How Professor Smith Helped Me Survive my Undergraduate Degree

education friendship higher education adam smith

Shal Marriott for AdamSmithWorks

Does Adam Smith have any advice for contemporary college students? What might he say to the modern college student just starting out and who feels like they have no clue what they are doing? Why would these dusty old texts help us figure out our way through our chaotic and tumultuous college years?
It is clear from Adam Smith’s lecture notes as well as from his life that he took his job quite seriously. This is one of the reasons why he spends so much time talking about education in the Wealth of Nations. Students mattered greatly to him. Yet, the students he taught were teenage boys in a century far removed, surrounded by very different political and social circumstances. So, it’s worth asking: Does Adam Smith have any advice for contemporary college students? What might he say to the modern college student just starting out and who feels like they have no clue what they are doing? Why would these dusty old texts help us figure out our way through our chaotic and tumultuous college years?

Much has changed, but there are still lessons which resonate and speak to us in Smith, for the very same reason that we read old novels. Both Russ Roberts and Ryan Hanley have written about the way Smith can improve our lives. The Theory of Moral Sentiments has much to say to those starting out or have earned their degree. Three passages in particular resonated with me throughout my undergraduate degree.

The first is one where Professor Smith reminds us of how much we desire to be liked. He writes in a well-loved passage of The Theory of Moral Sentiments that: 

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.” 

The approval of others matters to us, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. This desire influences choices we make in college, because we want our peer’s approval. College creates a new social environment for not just learning but for meeting new people, making friends, and often dating. It is all-encompassing and easy to get caught up in - especially if one is in a new city or far away from family. Attempting to figure out courses (and cooking) is hard on your own, and so being perceived as lovely matters so much more. There is a reason people often meet their best friends or spouses in college, alongside all of the studying they were (supposedly) doing.

But that perception of being loved and lovely has to be authentic. It has to be who we actually are, and hence the intentions for why we act in the way we do matters. 

“The prudent man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands it.” 

There is a reason why we pursue the degrees we do. Whether it is to get a high paying job, or it is a passion for the subject which keeps us awake at night. Many students change their minds and switch programs. It is takes time to figure out what you genuinely want to be thinking about. It is tempting to be persuaded by others about what you should be working towards. It might make you feel important act like an expert or try to show how passionate you are to impress people. But your degree has your name on it and the reasons for doing it are your own. 

Not everyone is passionate about studying or loves being in a classroom. Many students count the days until graduation and never look back. Besides, who can say what our best memories from college will be? This is why Professor Smith’s final lesson is his most important. It is that you will meet other people who share your interests, whatever they might be. He writes that 

“And it is for want of this reserve, that the one half of mankind make bad company to the other. A philosopher is company to a philosopher only; the member of a club to his own little knot of companions.” 

We want people to be as passionate about our interests as we are, and college creates a space where we will not only figure out those passions but find people to share them with. It might be jurisprudence bit it might be jousting. 

Reading Adam Smith helped me figure out what I wanted to be doing with my life. But it also helped me to meet people who I wanted to spend my time with. I met close friends in reading groups, discussing ideas. I found my own group of philosophers who I am constantly thankful for. 

·         I recognized how much I cared about what others thought
·         I figured out what I wanted to be working on that was my own interest
·         Those led me to a group of wonderful people to work on that with

There is so much uncertainty around pursing a college degree, and that feeling of being lost and aimless never entirely disappears, hence why spending time with other people who we find lovely becomes so important. There is a reason why Smith observes that: 

“Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” 
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