09/16/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Whatever Happened to Carpe Diem?

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

From coast to coast, the following is happening in homes across the country: Parents are walking past open bedroom doors and pausing. These empty rooms have bedcovers that remain smoothly in place and drawers and closet doors that remain closed. They have no keys thrown on a desk and no half-empty bottles of Gatorade or iced tea perched on a shelf; no corners filled with sweaty socks and not one piece of electronics plugged in and charging.

Behold the arrival of the "neat room" for the first time in a long time. Parents haven't seen it in years, mostly because the space was inhabited by the preadolescent-then-teenager in their home. In my case, those "lived-in" spaces were filled with towels that never once found their way back to the bathroom rack, clean clothing that never found its way back into a drawer, and 4,873 scraps of paper that were all "important," not one of which had anything to do with homework.

The "neat room" makes its startling appearance when your son or daughter leaves home for college. (Years from now, it will become someone's "old room" and get reinvented yet again.) Me? I never quite got over the "neat room." I found myself smoothing out pristine beds; straightening pictures that weren't crooked and thinking that "hang up your towel" would be the last words I spoke on this earth.

But parents, as you walk by the "neat room" for the hundredth time since your children left for school, let me ask you this: What are your dreams for them? What do you want to see happen? For many, the answer is quite rightly, "To watch them follow a path to success." Or "To offer them the education they need to compete in the world." Fine. Lovely. But when you really consider what's at stake here, those sentiments seem to fall a little short, don't they?

Maybe a better question is: What do you expect your children to gain from their college experience? Many institutions now establish curricula stuffed with requirements and offer degrees with little (if any) opportunity to engage in anything outside a selected course of study. These programs are led by a myopic faculty and an administration that dismisses or doesn't welcome points of views that diverge from its own. For many, higher education has become a means to an end; something to be accomplished, checked off, and added to the "been there, done that" file.

I find that tragic. What happened to the joy of learning? Where are the stimulating and surprising classes and conversations that stay with students for decades? (Ask me about my D.H. Lawrence senior seminar someday, or my Old Testament course or the History of African Civilizations. Only one of those classes had anything to do with my major course of study.) In the spirit of Dead Poets Society's John Keating, where is the carpe diem of it all?

This isn't just me. In his new book, Excellent Sheep, author and professor William Deresiewicz laments the lack of curiosity, passion, and purpose found in today's students. Among other things, Mr. Deresiewicz recognizes the demise of "liberal arts," which has long been cast aside for the "benefits" of an agenda that supports a fragmented and specialized curriculum. One of the studies he cites is particularly grim: "In 1971, 73% of incoming freshmen said that it is essential or very important to 'develop a meaningful philosophy of life.'" That same year, 37 percent said it was important to "be wealthy." Forty years later, we've made progress--if by 'progress' you mean we've gotten greedier. In 2011, 80 percent of college freshmen said being rich was a very important priority. Forty-seven percent were interested in life's "big questions."

How foolish. How sad. I'm positive Mr. Deresiewicz has much more cogent insight into the state of education, but here's my two cents for parents: If your son or daughter arrives home for that first Thanksgiving holiday and doesn't feel the slightest bit different to you, going to college is a waste of your money and their time. If by the end of year one, they haven't met a professor, talked with an administrator, or taken a class that introduced an entirely new concept, helped them see a situation in a different way, or engaged them enough to think about or consider something for the very first time, that is truly unfortunate.

If your son or daughter graduates without ever signing up for a course purely out of curiosity or for the love of learning, he or she has lost out on one of life's greatest pleasures. At what other time will they spend every day around instructors who should be doing nothing more than stimulating their minds and helping them learn to think?

Students should spend at least part of their college years "trying on" life to see how it fits. What feels comfortable? What feels constricting? A graduating class wearing the same suit, cut from the same cloth, brings identical--and predictable--behavior to a workplace or society.

Imagine investing tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to learn how to think just like everyone around you! I can think of a lot more productive ways to spend four (or five) years.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit