Rebirth of Reason


Advice for Those Considering NCSSM
by Luke Setzer

Table of Contents

General Considerations
Education and the Good Life
Staying Home
Leaving Home
Lessons Learned
Your Personal Plan of Action


Between 1982 and 1984, I attended a state boarding school called the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM).  Founded in 1980, it became the first such state school for eleventh and twelfth graders showing exceptional aptitudes in the fields of science and mathematics.  It has inspired the creation of eighteen other similar schools around the world and has become part of the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology (NCSSSMST).

This article represents a body of "lessons learned" for those young people considering attending NCSSM today.  It examines general considerations, motives, benefits, detriments, and alternatives related to the NCSSM experience.  It concludes with a suggested plan of action.  These lessons remain general enough to apply to any young high school student considering any advanced, rigorous, residential high school program -- or even college.

General Considerations

To set the context for a young person considering the option of attending NCSSM requires examining the overall purpose of human life and the function of education in serving that purpose.  Those familiar with the writings of Ayn Rand and the mission of this site in advancing her philosophy will already understand the thrust of this article.  Her philosophy, Objectivism, derives its name from its central feature, the objectivity of concepts, propositions, and values, i.e. the valid relationship between concretes and abstracts in all human endeavors.  For those new to her ideas, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of her world view in her own words as written in the Appendix of her great novel Atlas Shrugged:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

You can read more by downloading this brochure.  Suffice it to say that this article unapologetically accepts that we all live in one reality, that each person can grasp the nature of that reality through right reason, that each human being lives ultimately as an end in himself rather than the means to the ends of others, that free market capitalism represents the ideal social system, and that good art serves as emotional fuel for the human spirit.  With that said, let me move forward to examine:

Education and the Good Life

Selfishness as the Ultimate Virtue

According to Objectivism, one's "own happiness" represents the "moral purpose" of a rational person's life.  This stands in stark "selfish" contrast to the dominant cultural voices in America that demand renunciation of self in favor of either "God" or "Society" through "service to others."  So your first task, before even beginning to look at your educational alternatives, involves purging your own soul of absurd notions of "self-sacrifice" in favor of pure self-interest.  This means looking ultimately at what you want for your life without consideration for what your friends, parents, siblings, teachers, or love interests want.  How do you do this?  You look at what form of "productive achievement" you want as your "noblest activity," i.e. what career you want to pursue.

Getting Totally Clear on the Desired End Result

All of this groundwork leads to an examination of how education fits into the schema of a given person's life plans.  It makes perfect sense to suggest that a person's long range career plans and life goals should dictate how much formal education he ought to pursue.  Economics, which studies the production, distribution, and consumption of finite resources, normally conveys exact information about the worth of any endeavor in a free market.  The involvement of government subsidies and other corrupting factors tends to distort the accuracy of these market signals.  Sheldon Richman documents these distortions at the primary and secondary school levels in his landmark book Separating School and State about which you can learn more through the Separation of School and State Alliance.  At the post-secondary level, these corrupting factors in turn lead to "empire building" within universities that allow further distortions and the transformation of "big lies" into "conventional wisdom."  These include commonly accepted yet fallacious propositions that:

1. A college degree automatically leads to a higher income.
2. The growing "information economy" demands more college graduates.

In his devastating critique "The Overselling of Higher Education," George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy demonstrates the flaws in these and other common arguments for higher education.  In his words:

Higher education is extremely valuable for some people, but not for everyone. By promoting it as heavily as we have in this country, we haven't raised either the level of education or skill in the population, but instead have brought on credential inflation and the erosion of academic standards.

Such critiques of "higher learning" have actually existed for decades.  Many years earlier, Caroline Bird published a highly controversial essay entitled "College Is a Waste of Time and Money" that continues to rankle readers.  In that commentary, Bird argues:

If high-school graduates don't want to go [to college], or if they don't want to go right away, they may perceive more clearly than their elders that college is not for them.  It is no longer obvious that adolescents are best off studying a core curriculum that was constructed when all educated men could agree on what made them educated, or that professors, advisors, or parents can be of any particular help to young people in choosing a major or a career.  High-school graduates see college graduates driving cabs, and decide it's not worth going and drop out.

