Friday, September 11, 2009

Advice to Freshmen: The New York Times Style

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There was James MacGregor Burns (a professor emeritus of government at Williams College) with the cute albeit extremely outdated piece of advice to read a newspaper every day.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.


Anonymous said...

I am currently an undergraduate student and I think much of the advice you find irrelevant and wrong is actually quite useful and relevant.

Fish offers some excellent advice on finding a good teacher. And considering that few students today put time into finding a good professor, this advice is particularly apt for today's generation. As for his comments about writing instruction, he does not say anything about people who "dare" teach ideas--he advises caution of classes that only teach ideas, classes that don't teach writing.

Carol Berkin's experience of students being in the wrong class is right on--I know many people personally that this has happened to. This happens particularly in colleges with multiple campuses, since the possibility of going to the wrong place is higher.

With respect to Nussbaum, you misunderstood her point: she writes that courses in the humanities often "seem" impractical but nevertheless are "vital." Her argument is that they are far from impractical: they are one of the few chances in life to expand one's mind. She isn't calling them impractical--she's attacking those who do.

And, Burns's advice is clearly less about the reading the newspaper per se as exploring other domains of knowledge; the distinction between a newpaper or "other sources of information" is irrelevant in this case.

Steven Weinberg told what he knew: his own experience, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Although your posts are usually very smart and enjoyable, as an undergrad who found this advice very useful and relevant, I think you may want to reconsider some of the things you write here.

Clarissa said...

I'm glad you feel inspired by these pieces. However, at my age people tend to get a little jaded. So it is kind of annoying to hear Bloom and Fish recycle the same extremely tired idea they have been selling for decades now. I can't even begin to enumerate the sources where they have expressed the same ideas over and over and over again. It's funny that people would praise independent thinking and keep doing this.

As for Nussbaum, I can only repeat that to me courses in the Humanities do not "seem" impractical and I don't know why they do to her.

Weinberg reminded me of one of my professors who admired himself so much that he would respond to any student's query by "When I was your age..." Then a story of suffering, hard work and dedication would ensue. :-)

But I'm surely glad this collection of articles wasn't a complete waste of time. Recently, the New York times has done nothing but disappoint.