The Perennial Freshman

Dr. Will D. Carpenter delivered the following talk in 1994 at Mississippi State University. With schools across the country soon reconvening for the fall semester, we thought it would be an ideal time to print it here.

The Perennial Freshman

Will D. Carpenter

Phi Kappa Phi Banquet

Friday, 18 November 1994


Thank you for the opportunity to share this special occasion with you. I appreciate the invitation extended to me by Dr. Graham. My goals and my standards are represented by you — the achievers — and your families and friends. Even more so, because you’ve made your mark at Mississippi State University, an institution dear to my family for a little less than a century. The selfish compliment I can pay you is that thank goodness, I didn’t have to compete with you.

You are not here by chance — or, by winning with some lottery ticket. Although a little good luck is always welcomed, such as, the questions on the exam were the ones you were prepared to answer, and, there were no questions from the area covered the day you missed class. However, with grade point average, as is the case most of the time, the harder you work, the luckier you get.

You are here because of your commitment, because of your good study habits, because of a thirst for knowledge, because of a desire to be the best you can be, because of a competitive spirit, and indeed, because of the support of family and friends. You have demonstrated that capability of meeting the challenging opportunity to learn, to understand — to truly be educated. For those of you who are being recognized tonight, you have an achievement in common, based on the factors which I have just listed.

However, you arrived at this critical point in your lives under different circumstances. For some, because of above-average capability, you coasted through high school because of a lack of challenge in your coursework and/or lack of competition. You arrived at Mississippi State and found the competition tougher, and the studies more demanding. You had to learn how to play in a new, more difficult game, plus the added disadvantage of many more distractions.

For a smaller group, you are still coasting and still able to meet the challenge without full commitment on your part. Sadly, a number of your friends who share your approach to life are falling by the wayside and will never know the thrill and sense of achievement in having pushed themselves to the limits of their mental abilities. If this applies to you, you’d better get in gear and stop coasting. Use it, or lose it!!

For still another group, you, for any one of several reasons, learned early on that for you to achieve your goals, a sense of duty to yourself is required, along with an understanding of what you must do, and a willingness to put in the “sweat equity” to do it.

You have all earned the right to be here. You are the “crème de la crème.” That’s tonight! Now, tell me about tomorrow, next month, next year, and the rest of your life. In other words, what have you done for me lately? That will be the question asked tomorrow.

The announcement of this banquet said that there are juniors, seniors, and graduates here, with an invitation to outstanding sophomores. No freshmen! And, that is as it should be. After all, they are where you were last year, or two, or more years ago. Their learning curve is almost vertical, and they are in the process of proving to themselves and the world what they are made of.

Freshman. The very word indicates lack of experience, someone in a new environment, lacking sophistication.

You, on the other hand, are no longer freshman. You are in the upper classes, with a well-deserved sense of pride and accomplishment. Now, let me give you a different insight. I’ll share with you my experiences. I can compress ten years of my learning accumulation into a couple of minutes. No use in you taking as long as I did. I was kinda’ like a Clinton fox. You all know how smart a Clinton fox is. He chewed off three legs before he found out which one was in the trap.

I’m going to tell you about the times I’ve been a freshman. When I graduated from grammar school in Moorhead, for a short time I had the thought that, having gained most of the world’s knowledge, I could get a job and then see about high school. After a discussion with my parents, that idea had a lifespan of much less than 24 hours.

As a freshman in high school, I realized — also in less than 24 hours — there were a few bits of knowledge I had overlooked, and, further, I was at the bottom of the heap. As a high school senior, there was no doubt (in my mind) that I was sophisticated, knowledgeable, and certainly ready for life’s challenges — in Moorhead, no less!

Once again, as a college freshman, I sank to lower depths and learned again that there were lots of things I didn’t know. As a college senior, the self-confidence came flooding back.

But in rapid succession, I became a freshman three times. First, I became research assistant at the Delta Branch Experiment Station, and everyone was either smarter or knew more or both. There was just a three-month interlude before fulfilling my ROTC obligations as a smart junior Second Lieutenant in Artillery, and you can’t be much more of a freshman than that. Again, my learning curve was very steep.

By the time I had received my Captain’s bars, I was not tempted to fall into the know-it-all state of mind, as I was continually exposed to officers and men in the 7th Infantry Division in Korea who were mentors to me. It was as a new graduate student at Purdue at a time when things looked so bleak to me that I had no legs left in the trap.

Reduced to fewest words: You should always strive to be a freshman, and most of you are ahead of me in that deduction.

