The First Leg of a Journey | Teachers College Columbia University

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The First Leg of a Journey

1,300-plus students in TC's Fall 2011 entering class is the largest since school began keeping records
Rain notwithstanding, it seemed as though nearly all 1,300-plus students in TC’s Fall 2011 entering class – “our largest since we began keeping records, one of our most diverse, and, we all agree, the most talented in our 124-year history,” in the words of President Susan Fuhrman – turned out for the College’s orientation ceremonies on September 6th.

Held for the first time in Columbia’s Lerner Auditorium, the morning event included remarks by Fuhrman, Provost Tom James, Student Senate President Vikash Reddy and a keynote address by Marc Lamont Hill, Professor of English Education, that focused on understanding today’s youth and their cultural contexts.  

“The first leg of a journey can give anyone the jitters,” said Fuhrman, herself a TC alumna. She shared a famous anecdote about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. At age 88, Holmes was on a train and became so preoccupied with his work that when the conductor came by, he couldn’t find his ticket.  When the conductor tried to calm him, the agitated Justice spluttered, “It’s not the ticket I care about, I just want to know where I’m supposed to be going.”

Likewise, Fuhrman said, her listeners might be wondering where they, themselves, are headed. “I don’t know the answer, but I do know that you have a terrific ticket,” she said. Graduate school is “your best chance to indulge in intellectual adventure,” she told the students, and “you’ve landed in clover here at TC. Our faculty will empower your originality and help you figure out ways” to apply knowledge gained here.  There are no guarantees about jobs or one’s ultimate career path, she said, “but if you fly your explorer flag, you’ll gain knowledge, skills and experience that will position you to take your place among the leaders on the world stage.”

James said that entry into graduate school stands in sharp contrast to beginning one’s undergraduate education.  The questions you bring here” are critically important because they reflect “the yearning you have to make a contribution.”

James outlined three values he believes are essential for study at Teachers College. The first is academic integrity, because “what we do is so dependent on telling the truth.” Advancing knowledge and practice depends on “the testing of new hypotheses against countervailing evidence and a process of progressively building deeper truth and understanding to help others,” James said.  “So tell the truth, and make institutions do the same so they really help human beings.”

The second value, James said, is a commitment to lifetime learning. “We don’t just seek to stamp you with fixed skills,” he said. “Just as a doctor must keep learning,” practitioners in education, psychology and health must also to continue to grow.

“Don’t just get this degree and stop,” James said. “Always face the things you don’t understand, and try to go deeper.”

Lastly, he urged students to be mindful of TC’s history. “I’m proud that this institution came into being during an era of perhaps the greatest social dislocation the world had known,” he said, referring to the mass migration to the cities that swept the United States during the 1880s.  Much like the settlement houses of that period, TC responded to the needs of that population, James said, “celebrating the culture of the people who arrived here.”

Our current era is similar, James said – a time of mass migration, globalization and creation of new technology.  The work of TC is “to provide opportunities to human beings to grow and overcome disparities.”

Reddy, a doctoral student in education technology, opened by establishing the flavor of life at TC.

“A professor, a research assistant and a teaching assistant walk into a bar.” He paused for a beat, then added, “That’s for real –and if at the end of the first semester you haven’t done that, you’re taking the wrong classes.” Then came the joke: the same trio are each given a chance to rub a lamp and make a wish. The teaching assistant wishes to be on a beach with a margarita. The research assistant wishes to be on a boat in the Caribbean with a mojito. 

“And the professor says, ‘I’d like to see those two in my office at nine a.m. with graded papers in hand,’” Reddy said, to laughter. “Welcome to graduate school.”

Published Friday, Oct. 7, 2011