Reading is a non-negotiable for college students. Whether it is reading for a quiz, for research, or for recitation, college students always need to have their noses in books as a daily requirement in their college life. Those who dissent or lag behind face the consequence of failure. With reading becoming an increasingly arduous task over the course of the years, it becomes unattractive to some students.
Instead of an avenue of information, it is perceived as a source of stress. It is understandable: the stress of having to finish an entire chapter of a book is sometimes a drag. It might be too long; it might be too loaded with information, making it too much to take in. Essays, for instance, can be so long or loaded that reading them induces boredom and stress.
Reading does not have to be limited by requirements, however. There are famous essays that are a great joy to read, particularly because college students are able to relate to them easily. Reading these essays can also help the average college student obtain insights that are contained not only within the essays themselves but also in relation to other essays. Whether you are a college student or not, these essays are definitely worth reading and pondering.
“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The average college student would proclaim that the major he is taking is what he chose for himself, but is that really true? Are there other possible factors that compelled him to choose his major, such as his parents, his friends, or society as a whole? Those questions in mind are what 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed in “Self-Reliance,” which is considered one of the best American essays to-date.
Emerson was a stark advocate of transcendentalism. He pioneered the idea of the individual seeking the truth and happiness within himself, denouncing the idea of depending on institutions and other conglomerates for those same regards. Emerson was attempting to criticize the incessant control of the government and organized religion of his time over the general public.
His essay, “Self-Reliance,” was the culmination of those beliefs in mind. College students may be turned off right away the moment they read the first paragraph. The semantics he used in the essay are understandably difficult. They do not bear great semblance to the writing style used today, which many can easily understand.
However, if one looks through the difficulty of reading the essay, they will be able to appreciate how dynamic writing can be and the common writing style that was prominent during Emerson’s time.
More importantly, they will be transported to a world of insight and inspiration. One of the reasons why Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is considered one of the best essays of all time is that paved the way for the notion of individualism as the sole means for a person to achieve true happiness and growth. No longer should individuals confine themselves to society’s norms—they look to themselves for their dreams.
His essay reverberates even more so today—especially in college students. It manifests through the growing empowerment of the individual, that he may be respected and praised for acting on his own accord.
The entire reading cannot just be fully accepted at face value, however. While Emerson certainly meant well in his advocacy for the individual to rise up for himself, he was bordering towards the nullification of institutions in general, having the individual relying solely on himself to explore the truth.
The reason why Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is shown here is not only so that the average college student can be affirmed for his beliefs of himself as the only one who can carve his own destiny, but also that he should be critical of everything that he reads. Institutions are important; in fact, institutions are what perpetuated the study of Emerson’s works today and allowed them to be considered among the best essays ever written—a humorous irony, to say the least.
This does not mean that his works should be dismissed as outdated and meaningless. Emerson’s work—and his philosophy as a whole—makes for an excellent discourse for fostering the value of critical thinking. It lies among the foundations of individualism as it is known today. His essay can serve as fuel for people to see it in themselves to be happy and to grow comfortable in their own skin.
Moreover, it can serve as an impetus for introspection for the average college student. Some questions that you can think of as you read the essay can be:
- Why did I choose my major?
- What compelled me to study in my current university?
- What choices did I make because I wanted to?
For his messages to be truly appreciated, of course you have to read the actual essay itself. What was discussed here is a preface to reading the essay—a summary, overview, and forewarning when one reads Emerson’s essay.
“Reflections On The Right Use Of School Studies With A View To The Love Of God” by Simone Weil
A longstanding belief that many college students have about studies is that it is an endurance test, a matter of willpower—a test of paying attention the longest to the professor or in doing the homework. Is studying really all about shoving your faces in the books as long as you can each day? 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil answered this in her essay—it will be referred to as “Reflections” here for short.
Weil provides a groundwork of understanding and approaching studies as a whole. As a preface, her discussion is predominantly Christian, though it does not discount the points she made in her essay.
Reflections establishes a connection between prayer and studies through the presence of attention. In the former, it is attention to communing with God. In the latter, it is attention to the study material and the subject.
Attention to studies is not one out of sheer willpower, as the majority of students see it. For Weil, willpower has no place in studies. At the very least, it serves to needlessly tire the students; at worst, it turns them into uncreative drones of the subject, capable only of parroting what they are taught and never producing any more than that.
Weil, instead, proposed the desire to learn, not just one or a few particular subject matters. Even less so must the student have a talent in a subject. A student must incline himself to desire to learn all things. He does not need to be good or talented at any of the subjects, either. He need only tap into the “joy of learning”—the desire to learn regardless of what the subject is.
It is in this manner does someone truly become a student. It is not the pursuit of a passing mark that should drive a student—it is the pursuit of knowledge and truth, fuelled by attention and desire, that must drive him.
Though Reflections is predominantly Christian in its themes and its goals, its substance is nevertheless invaluable and applicable to students irrespective of their beliefs, or lack thereof. As you read the essay, you can find, for example, that the joy of learning is not an obscure sentiment. Whenever you learn something new and simple and you succeed in executing it, like in cooking or gardening, you will find yourself not only feeling fulfilled but also wanting to learn more about that craft.
This desire to learn more about the craft is not to be isolated to that craft alone. As you engage in other crafts—as Simone Weil hoped—you will come to the realization that each individual craft is connected together in a network of unity and knowledge. You can find, for instance, how the knowledge of cooking methods harmoniously coheres with the knowledge of chemical reactions as manifested in the deep-frying of pre-cut potatoes to create French fries.
Weil wrote this as a way for the individual to supplement himself in his quest to love God and His creation as a whole, created in balance and in connection with one another. Despite being Christian in its intended themes, this message is universally applicable and transcends belief systems.
For the agnostic, secularist, or atheist, for example, he may find solace in the logic of how physics and chemistry dictate that all matter is composed of molecules and chemical reactions that allow the objects that we see, exist as the way they appear and take shape now. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, the benefits to be reaped lie in the enthralling satisfaction of learning, the process by which it is acquired, and the zest to go deeper. These two factors should always be there when it comes to studies: attention to the material and the desire to study it.
As with Self-Reliance, Reflections is best appreciated when you conduct your own reading on it. You can take the discussion above as a preface. Most definitely, if not for its substance, you can take Reflections as one of the creative nonfiction essays to read for its upbeat tone and imagery.
What it means to be a student
Whether you are a freshman just starting out with college or an upcoming senior, you should add these two essays as a must-read in your summer reading list. They can serve as preliminaries not only to other similarly themed essay; by and large, these can serve as preliminaries to establishing an effective work ethic and outlook in your college life.
At the heart of these essays is the mission to kindle the fire that is self-value and the joy of learning. Together, they are the key to launching the college student into a state of passion and productivity, rejuvenated not by the power of will but by his own desire to learn anything and everything. Being a student is not confined with residence in an institution—being a student is to interrelate with life.
The next time you read another book or essay, do not think that you are doing it for a class—think that you are doing it for yourself.
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