Season of Choice

03/07/2016 01:27 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2017

Each year at this time, high school seniors and their families wait for acceptance letters from colleges and then agonize over the choice of where to go. This decision-making process has become a time of deep anxiety for many families. In some circles, this anxiety is generated by the emphasis that has been put on the prestige of the school one attends. In other circles, families fret over the cost of higher education and fear that their child will be overwhelmed by loans. For still other families, there is the fear that their child will struggle to find rewarding work at a reasonable wage.

This year, the decision-making season is amplified by two presidential primaries. These political races indicate a widespread sense of alienation among the electorate. Non-traditional candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could not be further apart on many issues, yet their success in attracting voters thus far seems to derive from an almost universal frustration and anger in both parties with their respective political establishment.

For the most part, it is working-class and middle-class people who make up the electoral base for both Sanders and Trump. Sanders' refrain on the campaign trail is that the economic system is broken and unjust. There needs to be a more equal distribution of wealth so that the top 1 percent does not reap all of the fruits of economic growth. For Sanders' partisans who have experienced stagnant wages for several years and who struggle to pay for school, save for retirement, or pay for medical expenses, this message identifies a clear target for their frustration and anger.

Trump's less-focused message appeals to a similar sentiment. His campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," implies that something has been lost and needs to be restored. Trump identifies various groups, such as immigrants and Muslims, as the cause of this loss. By keeping them out, the story goes, we can restore a version of prosperity that used to exist for middle-class workers. Jobs will return; wages will grow; and we won't have to waste time worrying about offending people who are overly concerned with political correctness. In this new world, a strong leader and a new political class will protect 'us' from 'them,' restore our dominance, and make American potent once again.

Most careful observers, even those who argue that these candidates have broadened the political debate, recognize that their platforms are untenable. Sanders' promises of free college education, free health care, and a $1 trillion investment into infrastructure are unaffordable. Likewise, only the diehard supporters of Trump believe that he can build a wall on our southern border paid for by the Mexican government, or deport 11 million illegal immigrants, or ban all Muslims entering the country. But none of this matters. People are angry.

Expressing such emotion did not start with this political season, and it is not limited to members of any one class. Fear, anger and anxiety are part of the human condition. When we feel slighted, suffer injustice, or sense our circumstances getting away from us, it takes insight, understanding, and fortitude to resist the impetuous solution. Seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza reminds us that the emotions hold us in bondage as long we fail to understand their causes.

The personal freedom that comes with understanding, insight and fortitude is rarely discussed on the campaign trail, even though the word freedom is tossed around cavalierly. There is good reason for this; politicians cannot provide us with this type of freedom. Nobody can. This type of freedom isn't the result of a stump speech or even a political revolution. It comes about when individuals work on themselves, seek to understand the causes of their emotions, make good decisions for the right reasons, and most importantly develop character over time.

If it is the case that such character makes it possible to turn anxiety into possibilities, then it is also the case that finding the right college is a matter of making a choice for character. I am not suggesting that the anxiety that high school seniors and their families feel around the kitchen table is the same as the fear citizens feel in the face of unemployment and terror alerts. But I am suggesting that the choice they face offers them the real possibility that they might think beyond the narrow, immediate anxieties over what they are going to do and seek to determine instead which college will help them become who they wish to be.

Like all choices, choosing a college is made easier by clarifying the goods one hopes to achieve as a result of going to college. Ideally, college students are humbled by their encounters with great ideas, texts, and thinkers. Over the course of their studies, they develop the capacity to solve ever more complex problems, think clearly and critically so that false or illogical arguments will not persuade them, and pursue possibilities opened by the encouragement and belief of great teachers. Most importantly, they open an inner life in which understanding deepens, freedom increases, and character grows.

Strong character doesn't negate emotions, it understands them. In fact, students with high character may be stricken with intense emotions as a result of greater awareness and sensitivity to injustices and broken systems. But those who allow the great texts and stories to shape their worldview will have resources to craft responses to the world that are not controlled by emotions. They will enjoy a high degree of personal freedom to choose what is most in line with their highest aspirations. They will recognize that the fruits of their best choices sometimes take time, and they will have the patience to wait. Encounters and conversations with heroes, classmates, and teachers will ignite an inner life fueled by curiosity about and concern for the world.

This process does not mean that students or parents should ignore the practical education required to survive in an uncertain and shifting economy. What one does with one's life matters. The skills one needs in whatever work one chooses, whether it be law, medicine, accounting, business, education, the arts, or the thousand other jobs and professions that exist or are yet to be created are an essential part of every good education, but they should not be the be all and end all of learning. A good set of tools do not make for a good carpenter. Craft comes with teaching, patience, practice, and, above all, from apprenticeship in a learning community willing to share its knowledge. Students and their families need to choose the people and place that will provide the tools and experiences they need to build a life.

So in this season of choice, as the anxiety of college-bound students builds, perhaps we should encourage them to step back and reflect on the source of their emotions and what they are trying to accomplish with their lives. What is the goal of a college education? Rather than watching anxiety turn into anger or fear, perhaps we should embrace it. And in this anxious space between ourselves and our daily tasks, we should take a fresh look at the college our child might choose, and even perhaps at the president we might choose, to see what is truly the best investment in the future.

Should our children choose to make a life or get a job? Should we choose to build walls or open doors? Whatever our answers, we should give both our children and us the confidence to choose a life of our own making, inspire them and us to work on building character with humility and patience, and challenge them and us to care for the world enough to choose to make it better. This is true freedom. This is true learning. This is true choice. This is what college is meant to do.