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It's the time of year when people seek perfect gifts for special people in their lives, and with all the retail sales and discount shopping days that occur from late November to early January, finding such gifts would seem to be an easy task.

One perfect gift, however, cannot be purchased at small standalone businesses, or at the mall or on global websites. It's something that parents and other adults can give to students they know, and it could improve both high school and college graduation rates. Ultimately, it's not so easy.

Very simply, the gift is an appreciation for the student experience, and it exposes the hidden pathways to academic success. Unlike purchased gifts, delivery of this gift generally requires a substantial time investment, and its acceptance is not guaranteed.

It also differs from purchased gifts in that it is existential; its goal is to move recipients into a state of being that transcends typical student experiences such as boring classroom lectures, pointless homework assignments and euphoric sports events.

In addition, it's more meaningful than a high grade-point average or a perfect score on the SAT or ACT, as it's a way of life rather than one still picture taken from a home movie of a life.

This is a lot to ask of any gift-giver, and it can require a lot of effort over an extended time period. Convincing students to actually internalize the educational process can be daunting, mainly because internalizing requires more than merely going through academic motions that culminate in graduation. But if the giver is successful, the recipient will have a lifetime gift.

He or she will be an existential student.

The uninitiated might ask, "What is an existential student?" While there is no single, simple definition, existential students can be recognized by certain of their characteristics.

For example, existential students value inquiry, even when they might not care about the subject matter. Also, they apply the scientific method to aspects of their lives that seemingly have nothing to do with science. And they can visualize potential, long-term outcomes of actions far removed from such outcomes.

On perhaps a more personal level, existential students will seek out and read unassigned material so they may better understand the context and meaning of assigned readings; they are punctual and reliable concerning class attendance and homework assignments, for they understand how both activities enhance learning; and they organize the educational aspects of their lives to maximize educational opportunities.

Overall, the existential student knows and accepts what it means to be a student. It's not a path that a person follows only as a means to an end, and it's not like having a part-time job that can conveniently be ignored when something more pressing or interesting comes up. It is a lifestyle.

So ... in this season of shopping and giving, thoughtful gift-givers might begin to give the students in their lives an existential excursion into the meaning of being a student. Note that it will be a continuing conversation, but for the moment, forget about shopping, put your money away and spend some quality time with these students.

Give them a perfect gift.


Bruce Plopper is a Conway resident who taught college students for more than 30 years until his retirement from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2012.

Editorial on 12/07/2018

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