Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A mentor of mine said recently that I was wrong when I told my students that the purpose of education was to get smarter. No, he said, the purpose of education is to get wiser. The difference, you ask? A smart person knows when he’s right; a wise one knows when to say it.

I raise the point because last week I received an intriguing invitation to address the incoming class of undergraduates during their September orientation. I'm going to do it, but I'm not sure what to say. Certainly not that I’ve always been mildly irritated by "O-Week" – the initiation of first year students to university life. Twenty years ago, I attended the first few events of my own and then headed for the hills. How I hated it. Everything about it: the binge drinking; the compulsory “fun” (two words that should never go together); the uniformity of, well, uniforms; the inane group cheers; the shabby slogans; the unimaginative activities; the inculcation of "school spirit" amongst students who have not yet had time to decide for themselves if their school is any good, struck me then and strikes me now as antithetical to one of the larger purposes of university education: to produce independent thinkers.

On my very first day, twenty years ago, a trio of third-year students, complete with painted faces and enormous excesses of personality, made me sing the national anthem – readers of this blog know my feelings about that song – before handing over $20 for my "mandatory frosh kit", which turned out to be a bag of flyers, pamphlets, and junk being freely distributed elsewhere. Well, hell. I left high school hoping to escape precisely that sort of nonsense and precisely those sorts of people, and there I was in the thick of it two months later.

Over the years, I’ve had a great many students, and even organizers of these events, tell me that they found none of it "fun" in the least. But try being the one who says, "Actually, I don’t want to paint my face and wear this t-shirt another day and chant this, well, rather insipid and offensive cheer. And my roommates are binge drinkers who won’t do dishes and think it’s funny not to flush the toilet. This isn’t quite what I was promised at the University Fair, where all the talk was about cultivating the mind and the human spirit."

A few years back, during "O-Week", members of my former faculty's "student fun team" scrawled "Social Science: the Biggest and Best Faculty!" in chalk on the sidewalk outside of our oppressively ugly faculty building. (Some wag respond by writing: "Would you like fries with that?" underneath.) Later, I saw students practicing a cheer on the same theme. But a good education in the social sciences should actually call such conclusions into question. A proper slogan might read: "Objective, long-term consideration of the available evidence leads to the highly tentative conclusion that for a significant portion of motivated undergraduates in the social sciences, their undergraduate experience is, on the whole, intellectually fulfilling. More longitudinal studies are required to determine whether or not social science degrees are of actual utility in the rapidly-reorienting job market in terms of both starting salary and lifetime earnings. " But try making that into a cheer.

Anyway, there I will be, during O-Week, and when the time comes I hope I'll have the wisdom to not say what I'd really like to say, which is that if you’ve come to university to learn to think for yourself, now is the time to start. In fact, consider O-Week your first test.

Twenty years. Did you catch that part, students? It was twenty years ago this month that I hopped on bike, rode up to the university, and chose my classes. English, History, Political Science, Philosophy, and Psychology (stupidly, I did not take French.) I remember all the profs. They seemed unfathomably old and learned to me, but I know now that two of them were ABDs, and a good deal younger than I am now. Twenty years. I can scarcely believe those words as I type them. And so I've decided that there is one thing I'm going to say for certain five weeks from today, and it's this:

"You’re seventeen or eighteen. I don’t mean to condescend, but it’s hard to appreciate at that age the rapidity of the passage of time. Twenty years ago this week I started university. The intervening years have passed so quickly I can hardly describe it. I still have projects, left over from high school, that I’ve been meaning to work on. For me, there have been good things and bad things in the past twenty years. I wouldn’t go back, even if I could, but I can tell you that I would like an extra twenty years before me. So my essential message to all of you is this: the greatest asset you possess is time. It is also the one asset that you have less of with every passing second. It is therefore urgent that you use your time well. If there's one thing that you derive from your education, I hope it's a better understanding of how to do that."

Time. Hear that ticking sound, students? It gets louder with every passing second.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by my new iMac!

gwarder said...

Perhaps you may gain some info for your orientation speech from this:

Anthony said...

Hey Professor this is Anthony M. from your Canadian History, American History and Canada in the Two World Wars classes. I was just sitting in my apartment in Korea, recuperating from an exhausting 13 hour work day, when it suddenly struck me to catch up on my old Prof's blog, which I have to confess I had forgotten about for some time, and I gotta say I agree completely on O week, I had no interest in it whatsoever but felt compelled to participate anyway, for awhile at least. Any who hope all is well, I'll do my best to check out your blog more often. Cheers from Seoul!