Advice from the archives

Dr. Harry Huntt Ransom

Editor’s note: Between 1935 and 1971, Harry Ransom served as a UT professor, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University president, and the chancellor of the UT System. His column offering advice below was published originally in the August 9, 1957 issue of The Daily Texan, at the beginning of that school year when Ransom was a dean.

Presumably the pursuit of ideas is one of the major undertakings of a university freshman. It is a highly personal undertaking, as unpredictable in its opportunities as it is in its rewards. A canny freshman will begin by finding out what his university provides him in regular course and what he will have to get on his own. The measure of his educability the first years will be the amount of sense he makes out of the university’s provision and the amount of intellectual responsibility he is willing to shoulder independently.

No other period in life provides so much time for the free pursuit of ideas as the hours and days and weeks and years of undergraduate study. In no other context of life is so much machinery manned to assist the individual or so many experts engaged on his behalf. Nor will ideas presented to him ever again be quite so new, so accessible, so varied — not even if he goes into one of the “creative” occupations or learned professions.

Against these advantages certain disadvantages of the university should be counted. By sheer abundance of fare the college experience can sicken. Overstuffed geese are starvelings compared with undergraduates who must take five or six disciplines at a clip, week in and week out. Heaven help those who diet uncritically. A snippet of Plato, a dash of quantum mechanics, a sonnet from one class, a battle from another, a political theory (for which the sonnet-writer went to jail), a philosophy lecture (reverting to Plato or the bit of physics) — all this may produce a straight-A average but no abiding sense.

Very early in his first year, an alert student finds means to relate and judge those ideas which his university experience brings him. To each of its free citizens, however differently constituted and however variously motivated, the university presents certain opportunities in common.

First in potential importance are the library and the laboratory. To the freshman who is appalled by the number of its holdings (“One million books are too many for one person to read”), the library still remains the likeliest source of ideas. Some students storm whole bookstacks as if they were a towered city. Others take reading assignments like carefully prescribed finger-exercises. In either case, to put books to use (from picture books to mathematical tables) is the surest way to turn the university into a field of ideas. To learn something about the method of laboratories is to provide at least a partial assurance against mere gullibility about ideas — including, of course, those in books.

Nor should listening be neglected. Because some lecturers have turned the arts into an unendurable bore, some listeners damn all lecturing. Yet lecturers in classes (and “visiting lecturers” at the university) are often the source of the critical student’s most usable ideas. Discriminating freshmen will keep their ears open — however often those ears may be dulled or disappointed by mere classroom routines or academic cock-crowing.

Good listening will also come, of course, outside large educational assemblies. It will come in the small class, in private conference, in highly impromptu (and sometimes imprudent) tack upon big problems by a seminar, in coffee conversation, in the idle hour. Every great university trusts its competent students to wide search, knowing that each student is educated, in part, by accident.

Thus the briefest glance will assure the freshman that in the matter of mere supply the university will not fail him. Yet in the midst of loud noises made by old ideas like the dignity of man and newer ones like negative matter, we often avoid the conditions most fertile for the growth of ideas — aloneness and silence. A student may choose his courses, pore over his texts, listen to his teachers, exchange opinions with his contemporaries, and fill in the sands of library cards to good effect but still miss the main chance for developing ideas significant to him. If he is to complete the pursuit of ideas, he will get off by himself, shut up, and think. Too much higher education today neglects that lowly exercise.

— Dr. Harry Huntt Ransom, (1908-1976)