To determine whether to pursue a college education -- or the college level work of NCSSM -- requires determining whether your long range life goals demand that kind of work.  The Ayn Rand scholar Alex Epstein has published an excellent article called "How to Choose a Career" in which he outlines a three step process of introspection, identification, and validation.  To help you to clarify whether you will enjoy a given career, he suggests:
Write down, in as much detail as possible, what an average day in your career will be like. What type of work you will be doing, what your coworkers will be like, how much relaxation time you will you have, how much time you will have with your spouse, your friends, what type of house or apartment you will be living in, and anything else relevant to your quality of life that you can think of. This will serve the purpose of making your future career as real to you as possible.

You may wonder what sorts of expectations modern employers have of incoming employees.  Writers for business journals have noted that the current crop of college graduates embraces considerably different priorities than its predecessors.  A recent article entitled "'Manage' Us?  Puh-leeze ..." in Fortune Magazine had this to say:

They're ambitious, they're demanding and they question everything, so if there isn't a good reason for that long commute or late night, don't expect them to do it. When it comes to loyalty, the companies they work for are last on their list -- behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves.

Hopefully, these exercises will begin to bring into focus your long range vision of your ideal life.  This vision will in turn dictate the path you take.  As the Cheshire Cat said in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which path you ought to take "depends a good deal on where you want to get" -- and if you do not know or care then "it doesn't matter which way you go."  So let your own reasoning assist you in picking a "where" and reason will tell you the best way "how" to get there!

Staying Home

This article has thus far set the context of selecting a career of enjoyable and productive purpose and using that career choice as the benchmark for what kind of education to pursue.  If you have your heart set on becoming an automobile mechanic, by all means pursue that career goal with passion and zeal and become the best mechanic you can.  If you love retail sales, become the best retail sales person you can.  In all these instances, the benchmark of productive purpose rules.  This means that you need to demonstrate to yourself through reason that these career choices will optimize the realization of your values in matter and in spirit.  For example, the joy of working with your hands as a mechanic might give you an emotional payoff that exceeds the greater income you might enjoy as a mechanical engineer.  Conversely, some career choices may fail no matter how much money you spend on education as many "starving artists" can attest.

Assuming that you have undertaken a well-reasoned approach to career selection and have determined that a college education will best serve you, several options exist that can get you a head start down that path while still in high school.  Consider these options before NCSSM.  The reasons for placing NCSSM last in your list of options will become clear later in this article.

1. Dual Enrollment
With permission of your high school principal, you can enroll in evening classes at your local community college for high school credit provided your high school does not already offer those classes.

2. Huskins Program
This new legislation allows your community college, with direction from local high school administrators, to create courses with at least 51% high school students in them, again with the caveat that these courses do not duplicate those already offered at your high school.

3. MagnIT
This new program amounts to a vocational school for those high school students interested in a career in Information Technology (IT).  Its creators modeled it using standard Information Systems (IS) college programs.

4. Learn and Earn Early College High School
This program began in 2005.  It allows those high school students with excellent academic performance who face overwhelming financial challenges to get a head start toward a college degree.  Rising ninth graders who fit these criteria receive invitations to start this five year program from school administrators.  Their first year begins with half high school courses and half college courses all taught at the local community college.  As the years progress, a greater and greater fraction of the courses become college level and at the end of the program, the student graduates with an associate's degree and has a solid foundation to pursue a bachelor's degree.

5. Advanced Placement
These high school courses give students rigorous, college level training in a wide range of disciplines.  Such training allows students to take the Advanced Placement (AP) examinations in those disciplines and receive college credit for them if they earn acceptable scores.  Even if your high school does not formally offer these courses, you can most likely still work with your teachers in these disciplines to perform extra assignments to prepare yourself to take and pass the AP examinations in those disciplines.

