’s safe and expected. Too much academic freedom sets us on a predictable path.

But that freedom can also help us find and foster our academic passions. Somewhere in the course of our patchwork education, some of us get lucky and stumble across a calling. Sometimes it happens too late. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, it’s the Brown education at its finest. That journey of academic self-discovery needs freedom. Whether you thrive in that freedom or resort to a predetermined course is up to you.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Though the poem is actually referencing an arbitrary dichotomy, as a Brown student, your road will soon diverge in a very real way. Down one road lies the predictable path. That road that leads to a white-picket fence and a Mercedes-Benz. Odds are, you’re already traveling down that road. It’s safe and well-trodden. But more often than not, that road has a toll. You sacrifice happiness for wealth, all because you wouldn’t take a risk.

Down the other road is freedom — a chaotic and wild freedom. This road leads to liberation from societal pressures. To travel this road, you have to realize your education is not a means to a high-paying job. It’s an end in itself. Now, unburdened by the urge for wealth and status, you become free to pursue your passion.

But you’re also free to chase fleeting whims or passing fancies. Just like the dangerous freedom of a Brown education, the real world may not lead you to find some great purpose. But you have to try. Otherwise you’ll fall prey to the perils of a Brown education while turning a blind eye to its true value.

So take the road less traveled. It will make all the difference.


Sam Hillestad ’15 is trying to take the road less traveled, but he keeps getting lost. Please send directions to samuel_hillestad@brown.edu.



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