A Message for Students

I’ve been writing a number of posts recently about students and I thought I’d better write at least one addressed to them. So … Hello, students, I hope you’ve gotten the school year off to a good start!

The other day, one of you came to see me in my office to talk about your writing. “It’s my greatest weakness,” you said. “I have no trouble speaking in front people, but…” I think I may have interrupted you. Maybe I let you finish the thought, I don’t remember, but I know I already knew what I wanted to say. Just go ahead and write from the same the confidence that you speak from. (And if the opposite is true of you, speak from the same confidence you write with.) Don’t begin with an awareness of your weaknesses; begin with a strength you can leverage into action, into exercise. Then you’ll soon feel yourself getting stronger.

Anyway, as Descartes pointed out, few of us are willing to admit that our greatest weakness is our intelligence: that our real trouble is thinking. We’ll say we’re not good at public speaking or that writing “academically” is hard. But let’s get real about this. The hardest thing about going to university isn’t talking or writing; it’s understanding the material. If that wasn’t the main challenge you were seeking, you’re wasting your time. Find a harder program.

But here it’s even more important that you don’t begin with a conception of yourself as somehow weak. Find your strength and build on it. You understand many things perfectly well and some of them are what led you to enroll at this university, at this time, in this program. You may find finance hard but you know what money is. You may not yet know much about marketing but you can tell a sales pitch from a Sunday sermon. Hamlet’s state of mind may baffle you as much as it does him, but you know a thing or two about vengeance, right? Just keep bringing your readings and lectures back to things you understand. Don’t expect your professors to do this for you, since they can’t possibly know everything you know. And even if they could, how are they supposed to know that you know it? It’s up to you see the connections between what you already know and what you need to know for a course.

Now, you’re going to have to be open to the idea that you’re wrong about a number things. Sometimes learning is unlearning. And sometimes, annoying though it may be, learning something means relearning something in your last year that you unlearned in your first. That’s because an education is not a simple matter of acquiring and discarding beliefs one at time. It’s a continuous reorganization of your system of belief. Some beliefs cannot be held at the same time and there’s no simple rule to follow when deciding which ones to keep and which ones to abandon. It’s not uncommon to come back around to an idea you had previously decided was incompatible with a theory you thought was true. Having thought some more about the theory and its own internal contradictions, you’re free to consider the idea from a new point of view. That’s all part of the process. Relax and enjoy it. Your intelligence will show, not in how often you are right about things, but in what happens when you’re wrong.

Remember that “knowledge”, especially at a university, is a competence not a possession. You are becoming a knowledge-able person, some one who is able to know things. It’s the ability to make up your mind about something, to speak your mind about it, and to write it down. You’re not interested in getting more and more of it, so much as getting better and better at it. What you know will change, and will keep changing after you graduate. But how you know things will just keep improving. It takes some discipline, of course. You have to be willing to do something badly for a while until you learn how to do it well. Writing is one part of that, and an important one, so work on it every day. But keep it balanced with everything else you have to do. And remember, finally, that being good at something really does mean being able to enjoy it. When you’re learning something, you should be looking for the joy in it. Please keep that in mind.

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