for Madeline Frohlich and many, many others
University was at once exciting and terrifying for me. A friend at the same school at the same time remarked (in one of his papers, no less) that it was just a bunch of people standing around smoking cigarettes. I think both of our initial impressions correct. That friend went on to read Spinoza and Leibniz very carefully. His opinions on policy are always to be taken seriously. I went on to hang out with a lot of people who stood around and smoked cigarettes.
A few things I wish I had known beforehand:
1. Learning rarely happens in class. I had some awesome teachers in my undergraduate years. I remember taking careful notes on everything they said and diligently reading. I always would talk about the cool stuff I learned. It’s really amazing how much of that knowledge is gone. Class isn’t useless. It can give necessary information and help with focus on and review of crucial concepts. Sometimes – very rarely – it can be transformative. My work on Xenophon stems from a class Glen Thurow ran my first year of graduate school. Glen would present a passage, put forth some questions, we’d sit around the roundtable and talk. Three or four of the students had exceptional knowledge of political philosophy. Was Socrates a martyr for independent thought? Was he more a Nietzschean figure, demonstrating at points the cruelty of philosophy? Was Cyrus a tyrant? If so, why did Xenophon himself find him worthy of emulation in some way?
2. Your first impressions shouldn’t be discounted easily. I’m not saying be judgmental. I’m not saying don’t give people second and third and fourth chances if need be. But a school and the classes within it have a certain outlook, and the more time you spend there, the more you will absorb that outlook. Be aware at the very least of what a total outsider might say if coming across your campus and its culture for the first time.
3. Being a news junkie isn’t a total waste of time. The news does get repetitive. But you’re young. You haven’t seen that cycle become one of absolute boredom yet. And you need to be aware of how others frame issues. Playing with big ideas and big thinkers is great. Sometimes it can help critique that framework and propose a genuine and serious alternative. Your peers can be up to incredible things that will change the world. However, I still read The New York Times and WSJ. I’m always interested in what others are saying and doing. I know it helps keep my situation in perspective.
4. Good food, reading carefully and comfortably, taking your own sweet time all matter. Don’t play “poor stressed college student” if you don’t have to. Get it done well and get to working on the books or ideas that are of interest to you. Being at Uni is a privilege. The privilege has little to do with teachers or classes. It has to do with the freedom to think.
5. The company you keep matters. Don’t assume everyone at your school is a good person. They’re not – some of them are pretty much criminals who will try to rip you off as much as they can. Some are too babyish. Some have been forced into Uni and don’t belong. Some can’t hack it. Some are snobs and gossips. Don’t be hostile, just be aware. Try to be a part of a group that is looking for awesome people and doesn’t discriminate. Try to talk to everyone who seems worthwhile. Try to put yourself in a position where it’s easy to be there for others and you learn from each other and keep finding new people. My only caution: for years, schools were dominated by “in-clubs” and secret societies. University has the potential to be more cliquish than anything else you’ve encountered. That can happen even while thinking one is being open.
Things are about to get a lot more exciting and confusing for you. I hope if they get a bit overwhelming, what’s been said above will help you focus. You’ll have fun, I’ve no doubt of that. And you’ll learn a lot. The negative tone of some of what’s above is because I want to see people graduate with a ton of knowledge and host of friends, ready to change the world for the better, ready to help each other and the rest of us as they do so.