On a surface level, it sounded like everything that the conceited, snooty, wannabe intellectual in me thought I wanted at a high achieving liberal arts institution: a wide array of different material, classical works, art, literature and engaged discussion between young, vibrant minds. In truth, Freshman Studies did for me what it promised. I did, indeed, learn how to write and think like a real academic. What constituted decent bullshit in high school was quickly called out and put to rest. I learned how to read closely, write in the margins of books—a sinful practice that I intend to quit when the term ends—and be a reasonable contributor, at least to some extent, in a conversation about a larger, more intricate world. All of this happened during my first few months as a halfway independent, functioning human being. I’ve learned as much about myself as a freshman as I have about anything in Freshman Studies. In that sense, it was much like the actual study of the freshman specimen, which seemed fitting. In any school, the first term of any class may feel like a large freshman study experiment, but at the Midwestern haven that is Lawrence, it is given a name and a parameter for existence—meetings on Monday night at a time that used to be my bedtime.
So really, I learned how to read poetry and write a decent paper. For everything I bargained for in moving across the country to attend Lawrence, that was worth at least something. But what was Freshman Studies really getting at?
There is, of course, as my professor mentioned on multiple occasions, an overall prevailing theme in Freshman Studies. There is a reason why the works were ultimately chosen, and it’s here that Freshman Studies suddenly made me feel as far away from home as I was, centered in largely progressive rhetoric. In fact, Freshman Studies has seemingly less to do with academic pursuits than with social-political teachings. If there is one theme that Freshman studies is built on, it’s a finger pointing at an institutionalized society with much too many shortcomings. Natasha Trethewey’s collection Native Guard largely centers around institutionalized racism. Plato’s Republic seems painfully outdated, and as the large student lecture appropriately pointed out, lost in translation along the way. Plato serves to present a curious academic vehicle, the Socratic Method, in it’s early stages, but then builds an entire society void of free choice—rather totalitarian, based on twisted, contradictory argumentation and ultimately condemning democracy. Why we still study it in an academic environment as prestigious as Lawrence University is befuddling. Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus seems to point fingers at society for turning our backs on the suffering of our fellow man, as if Freshman Studies warns us, too, to quit working so hard and care. Along similar lines, Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power does plenty to point out the flaws of capitalism, especially in the West, and especially in a colonialist America, and also to remind students of their dangerous, perhaps even unstable power as a consumer. Finally, Fun Home has plenty of lesbian sex, but also has plenty of rhetoric tying Catholics to sex with minors.
All of this is not just to stand on some pedestal of middle class, rural conservatism and condemn Freshman Studies as a progressivist, anti-American rhetoric. Freshman Studies essentially does what it sets out to do, and, granted students come in with at least a relatively open mind and read most of the works assigned, there is heaps of valuable information. After all, consumerism is a real thing, and the long history of consumerist behavior and sugar is fascinating, to say the least; Trethewey’s story is a much deeper tale of grief and very important forgotten history; Fun Home is as much a story about family and the binding powers of literature as it is about anything else and Breugel made lots of butt jokes in his paintings—any freshman who couldn’t appreciate that on a Monday morning should have just skipped class. All of this is to say that it’s easy to reap the benefits of Freshman Studies and it has value as an academic tool. It delivers on its promise as the cornerstone of a prestigious liberal arts education. But it is worth asking, and critically analyzing (with all these newly acquired skills), whether or not Freshmen Studies too closely borders the line between academia and large scale political and social rhetoric with an agenda.