6. International Baccalaureate
This rigorous high school program allows students to earn college credits while still in their own high school.  Of all the programs listed thus far, only this one requires community service as far as I can tell.

7. Ayn Rand Institute Essay Contests
Though not a formal part of standard North Carolina education, this contest does afford any high school student a chance to win large sums of money he can spend any way he likes -- including towards college.

Keeping the full start to finish path of your college track in mind remains the key to staying focused and avoiding worthless distractions.  It also can save you large sums of money through awareness of more efficient ways of training.  Community colleges have come a long way in helping those students who need to earn four year degrees to do so in a cost effective manner.  Two programs in particular can help you to avoid costly student housing and meal plans as well as enjoy lower tuition costs.

1. College Transfer Division
In addition to the aforementioned high school opportunities, you should also bear in mind the option of completing your core college classes at your community college.  Many or perhaps most North Carolina community colleges now have a college transfer division that allows students to earn an Associate of Science (AS) degree that fulfills the core requirements of most programs at most universities of the University of North Carolina (UNC) public university system.  According to one community college dean of pre-engineering I interviewed via telephone, studies have shown that graduates of these programs generally enjoy higher grade point averages (GPAs) on their university transcripts than those who began university as freshmen.  The explanation for this positive difference comes from the smaller class sizes at community colleges which give students more opportunity for interaction with their professors than do the massive freshman core classes at most universities.

2. Career Articulation
A variant of the college transfer division comes in the form of articulation.  This program assumes an incoming student at a community college already knows exactly what career path he wishes to take.  In cooperation with specific universities in the UNC system, a community college can allow a student to complete a specific AS program in a specific discipline and then transfer that entire program as a block to the university smoothly.  For instance, Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) has a Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET) program that transfers seamlessly to the UNC Charlotte (UNCC) Mechanical Engineering (ME) program.  Those who live in commuting distance of both can save many thousands of dollars in terms of both lower CVCC tuition costs and student housing costs.

I have omitted from this discussion more radical options such as home schooling, private schooling, tutoring, distance learning, apprenticeships, and other less traditional approaches.  I certainly encourage you to explore them but my utter lack of experience precludes me from sharing much of use.  For more insight, consult The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn.

I have also omitted from this discussion other motivators for leaving home to attend NCSSM such as knucklehead parents with whom you find living difficult or impossible.  If you think this condition applies to you, just bear in mind that NCSSM offers its own variant of knucklehead in loco parentis caretakers.  The next section of this article will explore this condition further.

Leaving Home

Educational Benefits and Costs

So far, this article has explored the objective nature of education in living a good life.  It has exposed some of the fallacies and foibles associated with the overselling of higher education.  It has examined how best to choose a career in line with your values in matter and spirit.  It has shown how to set and achieve educational goals through action plans that serve that career choice.  It has offered suggestions about how to achieve those educational goals most efficiently in terms of both time and money.

Where do these options leave NCSSM?

To answer that question requires briefly examining the history of NCSSM and the end results of its students.  According to the "About" page on its Web site:

The combined vision of former Governor James B. Hunt Jr., former Governor and Duke University President Terry Sanford, and John Ehle, a well-known area academician and author, The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics opened in 1980 as the first school of its kind in the nation -- a public, residential high school [for juniors and seniors] where students study a specialized curriculum built around science and mathematics.

In other words, with government schools in the doldrums in the late 1970s, some influential leaders in government and academia decided to "do something" and NCSSM became their "something" they decided to "do."  The idea has a certain utopian appeal for starry-eyed intellectuals and naïve young high school students alike.  But the bottom line results ultimately matter most.

What bottom line results does NCSSM produce for its students?

