It’s that time of year in the halls of academe when hope springs and experience pings, when we imagine the sweet epiphanies we will share with excited and eager students, while remembering years past’s slow boring of hard boards.
Mikhail has some thoughts about the first year experience, I am teaching a class explicitly designed to frame the first year experience, each of us has memories of those rosy days, so this is probably a good time to recall Tim Clydesdale’s sociological work on teens in the first year of college. There’s a nice short review in the Chronicle, titled “The Myth of First-Year Enlightenment.”
He finds that students in their first year are perhaps uniquely resistant to the kind of deeply transformative experience we imagine is the real payoff of college, and indeed are busy just figuring out how to get along away from home. In the meantime they put the very core values we’d like to get them to question into an “identity lockbox” for safekeeping.
Clydesdale notes that “Only a handful of students on each campus find a liberal-arts education to be deeply meaningful and important, and most of those end up becoming college professors themselves…. And so the liberal-arts paradigm perpetuates itself, while remaining out of sync with the vast majority of college students.” Yup.
Practically, Clydesdale recommends several shifts of emphasis: from content inculcation to skills development; from lectures students will soon forget to class discussion of issues, perspectives and interpretations; and from grand goals about moral awakening to modest goals about competence.
Mikhail is quite right that our young charges “will have to get used to the idea that life is full of situations in which you have to learn something, even if it looks like a completely useless subject – remember, [they’re] not old enough or experienced enough to be the judge of what is or isn’t useless.” And the first year is part of that process. But as a matter of practical pedagogy in the face of brute sociological facts, much of what we can accomplish in the first year is to not so thoroughly turn them off with our sanctimonious attempts to jam goodness into their heads that they’ll never recover and will remain sullen anti-intellectuals for the rest of their lives.