August 28, 2008

What Are We Doing Here at Cornell?

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The local television access feed of the Lincoln at Gettysburg Book Project panel discussion in Barton Hall on Sunday upset me. But before I could complete a post about the choices some students made during their first intellectual experience at Cornell, I had a conversation with a distinguished university alumnus who boasts not one, but three grandchildren currently at Cornell. He related that he had taken them out to dinner the evening before and they had all proceeded in turn to tell him that they had navigated the course selection process (not one is new to Cornell) without so much as a conversation with a faculty advisor. The alumnus-grandfather expressed disappointment with Cornell; I was thoroughly embarrassed for the university that is my intellectual home. But at least his complaint gave me an opportunity to annoy some new students and chide some colleagues all in the same blog entry.

First, to the new students: By any measure you belong to the most select group in the University’s history. You clearly excelled in secondary education and in performing on standardized tests, and you demonstrated extraordinary character and talents to merit admission. But when I tuned in to observe the Book Project panel discussion, I saw students asleep, milling about, talking on their cell phones, texting, talking and laughing with others, and what seemed to be a precious few engaged by the presentations. I gather it was uncomfortably hot in Barton. Admittedly the speakers were not rock stars or celebrities, merely highly gifted and marvelously articulate thinkers. I grant that Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg might not have gripped everyone equally (no work could). But…this was the first intellectual experience Cornell offered its new students. Unless the camerapersons were dispatched from rival institutions to capture images of disinterested Cornell students we have a problem: what are you doing here at Cornell? Our uniquely diverse institution of seven colleges means some of you are here for training in pre-professional programs. But most of you new to Cornell are ostensibly here to engage in three or four years of open ended, sustained intellectual inquiry, debate and discovery whose imaginative and creative pleasures are invaluably rich and lasting. Have you already opted out because all that matters these days is getting in and passing successfully through with degree in hand?

Now, in brief, to the faculty: for all our significant cutting edge research, the first order of our business at Cornell is the education of our students. Some of us are apparently absent from our offices, unavailable or disinterested during orientation and registration when students are thinking about their courses of study. If we fail to advise our students in conversation about their programs and engage in reflection with them about their choice of courses how can we hope to succeed in conveying the significance and value of thinking and ideas? What are we doing here at Cornell?