Here I can speak mainly from my own experience.  I can point to 19 credit hours on my college transcript that resulted directly from my education at NCSSM.  Whether I could have earned those through other means available in the early 1980s remains questionable at best.  But thanks to NCSSM, I earned those credits in calculus, chemistry, English, American history and drafting through a combination of AP examinations, competency testing, and a mechanical drawing portfolio.  As for my classmates, many of them enjoyed the same benefits for the same reasons.

So in that sense, students can point to tangible improvements in their educational conditions in a given time frame.  As for other results such as scholarships, admissions to specific colleges, and so forth, those become harder to measure and so lead me to refrain from further comment.  However, given the progress in educational alternatives documented earlier in this article, many students today who want to garner those extra college credits before high school graduation could now do so without NCSSM.

What bottom line results does NCSSM produce for its taxpayers?

In her article "Gifted, Talented ... and Devastated," Elisabeth Hallett argues against "gifted" programs altogether, contending:

Experiments in real classrooms have shown the power of a teacher's expectations. Children blossom or fade according to the teacher's vision of their ability. Knowing this, we're obligated to use this power only to encourage children and free them, never to limit their potential or undermine their confidence. Knowing that labels become self-fulfilling prophecies, how can we continue to use them?

Objections like this make the question of "taxpayer benefit" even harder to answer.  Clearly the residential atmosphere of NCSSM with its commensurate costs of shelter, food, and de facto "babysitting" of minors costs considerably more than a standard high school arrangement.  Costs have soared even higher since the decision in 2003 to waive college tuition costs for any NCSSM graduate who attends college at any school in the UNC system.  This latest evolution of the school has led George Leef to publish a critique which calls into question the school's value.  His article "Tuition Waivers at NCSSM" observes that:

Since the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) opened in 1980, the school has attracted some of the state’s top high school students to come to Durham to study at the residential high school. At the school, students take college-level courses, and they have performed well on SAT tests and in national competitions and been admitted to some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. In recognition of the school’s generally high level of academic achievement, in 2003 the General Assembly instituted a policy of waiving tuition charges for NCSSM graduates who enroll in any University of North Carolina institution. That policy, however, cannot be justified by any of the arguments advanced in its favor. It produces no public benefit, costs the state money, and unfairly discriminates in favor of NCSSM graduates. The General Assembly should consider repealing this costly and discriminatory policy.

That NCSSM now faces stiffer competition for the best students may explain why it convinced legislators to implement the UNC tuition waiver program so that NCSSM could entice more students to apply.  The deeper question here involves whether NCSSM can continue to justify its existence at all.  As this article has so far shown, most North Carolina high school students today have excellent opportunities to experience the same tangible academic benefits at far less cost to taxpayers.

Unless a student can demonstrate an undue hardship in staying put, he would have a very difficult time showing why he "needs" NCSSM to realize his potential.  In response, some will attempt to paint the social climate at NCSSM as more conducive to intense academic study than a student can normally enjoy.  I want to take a sympathetic yet critical look at that contention.

Social Benefits and Costs

I began ninth grade in 1980 and learned of NCSSM that year through the splashy local newspaper headlines it made.  My parents suggested that NCSSM might serve my stated interest in a career in the space program.  My guidance counselors and teachers at Bunker Hill High School agreed.  So I charged forth and began to focus all my efforts on acceptance into NCSSM because, frankly, I saw no better options at the time.  After completing the required tests, tours, interviews, and essays, I finally found myself accepted and transferred to NCSSM.

Let me talk for a moment about expectations versus reality.

Normal high schools have the usual stereotypical collection of subcultures as outlined in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads," etc.  Somehow, I expected freedom from such difficult people at NCSSM.  Surprise!  Like any high school filled with hormone-laden teenagers struggling to discover and to establish their adult identities, NCSSM had its share of these same stereotypes.  So while I previously had to deal with unsophisticated thugs during school hours, now I had the privilege and honor of dealing with sophisticated thugs, not just during normal school hours, but around the clock in every part of daily life.

