Sage Advice for College Freshmen

Sep 2, 2013

Labor Day means different things to different people: the last day of official summer, the last big outdoor party, or the best sales of the year. Some very senior citizens may even recall that Labor Day was once a celebration of the great American labor movement. But for those of us who have ever been involved in education, Labor Day means that a new semester and a new academic year are about to begin. The freshmen are coming, some more fresh than others, the hopeful, anxious class of 2017.

I spent some twenty five years of my life inflicting education on defenseless college students. Not not the same students of course, that would be beyond cruel and unusual punishment, but somehow they seemed the same. They were endlessly and mysteriously renewed like the goldfish in a garden pond, and the students I meet now don't seem much different than they were when I started teaching, back in the educational dark ages.  

Twenty-five years of teaching is not much. Some professors carry on for forty years, or more. But still I hope that I learned some things worth passing on to incoming students, to make their experience over the next four years less traumatic, and more rewarding.  So, in the time-honored spirit of Polonius, and all givers of good advice who deserve to be ignored, here are some helpful hints for incoming college freshmen or freshpersons.

Try to treat your professors as human beings, because under the surface they really are. They don't know much about real life, how could they? They may not even know the titles of the ten top music downloads. Universities began as monasteries, places where learning was preserved away from the world, and there's still an element of unworldliness in higher education. As a savvy student from the urban and suburban jungles of America, you are in a good position to take advantage of this.

Be aware that many of your teachers were educated before the Internet, and have an irrational attachment to books. They don't necessarily believe that all knowledge can be acquired from Professor Google. In the next generation, once those pesky books have been entirely eliminated, education will be more fun for your own children, so take the long view.  

Take a break before college if you can. Travel to strange places, do some real work, live in ways that your family would not approve of, and then and come back to education with at least a veneer of maturity.  Mature students are a pleasure to teach. They know what they want to learn, and have a pretty shrewd idea what their professors can and cannot teach. This makes the classroom experience more agreeable and more productive for all concerned.

If you must enter college at seventeen or eighteen, remember that this is an awkward age, a peak moment in your life, when you actually do know everything. It's all downhill from here. At the end of four years, if your teachers have done their jobs right, you will be all-too-conscious of knowing almost nothing at all. That's my personal definition of education: the process of moving from perfect knowledge to enlightened ignorance, by way of frustration and curiosity. The teacher's job is to create the frustration and the curiosity.

Finally, enjoy the party. You will never be invited to another party like this in your whole life.

Copyright: David Bouchier