The New York Times has an interesting section on advice for incoming college freshman from some prominent people in today’s paper. Here are excerpts of some advice I liked:
It’s easy to think that college classes are mainly about preparing you for a job. But remember: this may be the one time in your life when you have a chance to think about the whole of your life, not just your job. Courses in the humanities, in particular, often seem impractical, but they are vital, because they stretch your imagination and challenge your mind to become more responsive, more critical, bigger. You need resources to prevent your mind from becoming narrower and more routinized in later life. This is your chance to get them.
– Marha Nusbaum, Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago, “Go The Wrong Way”
5. Do not fear political activism. I was once at an event where a student asked Jimmy Carter how he, formerly the guardian of American law, felt years earlier when his freshman daughter was arrested at a protest against apartheid. He answered: “I cannot tell you how proud I was. If you young people cannot express your conscience now, when will you? Later you will have duties, jobs, families that make that harder. You will never be freer than now.”
– Gary Wills, Emeritus Professor of History, Northwestern University, “Play Politics”
Fall in love! Not with that attractive person sitting three rows in front of you in calculus class, but with an intellectual vision of the future you probably can’t even imagine at the moment. A millennium or so ago I entered Harvard wanting to major in math. But in my junior year I heard a biology lecture by James D. Watson, the scientist who co-discovered the double-helical structure of DNA, the molecule that genes are made of. By the end of that lecture I was a goner — in love with DNA. Until then I had not known that a new science, called molecular biology and based on DNA, had already begun to unravel the secret of life.
Listening to Dr. Watson’s lecture I could even imagine that molecular biologists might one day answer all the important questions I had about humans: How do you make a hand? Why do I look like my mother? How does a cell become cancerous? What is memory? I staggered breathlessly out of that classroom and started down the long unpredictable path to becoming a professor of molecular biology at M.I.T. What I have learned is that passion, along with curiosity, drives science. P assion is the mysterious force behind nearly every scientific breakthrough. Perhaps it’s because without it you might never be able to tolerate the huge amount of hard work and frustration that scientific discovery entails. But if you have it, you’re in luck. Today, 45 years after Watson’s lecture, new discoveries in biology still take my breath away.
– Nancy Hopkins, Professor of Biology, MIT, “My Crush On DNA”
Try to read a good newspaper every day — at bedtime or at breakfast or when you take a break in the afternoon. If you are interested in art, literature or music, widen your horizons by poring over the science section. In the mood for spicy scandals? Read the business pages. Want to impress your poli sci prof? Read columnists.
The newspaper will be your path to the world at large. At Williams College, where I was a student in the 1930s, we read the alarming reports in The Times about Germany’s brutal onslaught against peaceful nations. In the spring of 1938, we burned Hitler in effigy — and made Page 11 of The Times! In June 1940, as France fell to Nazi troops, hundreds of graduating seniors urged compulsory military training, and provided another Williams story to the paper.
In addition, a great newspaper will teach you how to write: most articles are models of clarity and substance — with no academic jargon! Pay attention to the writer’s vocabulary, see how many active verbs are used, file away striking new words for future use. Study how articles are structured — how the first paragraph tells the reader simply and clearly the subject and main points. Take a look at the last paragraph; it will often show you how to conclude an essay with a pithy phrase or a telling quotation.
A great newspaper will help you in the classroom — and it will be your conduit to the real world outside the classroom. Become addicted.
– James MacGregor Burns, Emeritus Professor of Government, Williams College, “Off Campus Life”
NOTE: One of the great professors I had in graduate school was Mark Reiff. In an introductory Critical Thinking class that I was a teaching assistant for him, he had every student get a subscription to The New York Times and quizzed them on content from time to time. He’s the only professor I’ve ever come across who assigned a newspaper in college.
Second, I would advise students to take a composition course even if they have tested out of it. I have taught many students whose SAT scores exempted them from the writing requirement, but a disheartening number of them couldn’t write and an equal number had never been asked to. They managed to get through high-school without learning how to write a clean English sentence, and if you can’t do that you can’t do anything.
I give this advice with some trepidation because too many writing courses today teach everything but the craft of writing and are instead the vehicles of the instructor’s social and political obsessions. In the face of what I consider a dereliction of pedagogical duty, I can say only, “Buyer beware.” If your writing instructor isn’t teaching writing, get out of that class and find someone who is.
– Stanley Fish, Professor of Law, Florida International University, “The Hunt For A Good Teacher”