Freshman Orientation

Posted on December 2, 2018


Freshman orientation is a rite of passage many of us went through, probably half smugly since we were 17 or 18 and pretty sure the world was our oyster. The other half of us was a little tentative at what lay ahead.

I hadn’t thought about freshman orientation in a while until I saw where a prof. at Yale offered his opinions on that old phenomenon. At the beginning of the semester the increasing traffic on McFarland Boulevard occupies my concerns, not freshman chemistry

But David Gelernter, a prof of computer science and chief scientist at Dittach LLC, wrote a refreshing piece in the WSJ {Sept. 4, 2018). Since I agree with a lot of what he wrote I thought the guy must be a troglodyte like me, a throwback to another generation. In the spirit of helping UA advise its freshman on the best way to live and survive, here are some points Gelernter offered.

  1. Understand that you’re here to learn how to be good citizens of the United States. That one grabbed my attention immediately. How unpolitically correct could one be???!!! I loved it. We are not atoms flashing through space looking after our own self-interests, but part of large, decent, moral, honest, and religious whole, or at least striving towards those ideals. Sign up for an organization—band, ROTC, community service, media, etc.—get involved in giving, and learning.
  2. You are now part-owner of Western civilization. We have noisy public arguments about the truth. We compete hard and in earnest. If #1 encourages you to cooperate and work together for a larger good, then # 2 balances it by telling you to compete and work for excellence in all you do. They do not conflict but reflect the real world.
  3. Now that you are a college student, learn skills. Science, math, engineering all depend on learning skills. Learn as much music as you can. Master at least one foreign language. “Reading and writing English are the most important skills of all.”
  4. Learn skeptically. I liked this one. “Never close your mind to the possibility that your teacher—despite his authoritative tone, his many books, papers, patents theorems or epic poems, his international reputation and his world-wide following—might not know what he’s talking about.” Learn skeptically.
  5. There are only two oppressed minority groups on campuses today–practicing Jews and Christians. They are not badly oppressed, but you will hear them mentioned with a caustic disrespect that is strictly forbidden with respect to whole other groups. The damage is minor; causing disrespect is what college is for, but if contempt for Jews and Christians is OK any group or cohort should be fair game.
  6. If you want to be educated, you can’t skip the hard subjects. Master at least a year of college level biology and a year of physics, and you’d be foolish not to take of term of computer science. You need to know contemporary history from the start of World War One and western history from the start of the Renaissance. I would say shove your timeline back to the Reformation, or to Biblical times.
  7. You must know the Bible and Shakespeare. If you don’t know them, you won’t even know what you’re missing.
  8. Don’t expect to be guided in your social life by the behavior of older students. Most of your peers have no clue how to live their lives, in part because the older generation hasn’t bothered to give any real guidance. Of all the ways in which we old people have failed you young ones, this is the worst. If you can find one older person anywhere in the world whom you trust and can talk to, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Ask yourself what you want, not what people expect. This is one of the hardest questions you’ll ever face.

I remember when the Dean addressed us at our freshman convocation in 1960 at Duke. He said look to the left and look to the right. Of the three of you, only two will graduate. I was sitting on an aisle seat and the guy on the right flunked out freshman year, so I figured I had it made. Then I took first year French and comparative anatomy in my senior year, proving both how much I had yet to learn, and how learning was transforming me. My next stop was the Fleet as a new naval officer, much less daunting than either French or anatomy.

Published as “What They Leave Out at Freshman Orientation,” in The Tuscaloosa News, September 23, 2018



Posted in: Education