Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Freshman Year reading -- the way it used to be

Professor Miller's favorite book

Law Professor William Ian Miller gives a glimpse of what a college education used to mean. If you are not being asked to read such books in college, you should feel really ripped off. (In part, professors aren't assigning them anymore because they think that you aren't smart enough or hard-working enough to understand them.) After I read this, I wondered where he had his transformative freshman year experience back in 1965. Harvard? Yale? Some other exclusive, privileged outpost of the liberal arts? Nope -- University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Chronicle of Higher Education
"I am 68; if you had asked me the question about a self-transforming book when I was 19, I would have had to say just about half of the ones I read. You could say these books changed my mind, but my mind was pretty much a tabula rasa when I was in my first year of college. Rather they made my mind. Each week was a transformative experience. In one course these: the PensĂ©es, which made a callow teenage atheist suspend his judgment; The Red and the Black, which is fiction, I know, but I took it as how psychology would look if properly done. Besides, my first true love was Madame de RĂȘnal. Fear and Trembling followed, and it caused me to give up biochemistry for the humanities, because who in his punk teenage mind would have thought that you could write 46,000 words on 18 verses of Genesis and still not come close to exhausting the topic? It showed me what it meant to read, really read. But then next week it was The Genealogy of Morals. Oh, my. Transformed again.
The exhilaration of meeting ideas and thoughts you had not known existed piggybacked on the hard truth that you knew diddly. You were not being transformed so much as formed. But the more you read, the fewer ideas seemed as new or surprising. If you were reading generously and attentively, Thucydides or Montaigne appeared to have been already on to it, at least on psychological and sociological matters. Technological knowledge marched to a different drummer, awe-inspiring as it could also be.
William James says there are two kinds of people in the world, the once born (me), and the twice born (St. Paul). The latter can have a true conversion experience at any age, but it would be unlikely to be brought on by any nonfiction book from the past 30 years. Self-help books? If you think so, your transformation is an illusion; you have remained the idiot you were."

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