Editor’s note: When his godson was considering college choices, Dan Laukitis wrote to him about how to live well. What began as a kind of love letter to family became a testament to the life of learning and the benefits of a liberal arts education. Having recently become a father himself, Dan finds his own words have added meaning. Dan said, “The lasting impact of CC was not the hours in the classroom or the knowledge accrued, but the spirit and the inspiration; the learning how to learn — removing the ceiling to reveal a sky with no limits.”
It is possible to achieve greatness. You are free to cultivate a sense of wonder, to explore your fascinations, and to develop your understanding of things, people, and yourself. With curiosity, courage, and insight you might free yourself from the egocentrism and naivety that keep most of us from knowing what we don’t know.
Instead, you might examine your assumptions, acknowledge your hypocrisies, and integrate varied perspectives into your own. You might envision and create a world better than the one you were born into. You might develop a moral responsibility to live so fully, to pursue greatness and humility, to champion the assertion of will in yourself and others. You are free to improve the quality of your life; to be affected by, but not controlled by, the events of your life; to become aware of the assumptions that keep you from living freely and fully without losing sight of self-determination and moral responsibility. It is possible to live so fully.
Possible, but not inevitable. You will need help. It begins in an environment where your innate drive to understand yourself and your world are nurtured by those who see what you need and provide the love you deserve; encourage you to take risks and catch you when you fall; help you understand your limitations and learn to transcend them. Their attunement to your needs helps you believe the world is fair and safe, that you are worthy of love and respect, that your needs are acceptable, that your efforts will be rewarded.
With their/our help, you can hunger for more knowledge and challenge yourself. You grow through the ongoing dialogue between what you know and what you don’t know. Your knowledge will feed on new ideas that challenge your assumptions and inspire and enlighten you. You will be drawn to people and institutions that foster your ambitions. Naturally, you will get attached to your newfound knowledge; you won’t want to give up what you’ve fought so hard to know. We will challenge you to see the limitations in your perspectives, present you with alternatives, and lead by example.
The goal is to acquire knowledge of the world and of yourself, to define yourself and your values. Who are you and who will you become? What commitments will you make and keep? What relationships will you develop and sacrifice to protect?
You will have freedom to pursue your passions and express yourself, but you also must learn to tame your wild mind. You will learn to focus by being required to do so. When you are not intentionally paying attention to something, you are merely attending to whatever captures your attention. Focus is a skill you will develop through repeated efforts to attend to a single thing. The mind must be tamed by discipline. Without focus, attention bounces from stimuli to stimuli, from thought to noise to image to sound. Experiencing the world as an endless barrage of fleeting stimulations, while momentarily gratifying, leaves us adrift and afraid. We are trying to spare you that anxious fate.
Living fully is fostered by an environment where being yourself is supported by people important to you; where you are allowed to express your desires and pursue them.
As you are exposed to the world, we hope you find communities and institutions that champion the tension between knowing and learning, being and becoming, humility and hubris; institutions that understand learning is a skill they aim to teach; where learning how to learn is even more important than accumulating knowledge.
These places will help you feel at home, accepted into a varied culture of people sharing an engagement in learning. They will allow you to be yourself and explain your views. They will foster a culture of openness and tolerance through a safe exchange of ideas, with a goal of understanding, not judgment.
A good learning environment requires participants willing to play constructive roles. Just as we appreciate those who listen openly to our ideas and allow us to express ourselves, we too must learn to listen, to strive to bridge misunderstandings, to question others with civility.
Through respectful discourse you learn you can get along with people different from you. You learn that when you strive to understand people, you can have respect and compassion for them even if they offend you or your belief system, and even if they hurt you.
The complement of learning how to learn is understanding why. You will be faced with questions about the meaning of such concepts as character, faith, ethics, etiquette, courage, culture, aesthetics. You will learn about these things from people of various cultures; from books, film, and art; and from learning to extract quality information from the Internet.
You will read the great philosophers and authors; you will explore the dogmas of the world’s religions and the ancient texts and their modern interpreters.
Through the arts you will be invited into perspectives other than your own. You might find affirmation and inspiration, and challenges to re-examine your beliefs. This is especially likely when you engage in discourse about these influences.
You will interact with people around you and learn to tell a good man from a bad one. You will meet and emulate people who inspire you, with whom you identify. You will also see qualities you dislike and want to avoid in yourself. These observations can be among the most profound guides of who you do and do not want to be.
You will learn from your experiences and, mostly, you will learn from your regrets, which tell you what you may or may not have known about yourself.
These painful feelings define your values; they challenge you to understand them, hone them, commit to them; to define yourself and to protect your self-respect and reputation by living according to your values, owning up to your failures to do so, forgiving yourself, and never giving up this evolution.
Life can be cruel. You will soon know someone who dies too young, someone who makes choices that change their life forever, someone who loses their freedom, someone who loses their mind. Some changes will be accidental and some by choice. Nothing in life — no hardship, no unfairness, no political sea change, no community ill — will evoke more anguish than when you let down yourself or someone you love. That pain stings worst and stays with you. Wisdom lends itself to judgment and its greatest culmination is in being a good man, loved and respected.
It is neither old-fashioned nor elitist — when it is not used to draw a line between classes — to cultivate the character of a gentleman: to be humble, humane, honest, and loyal; to not abuse power or any instance of having advantages over another; to forgive and forget; to be bold in contests; and to be respectful of others, particularly women and family.
Dan Laukitis ’90 is a psychologist in private practice in Manhattan. He received his master’s degree in moral development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1997 and his doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University in 2003. He lives in New York City with his wife, Lisa, and their young son Walt.
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