Ten things to know: Chapman Learning Community August 22, 2018 keynote address

I extend a warm welcome to all of you. College can be the greatest adventure of your life; in college you are shaping a self that will carry you into your adult years—that’s both scary and exciting.  Right now you may be feeling alone and afraid.  But remember that only a third of Americans have a college degree, and world-wide, just 7 percent do. And remember that you are NOT alone; you are surrounded by new friends and people who will support you in good and bad times.

Today I have tried to load your college backpack with good ideas that can make the next four or four plus years as successful as possible.

To set the mood and the topic, here’s a short and easy quiz—no grades/no worry.

A. What book has most shaped your thinking and values? Share that with your neighbor. Share some titles with all of us.

B. How many hours do you spend on a screen on average daily?  Raise your hands:  2?  4?  6?  8 or 10?  Share that answer with all of us.

C. Based on your answer to B, how many think the amount of time you spend on line is too much time?  Raise your hands.

Brief discussion of above…

My topic is ten things you should know about college.

1. You’re on your own. THAT’S GOOD.   In college you are intellectually, emotionally, and socially ALONE, cut off from your home, high school and city or town life, even if you commute. You’ve cut your most essential ties to mom, dad, siblings, high school and friends.  What you routinely did then out of love or obedience…curfew, eating habits, your online life, your reading habits, social life, and study habits…all are up for grabs. Your life now gives you the chance to construct a new, stronger and more successful self – on you own.

2. You’re here to get a practical-liberal education. A practical education and a liberal education.  Which is more important??  Hands…. Most educators will single out one or the other as the most important educational pillar.  I think that’s a mistake. Both are equally important in shaping the choices you make about courses and majors.  And to graduate as a well-rounded and educated person, you need both.                   

What is a practical education?  It’s what you can learn in order to make a living.  It’s the ‘College of Business’ where, for most American college students, you might look for a major.  The courses you take, the majors you choose, and the campus activities you engage in will introduce you to possible vocations, jobs, and internships.  Want to be an accountant?  A nurse?  A teacher?  An actor or actress?  A dancer?  An artist?  A salesman or saleswoman?  A coder?  Meet the faculty and consider courses in those subjects.  Check out campus clubs and interest groups.  Leave your room and smart phone behind. 
I meet many 17, 18 and 19 year olds who have no or just the vaguest idea about what they want to do after college.  I tell them that’s ok.  That’s healthy.   Their search for a future is really a search for identity.  And that takes a while and some guts.  Best advice: be patient, make smart choices, take risks, be on the lookout for opportunities, and be honest with yourself.

What’s a liberal education?   It’s certainly NOT about becoming a liberal or a democrat.  It’s about developing as a broadly educated thinking and feeling person. It’s about having a life beyond work.

It’s about taking courses in Philosophy, Psychology, Biology, Sociology, Art, Music, Literature, Religion, Ethnic Studies, and History.  Learning things that lack an immediate payoff but pay off richly in the long run.  Studying history, psychology, and literature will give you a larger mental and verbal vocabulary, a sense of global and national literacy, a better understanding about yourself and others; a liberal education can also make you interesting to others, reduce symptoms of depression and stress, and open doors to far away worlds.

Few in the BGSU community know about this rare opportunity open to all of you. And it’s only for those of you who dare to dream.  It introduces you to multiple countries and three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe) first hand.  It’s called Semester at Sea.  It gives you a semester of college credit.  It’s a voyage around the world in a four month semester.  My wife and I were faculty for one of those adventures in 2006; for us and 650 college students, it was life changing. Here’s some SAS literature from past trips.

3. Testing authority and not automatically accepting all you hear and read is an essential to the practical and the liberal. That means thinking twice about what you think, do, read, what parents say, what professors say, what government says.   Study and stay aware of local, national and global events so you’ll have the knowledge-base to think clearly and express your ideas  with confidence.  Without those skills, you risk being an empty vessel.

Twitter and Instagram will not keep you alert and informed.  Being well informed means that in a job interview, you’re prepared to talk about more than sports and rock music.  Being culturally literate comes from regular visits with a good newspaper (Wall St. Journal, NYT and Washington Times), a good magazine (Time, Atlantic, The Economist, National Review, Nat Geo, The Smithsonian, or the New Yorker), or news shows that will enrich your thinking. 

