In recent days I stumbled across 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy has been admired ever since for brilliantly weaving this philosophy into his story – a philosophy that suggests that there are myriad ways that one finds unhappiness; and a solitary way, that of avoiding all pitfalls, which produces happiness. Some literary critics suggest it was Tolstoy’s way of describing the Christian doctrine of original sin.
I pondered how this quote might work for our Williamson College students as in “Successful students are all alike; each unsuccessful student is unsuccessful in his/her own way.” Several ways I’ve noticed students stumbling – most, if not all, avoidable. While this list does not come close to covering the gamut of innumerable ways of producing college failure, here are six of the more subtle:
1. From an old Chinese proverb, “Dig a well before you get thirsty.” Successful students begin now, in advance, while things are important, rather than waiting until they become an emergency. Abraham Lincoln quipped, “Things come to those who wait, but it’s usually the leftovers from those who’ve hustled.”
2. When learning is boring there’s little motivation to expend the necessary energy to mine for truth. God has created an amazing universe in which He invites you on an adventure of discovery. Through his Spirit, God has revealed to us ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived…’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).”
3. Avoiding the development of relationships can forego opportunities for further learning. We often refer to it as lateral learning – a learning that comes from fellow classmates. When we learn together as teams our opportunity for success is enhanced. As the old saying goes “The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
4. Running late for class is a common symptom among students who struggle. Tardiness, as a result of illness, family emergency, unexpected traffic delays, etc is understandable. Otherwise, be punctual. Even if you are the first to arrive it will demonstrate to the professor (and to yourself) that you are serious about learning.
5. Students that make a habit of doing just enough to get by will often produce mediocre results (not only average grades, but mediocrity throughout life). At the start of each course do some analysis to discover ways to go beyond the expected. This will not only improve your chances of a top grade but will also be added insurance in case you need a little extra fuel to help you cross the finish line.
6. Lack of focus on what’s important over the long haul. Consider meditation and prayer before your class. Ask God to reveal to you important discoveries about His world that will equip you more fully in your chosen calling. This is especially important for classes that don’t fit into your dominant skill set. Who knows. There might be an unexpected nugget of truth waiting just for you. In the movie Hurricane Carter, Rubin remarked, “Small doors often open up into large rooms.”
I think Tolstoy would agree. Successful students are all alike.
Ed Smith, Ph.D., is President of Williamson College, a liberal arts Christian college located in Williamson County, Franklin, Tennessee.