The root word at play here, sophos, meant "wisdom" in ancient Greece.  It serves as the root for the modern term sophisticated, meaning "refinement, urbanity, cleverness, and cultivation." Modern sophists often genuinely do embody a sophisticated appearance and sense of life.  However, that veneer often hides a very troubling and malevolent soul.  New Zealand commentator Lindsay Perigo calls these types "clever-dick smart-ass word-play wankers posturing as philosophers who never state their own actual position on anything but simply try to tear apart the stated positions of others."

In ancient Greece, the sophists engaged in rhetoric for the sake of winning rather than reaching for truth.  For them, truth had no objective basis in reality and, therefore, achieving ends depended entirely on clever means of persuasion known as sophistry.  Their chief opponents, Aristotle and Plato, built their own systems of thought to counter the baseless argumentation of the sophists.  The most condensed way to think of these three views of reality comes from Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff in the form of "zero, one, two" -- sophists rejected the idea of an objective reality altogether, Aristotle favored a one reality viewpoint akin to naturalism, and Plato argued in favor of two realities akin to supernaturalism.

Because Objectivism favors the integration of all knowledge using one reality as the objective standard a la Aristotle, Peikoff calls these contrasts disintegration, integration, and misintegration, or the DIM hypothesis.  Whether a person adopts a general sense of life that amounts to a D, I, or M will profoundly influence how he assembles his experiences into abstract knowledge for later use.  The DIM hypothesis certainly displays itself in higher education -- including NCSSM.

At NCSSM, you will encounter many such skilled sophists among both students and faculty.  In fact, they will often bait you into arguing with them just so they can beat you, not physically, but intellectually, though still in the same bullying manner of a common high school thug.  They do this for the simple purpose of feeling good about themselves and looking good to others.  Because of their mastery of this intellectual baiting, I call them intellectual master baiters.  Like the solo sexual act upon which this phrase plays words, such exchanges generate great amounts of heat, put strained looks of intensity of the faces of the participants, and in the end, flush all the effort down the drain with only vivid memories rather than productive progeny to show for all that effort.

Disintegration in Thought

Most rising eleventh graders do not grasp the complex nature and history of philosophy, the study of existence and man's place in it.  Yet understanding this "big picture" and answering the "big questions" philosophy asks becomes mandatory when addressing the smaller questions that arise in normal classroom or dormitory discussions.  In North Carolina, the "Buckle of the Bible Belt," many young people rely on Sunday School teachings to integrate their various subjects into some kind of meaningful whole.  This "misintegration" of the natural with the supernatural stands in stark contrast against the "disintegration" of knowledge that champions of pragmatism such as John Dewey advocated.  Whereas the former at least grope for timeless principles by which to live, the latter deny the existence of such principles altogether.  Very few people, especially in academia, understand that one can use Aristotle's ancient integrating principle of logic, "A is A," to discover timeless principles for right conduct.

Objectivists cannot lay first claim to protesting against the fragmentation of knowledge via disintegration.  That honor belongs to scholars like Mortimer Adler as documented in From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker by Russell Nieli.  According to Neili:

During the long period when education was dominated by Protestant clergymen and other dedicated Reformation Christians, the educational system had a clear purpose, focus, and coherence.  [...]  Evangelical Christians typically saw themselves as in the forefront of efforts to combine the best in secular learning with the spiritual and religious truths contained in the Bible. They saw no conflict between theological and secular knowledge.  [...]  All knowledge whether secular or religious was seen to be united in a coherent and integrated whole.  [As time progressed, the] atomizing, secularizing, and fragmenting trends in higher education [...] continued at an accelerated pace in the first half of the twentieth century and produced a host of outspoken critics.

