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Alumni Voices: Socrates can teach us to stop and consider what comes next

James Bartholomeusz (MA Philosophy, 2014) asks how we can best use our university experience to make a difference in the world.

We all remember that feeling right at the end of university. The all-consuming rush of final exams and last-minute dissertation redrafts, surreally long library days and medically inadvisable quantities of caffeine that culminate in a sudden sense of calm. That calm is made up of both a sweeping relief and a single, overriding question: what now?

‘What now’ is not just a question for the next few weeks and months, about whether to head home for a summer job or scrimp together the end of a maintenance loan to backpack around Latin America. It is a question for a whole lifetime. We can be so consumed by our studies and university life that the immediate freedom at the end of a degree can feel a bit like an existential cliff-edge. For the first time a gulf of quite frightening opportunity opens out in front of us. There are suddenly no more teachers pointing the way.

Unfortunately, the question of what one should do with a degree, is not always properly considered. Record levels of student debt, a threadbare welfare state and a stagnant economy drive graduates to find employment as quickly as possible, often in areas that are entirely unsuited to their level of education. The social expectation that accompanies a degree from a top university can also be crippling. Graduates, especially those from working-class backgrounds, often feel under pressure to prove that their ‘investment’ in a degree was a wise one, pursuing the financial security and conventional social prestige of a large-scale graduate scheme. It can be difficult to escape the sense that there is a limited range of legitimate post-university pathways, ones that you may or may not succeed in finding.

This is something of a tragedy. Students spend several years at university exploring our world from all sorts of perspectives, its great problems as well as the great opportunities for positive change. Then, immediately afterwards, this potential is crumpled by the realities of graduate life. This is not to say all or even most existing graduate opportunities are poor ones – far from it. But these opportunities represent only quite a small subset of what the graduate population is capable.

Statues of Socrates by Leonidas Drosis. Image by C Messier

As a graduate of King’s marvellously ecumenical philosophy department, I am fortunate enough to have been taught by the formidable Professor ‘MM’ McCabe and well remember her evocation of Socrates as the supreme questioner. It is to Socrates that the famous aphorism ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ is attributed; a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but there is a very real lesson here for university graduates in our own time. As a King’s alumna or alumnus, you are among a very small proportion of the global population that has been gifted the intellectual tools to change the world. You should have the courage to critically examine the life choices you are expected to make, and to reject them if you find them wanting. There may be far better uses for the privilege you enjoy than those that others before you have predetermined.

So if I could pass on one message to those currently graduating from university it would come directly from Socrates. Examine the life you intend to lead, and don’t assume that the options you are presented with are the only possibilities. You have the ability to change the world for the better, and there is a global alumni community just waiting to hear your great ideas.

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James Bartholomeusz

James Bartholomeusz

Contributor to Alumni Blog.

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