Letter to an Undergraduate from Annabel Patterson

Advice to anyone over fifty: Shun the advice mode. Its best known model is Polonius, and we all know what happened to him. Stuck through the belly, behind an arras, without ever knowing whom he had offended. And in fact, some of his advice was pretty good, even for a Yale undergraduate today. No, I’m not going to quote it. Go and look it up!

There is some advice, notwithstanding, that I would like to give any Yale undergraduate, even though each wise saying, as wise sayings are wont, may seem to contradict one of the others.

1. Choose the difficult courses over the easy ones. This is the only time in your life when you can just LEARN for four years. Why enter a classroom to revisit something you already more or less understand? Naturally you can go on learning after you leave college, and I learn something new about books I thought I understood whenever I teach them; but nothing in your entire life can match this moment, when what John Donne called “the worst voluptuousness, which is an Hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning, and languages” is not a disease. On the contrary, it can cure you of triviality for the rest of your life.

2. Do not marry your computer. It is a heartless instrument that never sleeps, whereas you need a modicum of sleep to get through the semester in an upright posture. Do not believe that the book is obsolete. The miracle of the discovery of the codex, as we call a book with pages, is that, unlike a scroll, which is what the ancients had to manage with, one can turn with ease backwards, forwards, and backwards again. The computer returns us to the tyranny of scrolling. Moreover, much on the World Wide Web has been placed there by people no more intelligent than yourself. Sometimes they cannot even spell. If you want the aura of learning, haunt the library stacks. Open the books on both sides of the one that you came for. You may find more and better than you came for.

3. Of course, if you really want the aura of learning, you should go to the Beinecke, or get your instructor to take you. Scientists are admitted. Gaze at the central column of old books (whose glorious design feature, incidentally, was subsequently borrowed by the new British Library in London) and imagine what learning was like when those old books were produced. The glass tower stands both for protection and for openness, a special kind of accessibility. It replaces the ivory tower of elitist scholarship, which assumes that the fewer who read, the better. If Yeats, who continually wrote about towers, and lived in one for a while, had seen this modern one, he might not have written his antischolarly poem, “Ego dominus tuus.” Look that up too.

4. Whatever your major, read some poetry. You might buy yourself a copy of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor, and keep it by your bedside. You will never know what practical things a poem is capable of until you demystify it, or until you share it.

5. Do not think of Yale as a dog-eat-dog place of competition. If some of your fellow students seem smarter than you are, perhaps they are. But as in golf, and as distinct from tennis, you are not competing against them, but against yourself. Your handicap should go steadily down—or at least down—as freshman gives way to sophomore, as junior gives way to senior. If it doesn’t seem to be going down, go back to the range and practice your swing, preferably having asked your teacher for a diagnosis.

6. Be kind to your teachers. They are only human. Some of them may have new babies at home. Others, of the Polonius generation, will be forced occasionally to rely on what they learned long ago. By the end of your stay here, you will have learned how difficult it is to sustain effort over the long haul.

7. Get enough sleep. Read a newspaper. And—please—remember to fall in love.