John Irving wonderfully defined “gradual school” as where students go until they gradually figure out that they need to be somewhere else. I took several courses in myriad departments until determining that I needed to be elsewhere, specifically developmental psychology. The social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development of children, adolescents, and even young adults. What could be more fascinating?
What could be more fascinating to you of course is what you studied in school—accounting, advertising, aeronautical engineering, agriculture, architecture, art history, Asian studies all the way through zoology. But I am still enchanted by the complexity, the unpredictability, the delicacy with which two people go to the hospital and three people come home and then that third person grows up to be pleasant and productive. Or not.
But before I stumbled across the discipline that I love, I pursued any number of other courses and directions. I studied mathematics and English literature as an undergraduate. I even enrolled—briefly—in an MBA program. I may not have retained much about economics, finance, business law, or management, but I do remember gaining an insight into my own character. The lesson came about when an accounting professor trusted me to take an exam un-proctored.
I had mentioned to the instructor that I would be traveling when the exam was given in class. An understanding and trusting sort, the teacher gave me the assessment to take home. With the understanding that I was to take the test in exactly two hours and that the evaluation was not open book.
Clutching the three-page test, I got as far as the parking lot before realizing that the situation was untenable. The 120-minute time limit I could deal with. But knowing that I wasn’t permitted to look at the text? With the book tantalizingly ensconced in the next room, Siren-like, calling to me? That was a bridge too far.
I’m not saying that I would have cheated. I’m just suggesting that my head would have caught fire and exploded knowing that I had the opportunity to take advantage.
I walked back to the departmental office and took the exam under the disinterested eye of the secretary. Not thinking about cheating allowed me to concentrate. It turned out that I could distinguish between a debit and a credit well enough without my attention being siphoned by the answers screaming at me from down the hall. I’m not proud of my weakness, but at least I didn’t cheat.
There are few “wrong” paths when it comes to taking college courses. Every subject has something to offer, even if the experience teaches a student more about the limits of his ethical compass, less about amortization. There are no dead ends in the college catalogue, only detours that lead somewhere also unexpectedly great.
It’s true that there are no mulligans, no “do-overs.” Your kids don’t get to drop their lacrosse sticks and magically change all those hours on the field into having practiced piano. But the idea that kids have to start ballet at age four if they’re going to be on the traveling ballet team is a bit of a stretch: there is no traveling ballet team. If they like dancing, let them dance. But there are 359 professional ballet dancers in this country. Your child is not going to grow up to be one of them.
We all had to kiss a few frogs before finding our life partner. I had to learn that assets equals liabilities plus equity before realizing that I was more interested in people than in corporations. Your kids will find their way. Let them make mistakes, pick their own direction. It’s hard to know where that path through the woods will lead and impossible to predict what they might see along the way.