Peikoff and his Aristotelian kin at the new Founders College -- scarcely more than an hour's drive from NCSSM -- would join Nieli in criticizing such fragmentation or disintegration of knowledge.  They would also in turn criticize Neili and his ilk for attempting to misintegrate knowledge with faith.  They would note that integration through reason and not faith serves as man's only proper way of knowing.  But currently, disintegration in thought dominates public education and leads to:

Disintegration in Action

The disintegration of knowledge in higher learning has resulted in educational schedules that feel hectic, rushed, disjointed, and often without meaning or purpose.  Accelerating this upheaval from the college to the high school level onto naïve teenagers in a brand new environment away from home for extended periods just asks for trouble.  Stress levels tend to skyrocket and lead to other problems such as, in worst case scenarios, suicide attempts, at least two of which I became aware during my two years at NCSSM.

In short, far from fostering a "social atmosphere" conducive to learning, the NCSSM environment often has the opposite effect and for many students leads to an emotional crisis all too common in modern society in terms of:

Time Management

The closing paragraph of the "Staying Home" section of this article mentioned the problem of knucklehead caretakers both at home and at NCSSM.  Let me now elaborate.  Attempting to manage an intense academic schedule of college level courses offers enough challenges in itself.  What extraneous activities could bollix this effort?  Evidently NCSSM decided to go out of its way to make the program even more onerous from the outset.  The most recent online NCSSM Student Handbook shows that this has not changed.  In addition to the many hours per week required to attend classes, perform homework, do one's own laundry, sustain physical wellness, and generally engage in sound maintenance of self, the school also demands the following:

1. Housekeeping (One Hour per Week)
Because students live in dormitories, the school expects them to engage in cleaning those dormitories.  Note that state universities do not demand this but state universities do not provide free housing, either.  Students taking advantage of the "non-NCSSM" options mentioned earlier may still have to keep house, but more fortunate ones will dodge the bullet of cleaning the toilets and scrubbing the floors of others!  You really need to ask yourself: Will scrubbing other people's shower stalls help me to lead a better life?

2. Work Service (Three Hours per Week)
As another way of saving costs and inculcating responsible character in students, the school requires each student to engage in three hours per week of work service in one of the many departments on campus.  Juniors must perform at least one semester in either the grounds or cafeteria crew.  Again, fortunate ones who can get what they want without NCSSM may manage to go their entire lives without ever raking a leaf or slopping a plate.  You really need to ask yourself: How will my raking leaves and slopping plates help me to lead a better life?

3. Community Service (Sixty Hours Total across Two Years)
Perhaps the most egregious example of the "feel good social engineering" aspect of modern education comes in the form of community service mandates.  Wherever I turn these days, it seems someone promotes "community service" as a panacea to cure all ills.  When NCSSM first started in the early 1980s, administrators required community service in the city of Durham since the city had "donated" the Watts Hospital campus that became the NCSSM campus.  They justified this demand as a "payback" to the city of Durham for its "generosity" in donating the campus.  Today, this requirement still exists but in a different form.  Now a student can perform the community service anywhere in the state of North Carolina as "payback" to the people of that state for their "generosity" in providing NCSSM for their use.  This begs the question about whether the minimum wage equivalent of such menial work even puts a dent in an NCSSM student's total cost to taxpayers.  You really need to ask yourself: How will this menial work help me to lead a better life?
4. Lectures, Meetings, and Other Mandates
I call this the "Hoity-Toity Highfalutin Hot Air" requirement.  It seemed that every week we spent hours in various meetings, lectures and other mandatory presentations that consumed time while delivering little to nothing in return.  I will never forget the much ballyhooed mandatory presentation by Robert Berks describing how he fabricated the Albert Einstein Memorial sculpture.  His evening talk, scheduled for an hour, ran three hours on a night when I most needed to recover time to complete a homework deadline.  All this came because he had "generously donated" a tiny replica of his sculpture to NCSSM.  The last time I checked, that "generous donation" continued to collect dust on a shelf in the school library.  You really need to ask yourself: Will I leave my current high school with time-wasting mandatory sports team "pep rallies" for a high school with time-wasting mandatory blowhard intellectual "pep rallies"?
Lessons Learned

Given the tiny fraction of the working population who actually originate from NCSSM, you have to wonder if NCSSM makes that much difference.  The people who attend NCSSM already demonstrate high academic capacities and ambitions toward careers in science and mathematics.  Given their intelligence and ability, those who want those careers will find ways to achieve their goals with or without NCSSM.

