Chutes and Ladders

game pieces

In the course of my work I attend many luncheons, dinners and receptions. I think of it as a never-ending perquisite of culinary delights. The great food is topped off by fascinating conversation. When I meet people in these settings, the discovery of my professional role invariably leads to stories about earlier college experiences or sometimes those of family and friends. The stories I take the most interest in these days, however, are focused around the journey of the college search. I am, of course, curious to learn more about how families approach the process, as well as impressions they have formed about various types of institutions. I suppose it would qualify as an ongoing informal qualitative research project.

As I was spying the feast at a recent reception, I was approached by a woman who recognized me from another setting where we had become acquainted. After we exchanged pleasantries she noted her daughter was beginning the college search process. I congratulated her and asked, “How is it going?” Sometimes when I ask this very open-ended question the response is rather vague or unemotional. It’s the, “I’d rather not talk about it,” response. In these cases, I simply offer a reassuring smile.

Others, by contrast, are eager to get my perspective on the experience as one who is an “industry insider.” This mother was eager to talk. As I listened she expressed a bit of concern about the two questions her daughter is constantly asked, “What are you going to major in?” followed by “What career are you going to pursue?” My reply to her comment took her by surprise. I said, “Don’t worry about these answers now. High school students almost always get them wrong.”

The initial look on her face was filled with anxiety, then suddenly melted into comfort as she realized her sense of struggle with these questions really didn’t matter all that much. I then noted many students wisely enter college undecided about major and career. I asked her, “Did you have it all figured out at the age of 18?” Her broad smile and light chuckle made it clear that the expectations placed on her daughter are simply unrealistic, as they were for her many years ago.

Whenever I think about the experience of students, a particular image comes to mind – Chutes and Ladders. Many will remember the children’s board game from early days of play. This game finds it origins in ancient India and was known previously under the name Snakes and Ladders. Perhaps our modern adaptation is a kinder, gentler version. Wikipedia offers the following history of the game:

Snakes and Ladders originated in India as part of a family of dice board games, including pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as moksha pAtam or vaikunthapaali or paramapada sopaanam (the ladder to salvation). The game made its way to England and was sold as “Snakes and Ladders,” then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as Chutes and Ladders (an “improved new version of England’s famous indoor sport” by game pioneer Milton Bradley in 1943).

Known as Moksha Patam, the game was popular in ancient India and emphasized the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi, dates to the 16th century. The game was called Leela and reflected the Hinduism consciousness surrounding everyday life. The underlying ideals of the game inspired a version introduced in Victorian England in 1892.

Moksha Patam was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. It emphasized destiny, as opposed to games such as pachisi, which focused on life as a mixture of skill (free will) and luck. The game has also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will inherit rebirth to lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins.

Setting aside matters of world view, philosophy and religion, the simple and practical lessons of Chutes and Ladders remind us that things don’t always go as planned and in the end it turns out better than we expected. The college version of the game (at least the one I imagine) follows the travails of students through self-discovery, achievement, failure and resilience.

Parents of prospective college students have a version in mind that focuses on the ladders. This is completely understandable since we all aspire to see our sons and daughters accomplish great things on the way to a rewarding life. Those of us who serve as faculty and administrators in colleges, however, have the task of reminding us all that just like the game there are a few more chutes on the board than ladders.

When we gather the stories of our lives together with others we know from close friends and family, we know that the best classes we had were not necessarily the ones in which we received the highest grades, but the ones that stretched us the most. The unexpected career-ending injury leads to a new focus and a new set of opportunities. The relationships we were once certain would shape much of our lives ebb and flow with time and are sometimes lost or redefined. Our view of the world changes, as does our understanding the roles we will play in it.

Later during that reception I had an extended conversation with an accomplished and very successful business leader. He noted that when he started college he didn’t have it all figured out. His first attempt to pursue an undergraduate degree ended prematurely with a withdrawal and a long hiatus from higher education. As he pursued his career he later found the timing was right to extend his journey of learning and he finished his degree. It did not happen with the timing he originally anticipated. It did not happen in the place he originally anticipated. In his late days of adolescence and early days of adulthood he found more chutes than ladders. Yet eventually the ladders did appear, and at the right time he was ready to climb.

