Friday, September 24, 2010

Freedom: A Subject for More than Just a Common Read

I have recently returned from an eleven day vacation that was wonderful in part because I had such a change of pace. And while I love my normal non vacation “pace,” this change was refreshing. And one thing I did much more of was just pleasure reading—3 books in 11 days. And one of them was this recent “hot” book Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. And I would recommend it for my readers.

I would recommend it not just because it is receiving a tremendous amount of current “play” but because it is just a good read, entertaining, insightful, provocative, and an incentive to personal reflection. I would also recommend it as a potential “common read” or “summer read” for entering college students. I say this because the book is about what I have always believed is the number one personal challenge for entering college students: the problem of freedom, freedom being an environmental characteristic which great colleges and universities give students a massive amount of, and more than many can handle.

As I have written in a previous blog, it was not until my own first college year, when I was made to read as a form of punishment, a book about the burden of freedom, the difficulties many people have in using it wisely, that I realized what an issue it was for me personally, and how it was shaping my own transition to college.

For me, this is an example of the lifetime impact of college. From that first year on, the question of the choices I make with my freedom is one I constantly reflect on, revisit, rethink, and also cherish. I have been so fortunate in my life and career to have been granted so much freedom, not only by my society, but also especially by my career employer, the University of South Carolina. Were it not for that, it, them, I would not have been empowered to create the first-year experience movement.

Anyway, this book, Freedom, is about the role of freedom on many levels: in an extended family—the choices they make; about how freedom is exercised by some college students who are characters of interest; the uses our country made of its freedom during the two Bush presidencies and how those choices affected this particular family and the country at large and more examples too. I believe that most entering college students could handle this work and see some of themselves and their families in it.

Over four decades of work in the academy, I have certainly learned more and more about what are the variables that either promote and/or impeded college student success. But my thesis that the use of freedom is the number one developmental challenge is still my number one choice for THE influencer. Freedom, of course, is all about purpose: the purposes of our students, families, institutions, and country. And it takes a great college education to empower and further free our students personally and intellectually to help them see the synergy between all those different manifestations of freedom and its associated choices—and obligations. So I recommend Freedom to you and your students.

-John  Gardner