Dear prospective freshman:
This weekend is Admit Weekend, where you and other admitted freshman swarm college campuses to see what the next four years have in store for you. Your classes, your major, your future friends. As I watched your excited, yet slightly overwhelmed, faces flood through the Meyer Green, I was reminded of myself, four years ago, at my own College Admit Weekend.
I remember being so afraid. Intimidated, daunted, terrified that this thing I had been clawing at, working incredibly hard my whole life to prove that I was worthy, suddenly opened up and said: you are welcome and you are one of us. And I was so afraid that I was not. That they were wrong. That I did not and could not belong here.
And so I would like to pen a letter to you — prospective freshmen, and my younger self — about the challenges you are about to face in college, and in the world.
For the past four years (longer, if you went to a particularly brutal middle school), you have worked harder than you thought possible to be right. Your state has provided you with government (and CollegeBoard) certified answers, and you have memorized dates, and names, and cell structures, and algebra formulas. Each incorrectly filled bubble on an exam was a step back in your future. It meant you were wrong. And you could not be wrong, if you wanted to succeed.
But now you are entering something very different. You are joining the Academy — which, despite the four years and thousands of dollars you will give to them, you will probably not manage to understand as an institution until you get your PhD. The Academy is a place where being wrong does not exist in the structured way it did in public primary school — whose bells, and roll call, and rigorous structures prepped you to become good factory workers. Here, at college, you will be taught something different. You will be taught how to think. And thinking is very different than being wrong.
What does that mean, exactly? I mean that the soul-crushing humiliation you felt when your teacher asked a question in class and you got it wrong does not exist here (although public humiliation certainly does). Instead, you will learn about “Academic Debates.” Your professors will tell you that some people argue this, but others believe this; that some interpret these facts in this way, but most others don’t; that for a long time people believed that this was so, until someone proved them otherwise. And you will be taught that your professors — the distinguished and the accoladed in particular — have been wrong and have changed their minds many a time. That being open to information and fallibility, that being motivated by the endless amount of knowledge they do not and never will know, is what has made them brilliant.
Last week, I watched my long-time advisor speak at a public discussion. (I met him my freshman year, when I was still slightly panicked about the world, and he has guided me through classes and research and the never-ending expectation that my work can always be slightly better.) It was a small audience, as far as public discussions go, but it was full of people who I am sure he would prefer, all things equal, hold him in high regard: his students, his colleagues — even his wife was in the room. And he spoke matter-of-factly about the people who had disagreed with his arguments, about the realization that he did not understand something, or had been wrong, about the firestorm his interpretations had once caused. “One of my colleagues, you know her, took me to task for not including this area in my last book! She’s probably right, too, you know.”
I was struck that day about what an incredible place this, the Academy, was — and how far I had come since freshman year. There are many things that I think my advisor is wrong about — and sometimes I will tell him so, and he listens to me. And he tells me why he thinks he’s right, and we go back in forth in such a way. Sometimes (once!) I convince him a little, and occasionally he convinces me.
Because this is not about being wrong — it is about ways of viewing the world, of analysis, of interpretation. It is not about proving that 2 and 2 make 4. It is about how you analyze, and process, and problem-solve, and think creatively. That is what college will teach you. It will teach you how to think, in ways that you did not know existed.
The way you think is incredibly important. You may not even realize how you think now, and how it has impacted you and your life. (How are modes of thinking different in history, in economics, in physics, in political science, in anthropology? Investigate this before you declare your major.)
You will discover soon enough that actors across campus are in a pitched battle to influence, shape and mold the way you think — and not just in the classroom. You can see it now, in op-eds, in protests, in University administration statements, in the politics of language among and around college students. Everyone is vying to control the way you think.
So here is the advice I would give to you: attempt to understand the way everyone thinks and never forget that you are in a conversation, not a contest.
Last week, UC Berkeley cancelled a public speech by Ann Coulter. There are some people who argue that certain ways of thinking threaten their security, and thus cannot be sanctioned or endorsed. Perhaps. But perhaps not.
I have chosen, during my time at University, to study human rights and war. In mediating conflicts abroad, we constantly lecture our allies and our enemies that they should listen to the other side, that it is important to understand what other people think and feel. Listening, understanding what they think, does not mean agreeing. And not agreeing does not mean they are wrong.
Everybody has a certain way of thinking about the world. And all our different interpretations, the different movies we are watching, run parallel, and into, and higgledy-piggledy, and across one another until — through conversation — we come to a sort of shared vision of reality. No one’s feelings or interpretations of the world are “wrong.” It makes sense to them. It is their reality.
But it may not be our interpretation of the world. And by engaging in conversation, we may begin to convince one another of our views — or, at the very least, begin to understand what the other person sees. That is the only way we can ever solve conflict.
Today, dear Pro-Fros, you do not have to change your way of thinking about the world — or even pick your major, although I know many of you will try. You will be bombarded with all the informational flyers you possibly can carry about your new school, and jump in all the fountains you can find, and hide when your families embarrass you too much. The next four years will be so much fun. But they will also be critical in shaping the type of person you, and the type of world you want, will be.
I wish you the very best of luck.