In April, my wife and I along with our two oldest daughters went to “Admitted Students Day” at the University of Virginia. We have four girls and our first, Sophie, who says she wants to be a writer, was sizing up UVA, seeing if it was the school where she wanted to spend the next four years of her life.

We arrived in Charlottesville at about 8:30 in the morning, found free parking thanks to a kind attendant and hastened toward our destination: UVA's storied Lawn, an enormous rectangle of grass, and the centerpiece of this university that was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, who called his creation an Academical Village.

Duncan Shaw with his wife and daughter Sophie

We arrived among a throng of students and parents, and the space that contained us all—the gigantic greenness, bordered by russet brick and creamy columns—was magnificent. I had seen the Lawn once before, but only as a casual observer years ago. Now the moment was unreal to me: I couldn’t quite believe that a child of mine had a chance to attend such a famously beautiful school—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like the Taj Mahal.

And, such a great university.

Dressed in a charcoal suit against the cool morning air and with warm words, the Dean of Admissions welcomed the hundreds of prospective freshmen, commending them on how successful they were. He then turned the mic over to an older guy with very long hair, an English professor distinguished for his teaching.

It was so packed at the front of the Lawn, in the shadow of Jefferson’s famous Rotunda, which houses his statue, that I couldn’t see this speaker as he began. All I had was his disembodied voice. His tone was humble yet earnest, and the voice, it turned out, was contrarian.

In the cool air of that sun-filled sparkling morning, Mark Edmundson offered up to the sea of expectant teens what he warned might be received as a gentle slap in the face—a Jeffersonian slap, he called it. He said this is probably the last time you’ll be asked to step off the conveyor belt of self and success, and pursue an alternative: a true liberal arts education; a life of contemplation. The conveyor belt is what got you here, he said, and what most UVA students stay on. But he was inviting these would-be freshmen to step off. He urged them to consider using their education to prepare for a life that looks not exclusively inward but also outward, a life of service to others, a life of compassion. You might suffer for this choice, but those who choose the opposite also suffer—just look at all the depression in our world.

His words moved me in part because the message was so unexpected.

We are thrilled for Sophie, yet will miss her so. Our daughter, the aspiring writer, will attend the University of Virginia and be an English major in its legendary English department. Yet it wasn't the green of the Lawn that decided things but another shade, money. UVA simply offered the best deal. For in these times when access to college and graduates saddled with huge debt is being fiercely debated, money is major—and your choice of major is more and more being judged just on its potential for money.

William Faulkner walked on this same grass in the 1950s, as UVA’s first writer-in-residence. I can idealize things, feel the grass there is greener. But on that special day in the spring, with its jolting message and jolting beauty, the place was indeed awesome.

Duncan Shaw is a freelance writer and lives in Hillsborough, N.C., a small historic town near UNC-Chapel Hill.