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Advice to Graduates: The Importance of an Objective

It’s that time of the year again, when some students turn into wage-earners, others just move on to another curriculum, and still others just tank.  Once the mediaeval outfits return to the closet while some who just came out of the closet try to push others they don’t like into the closet, college faculty are generally saddled with the task of documenting their work for accreditation agencies.

Thinking about that turns me back to my last degree pursuit, and the course in Statically Indeterminate Structures.  It was my first structural course past the very basics (my first degree was in Mechanical Engineering, where I specialised in machine design).  But it was indeterminate in more ways that structurally; the professor’s MO struck me as bizarre.  After years of textbook/problems/tests, there was none of that here.  His treatment of topics reminded me of a 1960’s art movie; no plot, and no clear connection between one scene and the next. He had no textbook, just notes which appeared on the overhead projector.  Homework consisted in substantial projects whose due dates were flexible; you worked and worked until the incomplete disappeared.

I despaired of learning anything (my father dying in the middle of course didn’t help) but I really did.  There was method in his madness; I am a better engineer for the effort.  As the department head, he made two more decisions which went against the grain.  When his only other full-time professor retired, he brought in one full-time professor (now department head) and me as an adjunct.  Both of us had our primary experience in the offshore oil industry, and this in a landlocked state!

Getting back to the accreditation progress, one of the requirements of our discipline specific accreditation organisation (in our case ABET) was that we develop an objective for our college.  True to form, my professor said that we could develop any objective, down to and including becoming the worst engineering school in the country.  Once again that struck me as bizarre, but after reflection I realised he was right, because if we had an objective to be the worst engineering school in the country, we wouldn’t be that worst school!  The programs with no goals would do that!

The point of this strange diatribe is that having an objective, a goal, is essential to success in life, no matter how you define success.  To start with you can’t succeed at anything if you have no criteria for success, and an objective gives you that criterion.  Beyond that, as with ABET, having a goal–any goal–will put you ahead of everyone else that doesn’t have a goal, and that’s a large set of people these days.

There’s a lot of debate these days about why people raised in the upper stratum of society have the best shot of ending up there themselves.  We speak of more stable family structure, better educational opportunities, better mental stimulus, etc.  But my experience teaches me that underlying all that is that people raised in expensive zip codes are given goals in life and then pushed to make them reality.  Sometimes it doesn’t work; the goals given are unrealistic, unsuited for the subject, or just plain worthless.  But the combination of being raised at the top and having a purposeless life almost never happens, especially these days.

Down the ladder things are different.  It’s easier to get into a pattern of drifting through life, bouncing from job to job, dole to dole and lover to lover without much thought about where one wants to end up.  It’s especially easy in this country, and one of the unstated goals of the welfare state is to make that drifting the norm.  It’s why immigrants at all levels do so well; they come from places where those without a goal get wiped out.

A few years ago Rick Warren had his tremendously successful The Purpose Driven Life.  At the time churches marvelled at the idea, but for me it was a given.  Is there any other way to live it?  But unfortunately for many it is, even in churches where a purpose is an underlying assumption.

For the Christian, the ultimate goal is eternal life in Jesus Christ.  That idea, oddly, has come under attack from some Christians who believe that an emphasis of the heavenly goal is the road to earthly irrelevancy.  But I disagree; the eternal goal not only moulds your actions here leading up to it, but also puts you beyond the ultimate hold of the “god of this age” (cf. 2 Cor 4:4) and his agents and assigns, which is why same agents and assigns dislike Christianity so much.

But that dislike shouldn’t dissuade us from the pursuit of those eternal goals:

But all the things which I once held to be gains I have now, for the Christ’s sake, come to count as loss. More than that, I count everything as loss, for the sake of the exceeding value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. And for his sake I have lost everything, and count it as refuse, if I may but gain Christ and be found in union with him; Any righteousness that I have being, not the righteousness that results from Law, but the righteousness which comes through faith in Christ–the righteousness which is derived from God and is founded on faith. Then indeed I shall know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and all that it means to share his sufferings, In the hope that, if I become like him in death, I may possibly attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

It’s time to not only have an objective–which is better than none–but the objective.


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