How College Can Help You to Live a Good Life


The unexamined life is not worth living,” noted the wise Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates during his trial, as recounted in Plato’s Apology.  In that context, Richard Light, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author or Making the Most of College (2004), poses the following questions to college students: What does it mean to live a good life? To live a productive life? To live a happy life? What if the answers to these three questions contradict with one another? How can a student use his or her time in college to help answer these questions?

To that end, Harvard offers freshman a seminar titled “Reflecting on Your Life” developed by Professors Light, Howard Gardner, and Dean of Freshman Thomas Dingman in 2011. The structure for the seminar encourages deep thought and discussion over three (or four) 90-minute sessions a week apart among 12 students, led by advisors, faculty members, or deans. Light explains, “[There] are five exercises [out of about 16] that students find particularly engaging. Each is designed to help freshmen identify their goals and reflect systematically about various aspects of their personal lives, and to connect what they discover to what they actually do at college.” The exercises for the students are summarized below.

Exercise 1: Make a list of how you want to spend your time at college. What really matters to you? Then make a list of how you actually spend your time each day over the past week. Then compare the first list with the second. How well do your commitments actually match your goals?

Exercise 2: Make a list of what you do in your spare time? How can these activities or interests influence your decision of your major in college? Is there something you enjoy that you are not considering as major or career track?

Exercise 3: If you could become really good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose? How does this influence your strategy towards college?

Exercise 4: Circle the five words that best describe your core values. The words are: peace, integrity, wealth, joy, happiness, love, success, recognition, friendship, family, fame, truth, authenticity, wisdom, power, status, influence, justice. What if some of the five you select conflict with one another? What do you do?

Exercise 5: Apply the parable of the happy fisherman to your own life. Here is the parable: “[A] happy fisherman [lives] a simple life on a small island. [He] goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life. A recent MBA visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an IPO. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives. “And then what?” asks the fisherman. “Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.”

The parable begs the questions: is it more important to you to own little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy, to spend time with family? Or is it more important to work hard, use your talents and skills, perhaps making the world a better place in the process?

This last exercise, notes Light, provokes some very spirited debates; he explains: “Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement. These discussions encourage first-year undergraduates to think about what really matters to them, and what each of us feels we might owe, or not owe, to the broader community — ideas that our students can capitalize on throughout their time at college.”

Indeed the seminar, “Reflecting on Your Life” has a profound impact on college freshman. Light elaborates: “At the end of our sessions, I say to my group: ‘Tell me one thing you have changed your mind about this year,’ and many responses reflect a remarkable level of introspection. Three years later, when we check in with participants, nearly all report that the discussions had been valuable, a step toward turning college into the transformational experience it is meant to be.

Fortunately, thanks to the egalitarian nature of the internet, you don’t have to attend Harvard (and spend more than $350,000 in tuition) to benefit from Professor Light’s work and research — the Facilitator Guide: Reflections is readily available for download (see link below). No doubt, Socrates would enthusiastically support this deep reflection as students embark on a journey of higher learning and self-discovery.

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The Parable of the Carpenter’s Son
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For further reading: Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Mind by Richard Light (2004)