Edgar Whan: “Growing Up is a Waste of Time, So Relax and Enjoy the Next Four or Five Years of Your Life: Advice for First-Year Students”

Some college friends of mine have asked me to write a few words about the university for those of you just entering this year. It is a difficult thing to write. I know you don’t want or need me to tell you about all the pitfalls and dangers that are sprinkled throughout the world of the university, and it wouldn’t do any good if I did. Besides, in the more than 40 years I have spent in universities, I myself have eagerly embraced almost every stupidity, sentimentality, self-indulgence, and vanity available to those in the university. With a little luck, you’ll manage to survive.

Your parents have already warned you about fast men and loose women and have endlessly explained to you how much this educational enterprise will cost them. Your uncles have told you that this is the best time of your life. Your brother wants your bedroom, and your sister wants some privacy. Your steady expects you to write every day. Everyone wants in.

But what can I tell you? I guess I should talk of some of the ways that students make their university experience be less than the passionate love affair with learning that it ought to be and maybe I should suggest some things you can do to make it really worthwhile. When you graduate you will, after all, be four years closer to being dead than when you started, so don’t waste all this time.

No matter what your practice may be, you know well enough what the bad attitudes about school are, but one of the most widespread and subtle of these unhealthy attitudes you may believe to be the only attitude available. I speak of the belief that a school is really just a different kind of a factory. Indeed, educational leaders talk about productivity, high standards, quality control, image making, and marketing the product (you). This language is not as sinister as it seems; it is simply the only way that large institutions know how to talk. But if you buy into this industrial/commercial scheme uncritically, you will demean yourself.

If, following this model, you allow yourself to think that you are simply working for a professor who pays you with grades, all the resentment and boredom that afflicted you working in the Burger King will begin to clog your attitude. But as a free student you should see that the world is upside down—the professors (whether they recognize it or not) work for you, not you for them. In the same way, the free faculty know that the administration works for them, not they for the administration. It is the administration’s job to keep the records and payroll and see that the blackboards are erased; similarly, the professor is responsible to you, not for you.

It is true that the prevailing view of the school as a factory has a certain utility for those of you who choose to follow it. It surely will train you to be what most employers want you to be; four years of grudging, automatic obedience to those hovering over you with red pencils will have its sobering influence. Being a submissive student will attract job offers to you because you will be four years older than when you began school, and you will have satisfied some forty different authority figures in a proscribed pattern of study. If what you did satisfactorily for those professors was dull and meaningless to you, so much better are you prepared for, as we say, the great world of work.

No matter how hard you try to be a more serious student, however, there will be times when you will find it useful to lean into the system and rock along with it, and that’s all right as long as you know what you are doing and as long as you keep alert and keep watching for those moments when some ideal will really engage your mind and spirit. You should always have in your mind some deep concerns or profound questions around which you can shape or organize the rush of facts or opinions which threaten to engulf you as you move from class to class and from experience to experience. Indeed, illuminating your work by such concerns will bring a wholeness and unity to you.

Each of you have your own questions, even though you may not know you have them. The following examples of unifying questions may help you recognize your own:

  • How can a man and a woman manage the politics of living together in the tension of conflicting interests?
  • What does it mean to be dead?
  • How can we deal with other races, classes, and nations without condescension, bullying, or contempt?
  • Are our religions just wishful dreams or reflections of another plane of reality?
  • What should be our relationship to the planet on which we ride?

So go to class. Learn your irregular verbs, equations, formulas, and management techniques. Develop your esthetic sense, expand your knowledge of society. Accumulate your credits. Pay your fees. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Don’t forget that what you care about is who you are. If all you care about is grades now and money later, who are you and what will you be?

—The late Edgar Whan taught English professor and was one of Ohio University’s best teachers ever.

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