Big ideas I learned in college

Before I finally declared a major in Latin American studies I remember considering both English and history and thinking to myself that I surely wouldn’t do well enough as a history student because I was so bad at remembering dates. I was reminded of the folly of my reasoning by Michael Winerip’s statement of the most valuable lesson he’s learned from his AP American history teacher:

I have long ago forgotten the content of those lessons, but Mr. Noyes instilled in us something far more important: the understanding that history does not come from one book. While that idea has served me for a lifetime, I do not believe it is quantifiable.

Perhaps it isn’t quantifiable in the sense that it isn’t the sort of outcome that can be gauged in a multiple choice exam, but Donna Heiland gives me hope that we might be able to capture evidence of this insight by sharpening our assessment techniques.

At any rate, I am motivated to begin a list of some of the big ideas I gleaned from my college experience:

  1. My favorite one is a historian’s motto: that everything we encounter is contextual, contingent, and contested. That is, everything has an origin and a history, and the circumstances surrounding our object of inquiry are therefore always relevant; nothing is the way it is out of fate or necessity—everything is so by the accidents of history; and our understanding of concepts, events, etc. are all up for debate and negotiation. I learned this during my first semester of freshman year. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember if it was from a professor or a classmate recounting a conversation she had in class, but I spent the rest of that academic year trying to wrap my mind around those ideas, and it has served me ever since—not just in my academic work, mind you, but more importantly in the way I understand almost everything around me.
  2. It’s tough selecting just one lesson from literary studies, but i will share the broadest lesson I can think of: that a text is not a stable entity. Just typing that out makes me cringe because it will strike any half-sophisticated reader as a truism, but I’ve encountered more than enough people (both in and outside academia) for whom this is not readily obvious. The truth of this is most apparent when we consider the most widely read and debated works of all—texts such as the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Don Quijote—which continue to open themselves up to endless readings. I should note that this is also true of texts that aren’t literary in nature (the US Constitution is a case in point).
  3. The third and final lesson I will deem philosophical, but it underpins thought across so many disciplines that I consider it the metalesson of my undergraduate education: that the ground is always shifting. Once more I will harken back to my first year in college when my brain was trying.to.keep.it.together with a theory-heavy course load. It was during that dazzling year that I learned that not only what we know, but how we know are objects of inquiry (oh, epistemology, how you vexed me so). This is the source of the self-reflexivity of the humanistic and social scientific disciplines (including the history of science). At one point, in anthropology class (and talk about a discipline with troublesome origins), I became so defeated by the prospect of never truly being able to know one’s object of study that I raised my hand and asked, in essence, “So what’s the point?” The question looks offensive, but it was raised in real anguish, and it took me awhile to feel like the sands weren’t constantly shifting beneath my feet every time I tried to learn something. What helped me regain a sense of stability was to remember (from geology class!) that the ground is literally always shifting beneath our feet, but most days we can and do operate as if it were perfectly static.

So there you have a clearer picture of why I consider my first year at college such a transformative year. I can’t explain the feeling without resorting to clichés: the scales fell off my eyes, my mind caught fire, and all that. With the exception of one weird linguistics course from the Russian department, the courses I took really did speak to each other, and it gave me a strong sense that even after my poor memory would inevitably loosen its hold on all kinds of details and information, my mind would still retain what was vital.

I’m curious to hear what others consider as the Big Lessons of their college years.

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