Tuesday, July 20, 2004

On whom nothing is lost

It’s been a while since I was sitting in a college lecture hall, soaking up the knowledge spewing from the mouths of professors, both good and bad. Even though I no longer identify myself as “student,” I still remain one in my heart of hearts.

I think we have to be lifelong learners to engage in the discourse of our—or any other— time. One of the reasons I’ve talked so much lately about the importance of reading is because I think a college education is only the beginning of learning. At 21 or 22 you can’t possibly know what your future will hold. And that’s okay. There’s plenty of time to work it out, and learning to follow life’s detours can sometimes offer the best path.

I get disheartened when I hear of college graduates going back for advanced degrees when they’ve had no real life experience on which to base that further education. Talk to some people who earned MBAs right after undergraduate school and they will tell you that the education lacked a certain relevance and depth because they didn’t have the practical knowledge and work experiences with which to compare.

William Zinsser wrote in a 1979 article titled “College Pressures” how pressures from parents, finances, peers and those self-imposed caused undergraduates at Yale to become obsessed with high grades. His approach as a professor there was to introduce his students to a number of successful people from different areas—business, politics, arts, journalism—to talk about how they arrived at their current success. The common thread among them is that many got into their present field by way of detours. In other words, they didn’t have a plan.

“They (students) can hardly imagine allowing the hand of God or chance to nudge them down some unforeseen trail,” writes Zinsser in his book, “Writing About Your Life.” Zinsser had hopes that this article, which has been reprinted many times, would no longer be relevant in today’s world. But it is perhaps more relevant today.

“What I want for all young people is a release from the clammy grip of the future. I’d like them to savor each step of their education as a rich experience in itself, not as a preparation for the next step,” he writes.

And so it was with great joy that I read this op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.

Columnist David Brooks writes about some of his Yale students who were engaged in a class known as Grand Strategy. Sounds like something I’d sign up for in a heartbeat.

Brooks writes: “For many students, this yearlong course was not just a class, but a life-altering event. Somehow students in Grand Strategy were applying Thucydides, Kant and Sun Tzu to modern foreign policy crises. They talked excitedly about seeing the connections between big ideas and big events.”

An interesting side note is that one of the team of professors teaching this enlightening course is John Lewis Gaddis, an international expert on the Cold War and one of my history professors at Ohio University. Somewhere among my shelves of books is his groundbreaking, “Strategies of Containment.” He has certainly moved up from “Harvard on the Hocking” to the hallowed halls of Yale. But the person most of Brooks’ students spoke highly of was Charles Hill, a former diplomat and real renaissance man.

One of the students, Molly Worthen, took her education one step further than most when she asked: “ Who is this man I look up to? Where does such an authoritative person come from?”

Rather than simply ask the question, she spent the year after graduation writing a book-length biography of Hill. “I've just seen her manuscript; it's one of the more uplifting documents I've read in a long time,” says Brooks.

He goes on to say that Worthen’s book is about teaching. “It's a book about the complex relationship between an experienced person, offering life's lessons, and a young seeker, hoping to acquire them. By the end of her investigation, Worthen still admires and even reveres Hill, but she has become herself. She has taken the education Hill and Yale and many others have given her and she has applied it in a perceptive and mature way.

“Why can't this happen more often? Why aren't there more scholars, like Hill, Gaddis and (Paul) Kennedy, who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections? Instead, the academy encourages squirrel-like specialization.” I would venture to say there are places for those with specialization, but I also believe that the answers to some of our bigger questions lie in making the “great connections.”

I have no relationship and fewer memories of college professors, save for Don Lambert, my recently retired adviser. And he and I had a somewhat contentious relationship since he declared that I would never get a job in journalism if I didn’t work on the college paper. I responded by telling him that I couldn’t remain at OU if I didn’t work a job that allowed me to earn decent money. So it was with great glee that I relayed that pivotal conversation with him in 1992 when we ran into each other at my first SPJ regional convention. HE underestimated my tenacity. I fear so many university professors underestimate students, maybe sometimes with good reason. Or maybe that’s simply a byproduct of the academic culture. I certainly hope not.

There was a certain celebrity attached to Gaddis. I found his subject matter—Soviet history—fascinating. And he was teaching it at a time when glasnost first emerged. Consequently, he was often on news shows and quoted in magazine articles.

And I’ll never forget the international relations professor (Dr. Gustafson) who allowed me to take my final exam with only 50 minutes remaining in the exam time after I had overslept after pulling an all-nighter. He wouldn’t give me extra time, but I convinced him I knew the material inside out. (I did and got an A in the class.) He also taught constitutional law and could enunciate the word repugnant in such as way as to cause you to recoil in your seat.

The current dean of the OU J-School, Tom Hodson, used to teach reporting public affairs. He was then the Athens County Municipal Judge and had just returned from a yearlong fellowship with the U.S. Supreme Court. Our class met in his courtroom and our assignments were the closest to real-world journalism as you get—cover the Athens City Council meeting on Monday night and turn your story in Tuesday morning. Any misspelled word is an automatic C; any misspelled proper noun is an automatic F.

While I didn’t have those magnetic, dynamic experiences with college professors, I’ve spent most of my professional life seeking connections with others who have helped me make sense of life and my life’s work. And maybe that’s the larger lesson here: That you have to be vigilant in seeking what you desire, in what you hope to experience, in what you bring to this life and in making connections with those who can show you a path.

Those seeds are merely planted in college. You get to spend the rest of your life cultivating your mind and your experiences into being someone, to paraphrase Henry James, on whom nothing is lost.




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