Last week The New York Times published a collection of several short pieces by important academics offering advice to college freshmen.
There was Harold Bloom talking (surprise, surprise!) about the importance of the canon.
There was Stanley Fish reiterating his gripe against professors who dare to teach writing through analyzing ideas and not just the weather.
There was Carol Berkin (a professor of history at Baruch College) who seems to be teaching total idiots. Her advice includes a reminder to the students to make sure they don't confuse a math class and a history of art class.
There was Martha Nussbaum (a professor of philosophy, law and divinity at the University of Chicago) who offers great advice that the students take more courses in the Humanities but couches her suggestion in sadly familiar self-denigrating terms. Humanities courses are often impractical, she says, but take them anyways. When this myth about the impracticality of our courses is repeated by someone who simply has no idea about what we do, I can at least understand. But coming from somebody who has been teaching such courses for years, the sentiment is surprising, to say the least.
There was James MacGregor Burns (a professor emeritus of government at Williams College) with the cute albeit extremely outdated piece of advice to read a newspaper every day. With all due respect for the esteemed older colleague, in order to give advice to the younger generation, one needs to look out of the ivory tower window once in a while. Newspapers are dying out (which, as I have said before, is a thing to be celebrated) and today's students go to other sources of information. Becoming addicted to newspapers, as the good professor suggests, is a dangerous enterprise since this particular addictive substance is about to disappear for good.
There was Steven Weinberg (a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin) who decided that the best thing he could contribute was the story of his own life.
This collection demonstrates how hard it is for some professors, as well as for some newspapers, to remain relevant to a younger generation.