What are your reading habits?  If you don’t have any, it’s time to start! If most of your reading is on a screen, that could well be a serious problem. 
4. Don’t fear thinking, writing and talking politically, but be careful not to trap yourself in unwinnable arguments and shouting matches that produce more fire than light.

Family gatherings often have unwritten rules:  beware of talking religion or politics.  That’s family.  College on the other hand is a think tank where curiosity, exploration, and learning about yourself and others have no limits.

5. Treat all persons equally: with respect, value, and consideration. Never judge on the basis of appearance.  Appearances easily mask the real person.  Never limit your friends to those who look, dress, speak and think like you do.  Doing that will invite narrowness, bigotry, and a small, homogeneous social circle that only feeds on itself.  Don’t let differences in race, religion, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, age, or politics control you.  Instead,   befriend those who are different or alone; they might turn out to be your best friend or teacher.  Expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.  Later you’ll discover that networking may be the most important skill in your life.

6. Beware of social media and their effects on your mind, spirit and body.   Some of you spend exorbitant amounts of time on-line.  Your avoidance of  reading serious books and thinking about serious topics, perhaps from fear,   could be a force that trips you up here and in life.  I and many other thinkers in the field of education suspect that heavy loads of screen time may be the cause.  A Jr. High teacher in town tells me that her students, comparing themselves to so many they see online, fear standing out as different.

So, as powerful and accessible as social media are, they can get us into mountains of trouble.  Many employers search Facebook and Twitter before hiring.  When you’re online, imagine your thoughts (or rants, ridicule, biases, insults, and complaints) as the lead headline of the local newspaper, or circulated around campus.  Many may recall a recent court case:  20 year old Michelle Carter texted her friend to help him commit suicide.  She then spent 20 months in jail. 

Further, social media can so consume your time that you neglect much-needed face-to-face relationships, exercise, and study.   When you do most of your reading on line, you are consuming scraps, excerpts, parts of articles, messages and pieces of information from everywhere and nowhere.  (David Denby)  

Adam Alter’s book Irresistible is your common book for this year and most of you will hear him speak on campus in a few weeks.   Thus, large portions of the BGSU student body will read the book in one or more of their classes.  Usually, the University invites the author to visit and speak.  Irresistible is about the way the social media manipulate all of us to depend on their screen time.  Are you aware of that?  Do you like it?

Books.  How many of you have read Fahrenheit 451 by sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury?  It’s required reading for anyone who reads Irresistible.  Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. I was 12 and my family had just purchased our first TV.  TV was the invention that changed the world and alarmed Bradbury.  He thought, and I think he was right, that TV and other mass media technologies can dumb us down by taking us away from books.  451 is the temperature at which books burn.  The novel is about a society where books are for burning.

7.  Reach beyond your comfort zone because growth requires risk.  You signed up for a LC (Learning Center).  That’s a risk.  You left home.  That’s a risk.  You made a new friend—another risk.  Risk is the best route to learning and deeper thinking.  In high school you could hide or brown nose to the top; now you have to move forward authentically and with purpose. 

A tip:  Introduce yourself to your instructors and ask if you can meet in their offices to get acquainted.  The wider network of contacts you can make, the better off you’ll be when you need them for letters of recommendation, advice, or building new relationships and friends. 
8. Always go to class.  Don’t cut.  Even if it’s early in the morning.   Even if you’ve been up all night.  Even if you have to go to work.  Attendance is important because learning is cumulative.  What’s learned in week 1 is essential for understanding week 8 content.

9. Learning communities are created to make new ways of learning and being possible. They can make new ways of knowing provocative, enriching, fun, and essential.  Out of class trips, debates, speakers, meals together, films.  In-class creative writing:  active learning with interviews, dialogues, blogs, Twitter exchanges.  Take advantage of these wonders. Wonders?  Wait and see.  But remember it’s a two way street.  

10. Writing may be the most important skill in college.  It develops a kind of thinking that’s absent from most forms of talking, reading, imagining and dreaming.  It demands effective communication of complex ideas.  When you talk, the ideas have a very short life span, no more than a few seconds.  You really can’t cleanly modify or clarify what you just said.  When you write, you can labor over a word, a sentence, tone, your audience and organization. And there is the added advantage of being proud of what you created on the page, whether it is in pen of on screen. 

Here’s your second and last quiz:

What will you remember about this talk?

What I’d like you to remember: 

Today’s writers and readers are tomorrow’s leaders!

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January 2019Volume 5Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)