I am now in my 14th year as a psychology professor at Wagner, but my educational path was very different than that of most Wagner students.
When I was 18 years old, I enrolled in three courses at my local community college in Northern California. I had no interest in any of them. I dropped two of those courses and failed the third — which was, of all things, Psychology 101. The classes I dropped were English literature and philosophy. Who had time for such nonsense? I gave college a try really just to get my parents off my back. I already knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was going to be a rock star.
I got my first guitar when I was 13 years old, and spent every waking moment trying to emulate my favorite guitar players. For me, there was only one kind of music: good old ’80s hard rock. Now, unfortunately, people refer to it by a term I have always hated: “hair metal.” I wasn’t interested in blues, rap, funk, or reggae. For me, it was all about hair metal, and I fit the image. I had hair down to my waist, rock ’n’ roll boots, and a leather jacket.
For me, it was all about hair metal, and I fit the image.
When I was 19, I started playing the local clubs around San Francisco. My band opened for some big names, and we started headlining our own shows. We even had some record label interest. I moved to Los Angeles and started playing in bands in Southern California. It went well for a while.
Unfortunately, in a few years, the 1990s came around, with a new type of rock music. The dreaded grunge rock. Nirvana. Soundgarden. Awful! Who could listen to that garbage? Despite my indignation, public interest in what I considered to be the only type of music worth playing began to fade. At age 24, I was rendered obsolete, and I stopped playing music.
Of course, for me, this was a massive personal crisis. There was only one thing I wanted to do with my life, and now it was gone.
One night, in a panic, I decided to call my dad, who wasn’t someone I usually went to for career advice. He always supported me, but he never really understood why his son had longer hair than his daughter. But, he listened to me patiently as I went on and on about not knowing what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Rather than giving me advice, he simply said, “Steve. Why do you need to figure this all out tonight?” That simple question made me realize that it wasn’t a matter of life or death, and that I could take some time to look around and consider the possibilities. Suddenly, I was more willing to be more open. But still, what to do?
I decided to take a college course again. Maybe this time I would actually open the textbook, turn in assignments, and even show up for the exams. So I once again signed up for Psychology 101.
One psychology class in particular had a major impact on my life. My professor was discussing theories of personality, and said that people who score high on measures of a trait called “openness to experience” (which means having intellectual curiosity, and a preference for novelty and variety) tend to be more psychologically healthy. Those who score low on this trait tend to be more neurotic, or experience more negative mood states. In other words, when you are closed off to learning new things, you are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. And when you are open to new possibilities, you tend to happier and healthier.
I began to reflect on how closed off to possibilities I had been in life so far. There was only one thing I ever wanted to do with my life, only one type of music I liked, only one path to stardom. No wonder I felt anxious and depressed when life didn’t follow along the perfect path that I had designed for myself. In my very narrow world, there was nothing else.
I share the story of my educational path with students in the hope that they will learn from my mistake — my mistake of being closed off to possibility, and of being rigid in my way of thinking. Students at Wagner are exposed to people of different religions, different sexual orientations and identities, different racial and cultural backgrounds, different abilities and disabilities, and different interests and ideologies. They have tremendous potential for growth if they are open to learning to communicate and understand more about people who differ from themselves.
When I say “openness,” however, I want to be clear that am not referring to “tolerance.” To me, tolerance suggests, “I know that I am in some way fundamentally superior to you, but I am willing to tolerate your existence, while I look down upon you, exclude you, and possibly even ridicule you when you are not around.” If we can move past tolerance and bring ourselves to be open to others, we open ourselves to new possibilities.
As part of a liberal arts education at Wagner, students are required to take courses in a variety of disciplines. In their First-Year Learning Communities, they may be required to go out into the community to better understand the practical applications of what they are learning in the classroom. Some may be asked to be of service to others who are less fortunate.
In the years I have taught in the First-Year Program, I have seen firsthand those who simply tolerate the experience, and those who are truly open to it. Those who engage themselves in the program often find it so rewarding and inspiring that they continue their work in the community years after they have completed their course requirements.
Being open to experience, however, does not come without consequence.
Being open to experience, however, does not come without consequence. When we become more knowledgeable about others, about different disciplines, and about the world, it forces us to critically evaluate our own ideologies. This can be scary. If we learn a new way of understanding, the foundation for which we have lived our lives so far can become unstable. Things that we always accepted as truth get called into question. The very essence of who we are is no longer quite as clear.
There is a reason for the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” It takes great courage to question your way of being, but I believe that with it comes great reward. My own life is much richer, much more fulfilling, than it was when it consisted of only one dream, one way to get there, and one type of music.
I still enjoy some good old-fashioned ’80s hair metal from time to time, but I’d like to end with a quote from a very different type of artist whom I have grown to appreciate over the years — the blues and folk singer Bill Withers. He said, “I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.” I hope my students will choose to look through the window and be open to experience.
Steve Jenkins, associate professor of psychology, originally delivered a version of this reflection as a speech to the class of 2020, at their freshman convocation, in 2016.