When I came to William Jewell College, I had meticulously spelled out a four-year plan. The end result of this four-year plan was what I envisioned to be the culmination of the ideal me: I would have earned a bachelor’s degree in history and would be on track to going to some Ivy league institution to start a master’s program.
I felt that this desire of mine to have a degree in history, which I had loved to study throughout my four years in high school, was an utterly fundamental desire. My whole being was filtered through this desire. I could not have been described without reference to my love of history. Thus, I was fervently convinced that I had settled into a fixed pattern of being, into a kind of irrevocable character. I was very much mistaken.
My so-called irrevocable character was already crumbling with a few phone conversations with the senior tutor of Oxbridge, Dr. Kenneth Alpern. The summer before I committed to going to Jewell, I was discussing my ideas on the nature of trust and love. I did not understand the kind of analysis I was doing in my conversations, but I found that I was growing increasingly fascinated with conceptual analysis. In other words, without knowing it, I was discovering that what I was truly passionate about was philosophy, not history.
Throughout the entirety of my high school career, I had often been frustrated at the fact that history would not delve into the minds of the people we studied. I thought that to engage with the individual – with the structure of that individual, taking into consideration their motivations, their desires, their feelings – history could potentially arrive at some kind of account on the nature of human beings.
I described the kind of history I wanted to study as a deeply individualistic account of history, with the agent as the source of historical change, but nonetheless the agent was embedded in a kind of historically determined context. Such an account was necessarily confused and conflicting – I was torn by a desire to analyze a kind of underlying structure I perceived in historical events and in people, but I had no words to describe what I really wanted to study.
When I communicated my conception of the kind of history I wanted to study, people suggested that I study psychology instead. I would grow irate. There was something in the very nature of the kind of human experience, historical and not historical, which was important. My conversations with Alpern that summer further convinced me that he implicitly understood the kinds of inquiry I wanted to undertake. When he suggested that I take an ethics course, I initially felt a sense of confusion. Had I not told him that I wanted to study history? Why did he insist on my taking ethics, of all things? I hardly knew what the course entailed. Nevertheless, I had come to trust Alpern, for I perceived him as the sort of individual who knew what was what. So, I agreed to take ethics.
The next couple of weeks saw me in the thick of philosophical analysis. I woke up in the mornings to discuss coherentism, noncognitivism, and deontology in ethics. I would then go to my responsible self class, and my professor was Dr. Elizabeth Sperry, the department chair for philosophy. I would go to Oxbridge introductory seminar and pit Plato and Mill together. I was ecstatic. I knew that in all my conversations in all of these classes, I was delving into what it was that made life worth living, what made life good. Things made sense now – before, I had been trying to dig underneath historical concepts without having any understanding of what it was I was digging for. Here it was! What I wanted more than anything was to study philosophy, not history.
But I felt enormously guilty as soon as I began to realize that my love of history was a rather misplaced love. In high school, I was the history student. I had made a commitment, through my words, through my actions, through my feelings, to my history professors to the field of history. If I gave up what I once would have called my undying love for history, would I be giving up who I was? Would I lose my essence?
Eventually, my love of philosophy trumped my feelings of inconsistency and identity-confusion. After all, wasn’t I in college? I was supposed to change, and I was not obligated to be a particular way. Nobody could be upset that I was choosing what I really wanted. In fact, if I did not change my major to philosophy, I would be making myself miserable, and what for? Because I was moved by the past merely because I had once been habituated in such a way, and thought that somehow justified a kind of needless suffering? Just because I was becoming an essentially different person, did not mean that I was being somehow less true to myself or that I was going down the wrong path. If anything, my self is in a constant state of reinvention – as I interact with other people and other disciplines, I come to conceive of myself differently, and I reconstruct who I am successively.
In switching my major to History of Ideas, I was moving away from adhering to the past, to custom, merely for custom’s sake. Instead, I was beginning to critically reflect on the kinds of things which I had once valued, and asking myself whether or not I thought that these were the kinds of things which I wanted to value. I was redefining what exactly a good life would look like for me and the ways in which I might reorient my psychic dispositions and my circumstances such that I could achieve my new ideal. In my conscientious reflection, I was becoming more me. That ended my predicament.
What I mean to communicate to you, dear reader, is that you are bound to change in college. As I write now, I am still in the process of changing. And that is perfectly okay. Human beings are not these rigid things that refuse to respond to change. Rather, we are dynamic. It is okay to think that you will be one way, and then the next moment feel as though you are something different. So long as you are engaging in critical, but constructive, self-reflection that seeks to reach a better understanding of the self and the good life for the self, then you are doing a great job. You are meant to change. It is not a crime. You do not have to feel guilty for changing majors, for breaking up with a romantic partner or for choosing different friends. College is a time of transition – don’t make the transition harder than it needs to be by torturing yourself unnecessarily.