by Daniel Mark
If you come to college from any kind of traditional background, especially a religious one, your beliefs and values are going to be challenged. Sometimes they will be challenged directly, in the classroom and in casual conversations, as professors and schoolmates wonder aloud about many of the things, from family to faith, that you have taken for granted as true and good. More often, however, the challenges will be subtle and indirect, stemming from a campus culture that rests on an entirely different foundation.
For a typical college student, a good day consists of sleeping late, watching TV, and drinking beer (not necessarily in that order). Don’t get me wrong: all of those things have their appeal—and justifiably so. But they are not the key ingredients to an experience that once was about turning boys and girls into young men and women. Decades ago, colleges were more committed to the character formation of their students, and they sought to teach lessons of virtue through the great works of Western civilization. But with the decline of support for moral education, colleges became agnostic on important questions of right and wrong. This is why, as I often argue, colleges do not warn their students against engaging in promiscuous sex; they only warn them to be “safe” when doing so.
This is not to say that things are all bad. Many colleges do offer the resources, in academics and in student life, for students who are interested in seeking them out. More importantly, as my experience at Princeton has shown, students who want to band together to support each other, or even to change the campus culture, can do so with amazing success. So here is my advice to anyone looking to stay strong in college.
1. Draw some lines: Making the right decision is much harder to do in the moment, when temptation often takes its toll. Instead, maintain a few bright lines for yourself so that you don’t have to think about crossing them. This could mean deciding not to attend any parties that involve [insert the vice of your choice here] or committing yourself to praying once every day, no matter how busy, tired, or down you feel that day.
2. Find a community: It’s easier to do the right thing when you’ve got others around you who are doing the right thing, too. Of course, you’ll have lots of different friends in college, but it’s important to know that the different influence of each friend has its time and place. And the friends who are a good influence on you needn’t agree with you on everything. As an Orthodox Jew, I have taken much strength and inspiration from my devout Catholic friends, who stay true to their beliefs and practices even though the Church is under constant attack as the symbol of much of what the Left despises.
3. Know your arguments: One thing you can be sure of: you will be challenged. Often, the people who disagree with you will be intelligent, well-informed, and reasonable. Therefore, if you want to speak up and defend your views, know why you believe what you do. Know why you believe in traditional family values, the right to life, small government, or academic freedom. You won’t do any good by blindly insisting to others that you’re right. Moreover, your own conscience will be able to better withstand the constant barrage of opposition if your positions are rooted in solid arguments. Otherwise, you’ve just got your faith, which you can’t expect to convince anyone else and which you may even begin to doubt yourself. Reasons matter.
4. Keep your eye on the ball: Almost everyone slips a little in college. Most of the time, it’s not because you’ve abandoned your values wholesale in one sweeping gesture. Rather, it’s the small, nearly imperceptible changes that add up over the long run. So if you find yourself looking back and asking, “How did I get here?”, remember where you came from and who you want to be. Remember the values that you brought with you to college and the ones by which you’d like to measure yourself when you leave. If by the time you graduate, you’ve lost the vision of what’s really important in life, then you’re at risk for falling victim to the moral relativism and hedonism that plagues our culture. But if you can maintain that vision of who you ought to be—even if you occasionally make a choice you regret—then you’ve always got a chance. We all slip and fall; after all, we’re human. The trick is getting back up.