Monday, September 07, 2009

College Advice from the NY Times faculty

This week's Sunday NY Times Week in Review section offers advice from nine renowned faculty to new college freshmen. The shared core of the advice is sound, if obvious: Learn to write well and explore unfamiliar domains of knowledge with well-regarded teachers and your fellow students. Yet the assortment of advisers and advice is peculiar.

With the exception of two natural scientists (biologist Nancy Hopkins and physicist Steven Weinberg), all of the Times guest experts write and teach in the humanities. There are no social scientists, unless one counts history as social science. (There are two historians.) And even the two natural scientists offer bromides that could have come from specialists in any field. (Follow your passion; try new things.) Yet for some time now, more students have been majoring in business subjects and economics than any other field. Perhaps the Times deliberately omitted any representatives of these fields because, especially in hard economic times, students don't need to be told to study something practical. They need to be told the opposite.

Still, even assuming that point, some of the advice is wildly parochial. Consider Harold Bloom, who tells students that they should study "the books that survive all ideological fashion." Bloom has been much criticized for his European-male-centric definition of the canon, but his list here suffers a further flaw: Just about all of his post-classical authors produced works of imagination. He recommends Milton but not Hume or Locke, Whitman and Melville but not Freud or Darwin; Frost and Eliot, but not Einstein or Watson.

It's also telling that the Times thought to consult only professors. It's not really surprising that people who get paid for living the life of the mind would tell their new students not to worry about the practical nitty gritty of earning a living. But the vast majority of college freshmen will indeed need to worry about just that. "Easy for you tenured professors to say," I can well imagine most of the target audience saying in response to this advice. The claim that the future will take care of itself might have been more credible coming from a former English major now working as an administrative assistant or an English Ph.D. stringing together a living from three or four low-paying positions as an adjunct professor.

Finally, the Times group has a decidedly gray hue. Most of the advice givers have been teaching college for forty years or more. The oldest has been at it over sixty years. Some remarkable people can really get to know members of a younger generation on their own terms: Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons shows as much. Still, one might reasonably begin with a working assumption that there would be a generation gap between 18-year-olds and nine scholars ranging in age from their mid-60s to their 90s. I get that this was the point: The segment is titled "College Advice, From People Who Have Been There Awhile." But neither the editors nor any of the individual professors even mentions the possibility that the experience and wisdom of eminent faculty might be less than perfectly relevant to the world that students who could be their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will inhabit.

Having said all of that, I'll admit that I agree with nearly all of the advice. But then, it has been 27 years since I was a college freshmen and I too have the luxury of opining from an ivory tower.

Posted by Mike Dorf


michael a. livingston said...

I read the article and found it a bit better than you did, although I agree it was a bit dated. I think the Bloom thing is especially solid. Fewer and fewer students major in liberal arts today, and many never learn how to think critically. I can see my 14 year old's excitement at reading The Catcher in the Rye after suffering through years of politically correct, not very-well-written books. Anything that pushes students to read the "classics"--even the recent ones--is OK with me.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I don't object to Bloom's list if qualified as Western "literature" that's valuable to read, but he presents it as the core of all knowledge.

michael a. livingston said...

I think it's a question of balance. In public school my son was required to read a book with the title "Bud not Buddy" which told the story of a boy's search for his father amidst the racism of mid-century Michigan. It was very inspirational but very poorly written; not surprisingly he had difficulty following it and didn't enjoy it very much. To compensate, they next assigned a book about the Holocaust which was, once again, inspirational but not very good.

The problem, in my opinion, is not race, gender, or culture: there are surely many excellent books written by African-American, Jewish, or nonwestern authors. I think the problem is that, for a variety of reasons, schools (and no doubt universities) are ignoring the classics and instead assigning mediocre books chosen for political reasons. To the extent Bloom urges students to counteract this, I think he offers good advice.

My son now attends private school.

Perscors said...

Regarding the comments as to why Bloom has limited his list to authors and not philosophers or scientists--I assume that he finds these to be the books that continue to shape a culture, our sense of self. Einstein and Hume will tell us where we were but not continue to inform us who we are. Shakespeare is undoubtedly more timeless or timely than Einstein and Hume. But then again they never meant to be.

There is a wonderful interview with Iris Murdoch on youtube where she differentiates between Art and Philosophy that might elucidate what I am arguing here. Here distinction I think would apply equally well, I believe, to the difference between Art and Science as well.

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