Many of us who graduated NCSSM attended a university in the UNC system we would have attended with or without NCSSM.  Many of us who sought engineering degrees selected North Carolina State University (NCSU), whose excellent engineering school has garnered wide respect.  Some others who chose the out of state route soon learned of the fallacies of their plans.  One fellow NCSSM graduate spent a year at the highly touted Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) before concluding that it deserved its reputation as "the armpit of the universe."  He joined me at NCSU the following year.  Another NCSSM graduate had commenced a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at a reputable college in Virginia before drawing similar conclusions and also coming to NCSU.

Should I have still had any doubts about whether I had set my sights too low by not even applying to "world renowned" schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), they dispelled upon meeting an MIT graduate who came to work in exactly the same office at exactly the same level at which I worked at NASA.  Here I had taken a far less expensive and cumbersome route by staying in state and not terribly far from home, and I had achieved exactly the same goal as someone who had attended MIT!

Think carefully about where you want to go and how you intend to get there -- and then consider whether NCSSM offers your best possible option.

Your Personal Plan of Action

As I look back at my many experiences at NCSSM, good and bad, and the ensuing years I spent in college at NCSU earning my mechanical engineering degree and leading to my current job at NASA, one phrase repeatedly comes to mind.  I learned it only after college when I discovered the magnificent novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  The hero of the novel, John Galt, found himself constantly dogged with worthless obstructions that useless bureaucrats implemented and justified with wrongheaded philosophy.  When finally confronting them face to face, he exploded:

"Get the Hell Out of My Way!"

You need to adopt this same attitude.  You will encounter these same types in your tours through the halls of both academia and career.  To prepare you for these encounters, you need to build your stamina in spirit and matter now so as to experience the power of becoming an integrating being of soul and body, reason and emotion, thought and action.  Let me offer a suggested plan of attack.

1. Begin considering what excites you and what makes a productive occupation.
Find out where these intersect and investigate the career possibilities.  Use "How to Choose a Career" as a guide.

2. Learn all you can about personal financial management.
You can do this by taking an elective course on consumer finance in school, reading books on the subject such as More Wealth without Risk by Charles Givens, etc.  You can further your mastery through personal finance programs like Quicken® and related articles like mine on "Experiencing Objectivism through Quicken."  The importance of asset protection, privacy, and related issues brings How to Be Invisible by J. J. Luna into relevance.  College teaches shockingly little about this essential subject so consider yourself totally "on your own" regardless of what else you do.  Start learning all you can before you start looking at college financing options so you can understand exactly into what you might get yourself.

3. Learn all you can about time and energy management.
The enormous work load that comes with some of the programs described can overwhelm even the most able students who lack skills in this area.  What Matters Most by Hyrum Smith and The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz will help you to manage your time and energy respectively.  In addition, I recommend perusing my article "Experiencing Objectivism through Microsoft Outlook" along with Focus and the Franklin Covey Academic Planners by Stephen Covey.

4. Learn all you can about emotional management.
Because much of your energy relies on your emotional health, especially love in all its forms, grasping this important area intellectually proves paramount.  In terms of the five traditional forms of love, let me offer these reading suggestions:

a. Philautos or Love of Self
Ayn Rand Institute Suggested Reading List
"Eliminating the Altruistic Baggage" by Joseph Rowlands
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne
"Introducing Objectivism" by Ayn Rand
Objectivism 101 by Joseph Rowlands
SuperSelf by Charles Givens

b. Storge or Love of Family
Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott

c. Philia or Love of Friends
"Houseguests from Hell" by Luke Setzer
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
"Objectivist Clubs and the Four Basic Human Needs" by Luke Setzer
Passionate Rational Objectivists Promoting Exuberant Living™

d. Eros or Romantic Love
Planned Parenthood for the physical side
The Psychology of Romantic Love by Nathaniel Branden for the spiritual side

e. Agape or Love of Fellow Human Beings
"Benefactors versus Malefactors" by Luke Setzer
"Five Words That Spell Liberation" by Luke Setzer