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11 responses to “Chutes and Ladders”

  1. Elizabeth Primus Ware says:

    Thanks…I’m passing this one on to my kids as their children begin the college search. I appreciate your words of wisdom, and know they will as well.

  2. Don Huffman says:

    This is a good concept to share as children or friends begin the search for an undergraduate major. I remember information that came from an ACT survey about 20 years ago which reported that the average college graduate will change professional occupations five times during the working life.
    My own experience is supportive of this idea, though I was not aware of the “Chutes and Ladders” game. I entered undergraduate work intending to major in History/Social Studies with a Physical Ed. minor to support my intention to either enter the study of Law, or to coach basketball on the high school level. At the junior year level I found some of the biology courses raising some very interesting question, intended to switch to a biology major, but found my draft board would not permit me to take a 5th year which would have been necessary to change to a biology major. When I was not immediately drafted after graduation, I accepted a graduate fellowship in Botany and Plant Pathology, and finished my MS in this area along with a Geology minor. Still having not been drafted into the service, I accepted a PhD fellowship at Iowa State Univ., majoring in Plant Pathology with minors in Botany and Genetics. I accepted a position as Uredenoligist with a joint appointment in a U.S.D.A./Kansas State Univ. research position. I left that position two years later to accept a position in the Biology Department at Central College, then accepted a post-doctorate position in Mycology at Columbia Univ., returned to Central, teaching biology courses until my wife-who had completed a Biology PhD-, then earned a doctorate in Linguistics and English as a foreign language. We joined efforts to help start the Yucatan Study Program, and both of us taught a course in Cross Cultural Perception and Communication where my interests in history were redeveloped/sharpened. In addition I taught Bioethics as a non-major’s course, and was actively involved in study and writing in Evolution
    My wife and I initiated the Central Chinese Study program in 1991, and both of us taught English courses at Zhejiang Univ. in China. We joined a writing group and helped publish a textbook of English for Chinese university/college students. We served as English editors through 3 editions of these books, and editing was my last area of professional work.
    I believe my experience is not unusual in these several areas of professional work is typical of many “college teachers” who, like prospective students, rarely have a definitive area of “majors” which they may pursue professionally.

  3. Bruce Janousek says:

    Well done (as usual). I am going to be sending this to my “soon to be graduating from college” children. As we move beyond college, the game becomes that much more interesting, although I do have a problem with the methaphor of the ladder “taking one to the top” and how we measure success. Finding balance between career, family, relationships, hobbies, and philanthropy turns “Chutes and Ladders” into a multi-dimensional game where, in many cases, what we find at the top of a ladder may not serve us (or our fellow humans) well.

  4. I now take the game that I played with my children much more seriously.

  5. Ladders is what President Obama keeps referring to “as the ability to climb into the middle class”. What is the Central College role in helping our social climbers. If we watch the February 6th Reuters report “How Education Lost Its Role” as the great equalizer in society we ask how does Central “fit” for the students who leave our community colleges. I encounter too many talented music students who have attended ICCC here in Fort Dodge who have dynamite skills but could not even consider Central because the $2000 Music Activity award is a smaller percentage of college costs than the music or drama award they may have had at ICCC. I feel that Central is too limited in their concept of financial aid for the arts student or the deserving foreign language student, when these awards do not come through with the dollars that make Central affordable without accumulating a huge debt of student loans. Obama advocates the community colleges, but Central could do a better job reaching out to these students as a viable option for continuing education for students who are scared away by the costs, and no “real” arts scholarships are open to them as arts majors.

  6. Ed Ver Hoef '54 says:

    Back in the dark ages when I was at Central (1950 – 54), I had little idea about what sort of a career I would like to follow. I thus ended up with a double major in math and physics and still no idea about what came next. It turned out to be two years in the army when I was drafted. The Korean War GI Bill allowed me a few more years of indecision while I pursued an MS in Math at the University of illinois. I had thought the GI Bill would free me of financial worries while in grad school but it didn’t and I therefore got a job working for a physics professor who was investigating the minimum energy levels of the hydrogen molecule by means of a computer model. Initially this involved repeated runs of the computer model with modification of the input estimated energy levels before each new run of the model. However, after several iterations of this process, the prof told me that he was convinced his model was wrong and thus the program was based on the wrong model. He then gave me the new equation and a programming manual for the university’s computer and told me to teach myself how to program and then write a new program based on the new equation. I thought this was really neat as it would fit right in with my plans to become a physicist. It fit in alright, but not the way I had anticipated. In the process of learning how to write programs (and debug said programs) I became enthralled with programming and pursued that as my career for the next four decades. I found it hard to believe that people actually got paid to write computer programs. Isn’t it interesting how seemingly insignificant things have a major effect on our lives?

