More than a quarter of Canadian graduates carry students loans of $25,000 or more. CNS photo/The Southern Cross

A decided purpose will open up future choices

  • May 8, 2012

A young man I have known since cutting his umbilical cord 25 years ago will, if all stays on plan, be awarded a doctorate by an Ivy League university in about two years.

Along the way to his PhD, he earned a Master’s degree at Oxford after graduating from one of the Quebec universities whose students have been rioting in the streets since February.

All to the good and bully for him, but here’s the noteworthy part: he will have four degrees without owing one penny of student debt. And, no, I can assure you, he did not manage the feat by relying on rich parents. I know his parents better than anyone. Rich they are not.

Three things contributed. His prudential mother began putting small amounts into a special educational account when he was an infant. He mopped floors, stocked shelves, worked at a call centre etc. from the time he was 15 to help pay his own way. Third, and the most critical, once he decided on an academic life, he committed entirely to whatever it took to earn a PhD. He studied ferociously to obtain marks so high that scholarships could be assured. He never wavered.

Well, never seriously wavered. Once I had to bail him out of a restaurant where he had ordered lunch but neglected to calculate the tax and tip against the lone sweat-stained $5 bill in his wallet. Walking back to his residence, he admitted that while he wanted to be an academic, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be one his whole life. I think he was 20.

“Build a base,” I said. “A base gives you alternatives.”

He got it. The “it” he got was purpose. It is a quality, and a differentiation, I have been considering a lot during the almost three months of hellery inflicted on Montrealers during the recent student strike. While the ostensible spark for the strike was a tuition fee increase, the true source of it seemed to me to be the malaise of purposelessness that afflicts higher education generally.

When we read that 57 per cent of university students carry debt, and that more than a quarter graduate owing at least $25,000, we must question the purpose of taking on such onerous financial obligations to obtain a non-vocational degree. Even if we believe, as I certainly do, that citizens who have studied philosophy, languages, literature, politics, natural science and so on are vital to our culture, we must still ask whether there are not  alternatives that don’t demand so much time and debt.

Beyond simple dollars and cents, the “life debt” crisis underlying Quebec’s  educational shenanigans seems really a symptom of intellectual and spiritual drift. I don’t mean laziness, ignorance or any related pejorative. I mean the cultural inheritance of the hippy icons who crashed through the 1960s in a bus with the destination marker that said “FURTHER” — without asking whether simply going further was better, or even desirable. Today’s students are largely the heirs of a culture that would hoot at the very idea that God has a purpose for each of us in life, or even that life itself has a purpose.

Lost in the hooting, it seems, was the understanding that belief in external purpose imposes an obligation to discernment. Discernment does not mean just following whatever seems interesting and available for the next four years. It is not a calculation of the debt we qualify to take on. It means truly deciding on, and committing to, the base that will ground our adult lives. For Christians, additionally, it almost means listening with utmost intensity and an open heart to what God, not our academic advisor, wants us to do.

None of this guarantees happiness, much less ensures that we will never owe anyone a penny. But discerned purpose actually does guarantee us the one thing our consumer-mad culture promises but never delivers: genuine choice. Once we have a decided purpose, we open the choice of every alternative that flows from it.

A young man whose umbilical cord I cut is living proof of the difference between gaining the reward we’ve worked for all along and smashing store windows on Main Street until the riot squad comes along.

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