5. Learn all you can about excellent learning habits.
Accelerated learning systems such as Quantum Learning by Bobbi Deporter and PhotoReading® by Paul Scheele, accessible books like Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson, and traditional books like Study Methods and Motivation by Edwin Locke can help you to engage your whole mind in the learning process.

6. Learn about the Great Books of the Western World.
Visit the Great Books Foundation Web site and, if you find yourself pressed into "community service," consider satisfying it by starting and running a local group to discuss Great Books.  You could also just do this anyway for the simple enjoyment of it.  These influential works will definitely help you to get a more integrated understanding of the history of the Western world.

7. Commit to physical wellness.
I cannot emphasize enough the crucial relationship between physical wellness and intellectual capacity.  If you dislike the standard fare offered at school, consider a home workout program such as Power 90 or others offered through Beachbody.  Make sure you pay close attention to diet as well as exercise.  Studies show that physical wellness reduces depression, mitigates stress, enhances mental focus, and offers a host of other psychological benefits that you will need to stay sharp in school and in work.  If this means taking a lighter course load in school so you have time to take care of your body, take a lighter course load.

8. Submit applications to multiple programs.
Regardless of your initial preference, rely on Murphy's Law: "Whatever can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time."  Make sure you have a series of fallback plans should your baseline plan fail.  For instance, if you have your heart set on the "Learn and Earn Early College High School" program, make sure you can fall back to any of the other high school programs described earlier, including NCSSM as a last resort.

9. Create a sample schedule for the next several years.
If, for instance, you decide you want to become a mechanical engineer, select a potential path toward that goal and draft a plan to get there.  Create a spreadsheet in a program like Microsoft Excel® listing all the courses you plan to take, the sequence and dates you plan to take them, where you plan to take them, and the costs of each.  Include desirable options such as cooperative education internships.  To do this exercise will make clear to you the kinds of long range integrated thinking you must do to succeed.  As time progresses, you will gain clarity about what path to take and you will already know how to take it.  Through your own solid reasoning you will discover, in the closing words of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, "The road is cleared.  We are going [into] the world."

10. Discover and integrate objective measures of competence into your plan.
If you chose mechanical engineering as a career, for example, you would discover that the Professional Engineer (PE) license represents the gold standard for measuring competence.  This requires passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination, working several years as an Engineer-in-Training (EIT), and then taking the PE examination.  Obtaining the reference materials for these critical milestones before even embarking on your college career can help you to focus on exactly what matters most over time and stay fresh for your upcoming examinations.  See the Web site for Professional Publications for more information and consider ordering used copies of the needed texts from Amazon at considerable savings.


I sincerely hope that anyone considering NCSSM today takes a close and careful look at his own values and long range vision and verifies that NCSSM represents the least onerous path to achieving them.  The NCSSM motto, "Accept the Greater Challenge," can both charm and mislead the naïve.  By contrast, its Objectivist counterpart, "Pursue the Greater Benefit," keeps the rational producer grounded and focused on what matters most.  Certainly if I found myself in eighth grade today I would look more closely at the other options described in this article while keeping NCSSM in my hip pocket as a last resort if and when Murphy's Law reared its ugly head.  The proliferation of new educational opportunities along with distance learning and other options, in my opinion, calls into question whether NCSSM has grown obsolete as a concept.  Only time will tell.  For now, if reason has shown it as your best possible option in the face of all other options, then by all means take full advantage of it.
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