  7. In my 20 years as a president of two church-related institutions I have visited more than 300 congregations and I usually meet with parents of K-12 students during the Christian education hour. I almost always ask these parents, “How many of you are doing vocationally what you thought you would be doing when you graduated high school?” I think I have never had more than 1/3 answer affirmatively. Of those, the vast majority are teachers, nurses or (a very small number) farmers. I then suggest to these parents of future college students that it hardly makes sense to expect an 18 year old to have clarity on what they want to do in the future.

  8. George I Brown Jr says:

    When I was in 9th grade the school counselor wanted everyone to have a career path planned out. I thought I wanted to be a ceramic engineer. In high school (10th and 12th grade) I discovered Biology. I applied at several colleges. Because Central offered scholarships and financial packages it was cheaper for me to attend Central than Iowa State University. I remember being intimidated by having to go to Don Huffman’s office to deal with some paperwork or scheduling problem. He was so tall and had a PhD. But as I was to experience for the next 4 years Don was like so many at Central: a helpful, caring person who loved what he was doing. Since President Nixon started drafting graduate students and Peace Corp volunteers for the Vietnam War, I turned down a graduate assistantship and waited to be drafted. I ended up as a conscientious objector and did two years’ alternative service. I never made it into graduate school. Over my career I have never really worked as a Biologist, but the skills I acquired at Central prepared me to be adaptable and use the skills in various fields: QC Lab in a Gray Iron Foundry, Lab Tech in what we used to call a Sewage Treatment Plant, custodian at Central, Science Center Stockroom manager at Vermeer Science Center at Central, then many years as a water treatment operator and manager for municipalities in 4 states. Now I am writing curricula for an Environmental Technology AAS degree at a Technical College. Who knew?

  9. Arend Lubbers says:

    When I was asked such questions I was always polite, but I was not really inteterested in pursuing them unless the questioner was serious about Central.Many people in search of a college find such questions good conversation with a college president. That does not mean they are not serious, but many by their concern are demonstrating that your college is not in the running.My pride in my college rightly or wrongly made me quietly irritated when I sensed my college was not seriously being considersd. There are good reasons for some not to attend the college of your respnsibility.That was never a prime interest of mine. Don Lubbers

  10. Arend Lubbers says:

    Iappreciate the fact that most potential college students are likely to find ther way after they enter the higher education process not as they enter it. Yet I remember many conversations with a parent of an about to be Freshmam who was agonizing about the college selection process with no intention of considering Central. Unless it was a good friend with a very good reason I was irritated.I felt demeaned. Rightly or wrongly my pride in Central made me want to say” Ask someone else, if you are not cosidering the institution for which I have responsibility”I may have been too sensitive, but my pride structure was such that Central was all consuming for me. Fortunately, I was usually polite even when I thought the questioner should take his or her concerns elsewhere.I did not feel the counsellor. I always felt the advocate.Don Lubbers

  11. Valerie Van Kooten says:

    As a faculty member at Central, I always encourage students to take that class that sounds interesting but has nothing to do with their majors. Often I’ll get a, “But I can’t fit it into my schedule”; however, with a little questioning and re-arranging they usually can.

    Even though I knew I wanted to write from the time I was 5 (and continued that path through college into my professional life) it was the “rogue classes” that fed me and dictated some of the paths I’ve followed. An astronomy class that I took only to fulfill a science requirement led to a lifelong love of stargazing. A History of Iowa class that I was sure would be boring has carried me onto the very unexpected path of heading up a county historical commission.

    I hope that today’s students, who are often “buttoned up” into the classes that they’ll take years in advance take the time to explore and find not only their vocations, but their avocations.