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A Memo for the Class of 1997: What To Take to College

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Commencement is past and things are settled down to the quieter life of a campus in summer. Already groups of incoming freshmen are coming to campus for orientation. I've been thinking about some of the intangibles I hope they'll bring with them in the fall. The "packing list'' I've made also necessarily offers a few clues about what professors are like, or think they are, and how they hope their students will be at least a little bit like them.

Please bring:

1. A reading habit. Reading certainly isn't the only powerful medium of learning. But reading is by far the most flexible and convenient medium; you can go find another book or article or turn back a few pages in the one you've been reading, any time. You'll be much more in tune with things brought up in your classes if you read regularly a news or opinion magazine or two and a good daily newspaper. A great many professors start their days with a newspaper, and are dismayed when they refer to something that has been on the front page all week and their students look blank.

2. Some enjoyment of writing. What, enjoy? Certainly not all the time, and especially not when you're under pressure to meet a deadline. But many of us think that you don't really know what you think about something until you've struggled to get your thoughts to come out clearly on paper. If you're allergic to writing you might try doing a bit more about whatever interests you, when you're not under pressure. The best way to enhance your ability to judge and improve your own writing is to read a lot of reasonably serious adult stuff and then go back and look at your own writing again.

3. As much background in a foreign language and in math as possible. This may be too late for the class of 1997, but there may still be some time for a summer course or for some brushing up before a placement test. Most universities now have requirements, usually very modest, of a certain level of knowledge of mathematics and of one foreign language. It's a terrible waste of a chunk of those four years in college to be chipping away at something you should have learned years before.

4. Some beginnings of moral concern and commitment. If you're one of that pitiful part of our population who think there's nothing to life except earning money and spending it and partying, please work on growing up a bit before next fall. Most professors are doing what they do because they think they're working on something really important, and they tend to talk to students as if they might get worried about, or involved in, or committed to, some of the same things, or even something quite different. You've probably heard a commencement speech or two about how the world is facing some pretty intractable problems. You may have encountered some of them on a big-city street corner, or in your own life, or in news from half a world away. Finally, if you bring a sense of urgency about a problem or two with you, you'll catch on to more of what your professors are saying, respond more, and learn more.

5. An open mind. Please come with some ability to tolerate uncertainty, to hold a taste or conviction and still take seriously arguments or evidence against it, and to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong, or at least have a lot to learn. You may come with conservative free-enterprise convictions, and encounter an intelligent left-leaning professor, or vice-versa. You're likely to meet professors and other students whose religious views are sharply different from yours. Good. Learn from them. Grow more secure and articulate in your own convictions, or face up to their limitations, or even change them.

6. Openness to new interests. Allergic to science? Hated literature in high school? Give anything you've studied and disliked previously another fair hearing; frequently the approach is different in college, and you may find it more interesting. Try to figure out why that person in front of the class cares so deeply about this subject that she wants to spend a busy and poorly paid life working on it. If you can't figure it out, ask her. (But be sure to have a half hour to spare; a lot of us get carried away when we're asked that kind of question.)

7. A commitment to putting your studies first. Yes, there will be friends, and parties, and big personal changes. But those will be there after college, too. And if you've slopped and dodged through these four years, you don't get to do them over again.

8. Awareness that your goals may change. You're likely to find out about a subject or career you never heard of before, or acquire a new concern or commitment, or find that you're really not very good at what you thought you wanted to study, or that it bores you. Fine. Many, many students, including many of the best and most thoughtful, change their majors and career goals while they're in college. Too many students waste time and emotional energy sticking to a course of study because they've been taught you can do anything if you try hard enough (which is not so), or because their parents won't hear of a change.

(Parents please note. And parents please try to have a bit of patience if your students go through some changes. Work on treating them as adults, and on being at least a bit interested in what they're interested in. A lot of us are parents too, and we're rooting for the students to grow and find something they care about and do well. Isn't that what we all want for them?)

John E. Wills Jr. is a professor of history and the director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

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