It was definitely in graduate school where the shock was the greatest. Competing with the graduates of Harvard, Yale, Ohio State, and Cal Tech, and, exposed to the brilliance of faculty on a daily basis who were members of the National Academy of Science, the light finally dawned.

In hindsight, it is evident that being thrust into a new environment, taking on new responsibilities, accepting new challenges, is almost guaranteed to bring about continued intellectual growth and capability. Usually, emotional and ethical growth and maturity follow.

One measure of success, a determination of progress, a way to enhance one’s capability to broaden one’s horizons, and to learn new skills is to become a freshman again, and again, and again.

Sometimes, becoming a freshman is not by choice, somewhat comparable to my entry into high school. You are placed in a new assignment; you have to take a job outside of your skill and experience base. Maybe you lose your job! But, most of the time you do have a choice about being a freshman again. It can be in politics, in local service organizations, in your religion, and in your recreation and hobbies, as well as your chosen profession.

With this as a prelude, I will cover the criteria of being a successful, perennial freshman. I don’t have a long list of key points. In fact, I have only two: A recognition that there is a never-ending need for the learning process, and a love of learning and the various implications of that love.

One underlying basis for learning is to understand all of the different ways you can learn. Formal, academic situations are obviously vital to you now, but you must grasp other ways as well.

A few examples of other types of learning with which all of you can identify:

  1. I never hired a Ph.D. who didn’t learn a great deal from the lab technician who had been in the lab 5-25 years. Things found in no textbook or professional journal. Use other people’s knowledge and wisdom.
  2. Every field researcher I knew was successful because several farmer-cooperators served as their mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  3. The political/regulatory debates with which I have been involved were successfully resolved in the environmental arena based on teaching and learning on both sides — insights, history, and various implications. Place a value on history.
  4. As a negative example, some of the brightest scientists, both in academia and industry that I have known turned off their learning switch not long after completing their academic career. Doomed to mediocrity. Never, never stop learning.
  5. Time after time, in universities, industry, and government, decisions are made not to move people into bigger, better jobs because they failed to demonstrate an ability to learn from their peers, their subordinates, their customers, etc.
  1. Address apprehension
  2. Selection-Drain on time

Today, a functional, productive citizen cannot meet the challenges of understanding and taking action on issues that impact all of us without having this appreciation for learning. As issues become more complex, events move more quickly, and balanced, objective sources of information become scarcer, you must find ways of getting the information you need — both in quality and quantity. At no other time in our history has the capacity and ability of learning been so significant.

If you took the poorest, most inept instructor you had in any of your classes and think about how difficult it was to get what you needed from the course, it was child’s play compared to getting what you need in the public arena. Therefore, first of all, given that there is no single source of information that is sufficient, then you must go to multiple sources.

For those who rely on TV, any or all channels, and/or a single daily newspaper, are guaranteed to be poorly informed. Your source is compared to:

  1. Marathon vs. one-mile walk
  2. Sugar water vs. balanced meal

They may write or say what you want to hear, or with what you agree, but that is not sufficient.

My recipe, then, is two daily newspapers with different political philosophies. Let me use some examples outside of Mississippi. If you’re in the St. Louis area and you read the Post-Dispatch, then you need to balance that left-wing approach with the conservative Wall Street Journal. If you listen to Dan Rather or Sam Donaldson, then you need to hear the opposite side from Rush Limbaugh.

One of the more appalling comments I’ve heard was from a friend at another university who said, “I’m so busy, I just base my opinions on whatever Time magazine says.” No disrespect to Time, but if you’re going to use that approach, you may as well pick the National Inquirer or the Village Voice.

My point is that the learning process has to be ingrained into your life. You can and will become a more complete person. Incidentally, Francis Bacon, a few hundred years ago said, “Reading makes the complete person, debate a ready person, and writing makes an exact person.” Still true today!

Extending intellectual self-discipline to areas other than your studies will not happen by accident or default. You must make a conscious effort to reduce it to a habit. Furthermore, this is not a chore, an assignment, or a task. There are fun things, hobbies, relaxation, and the enjoyment of learning itself.

These examples are enjoyable to me but also help me to grow intellectually — or give me the opportunity to do so. There are hundreds of other things, ranging from music, to wood crafting, to writing that can do it for you. Just make sure you grasp the learning aspects as well as the pleasure of them.

You may think that I am proposing this so that you may continue to enjoy intellectual growth. Let me give you some reasons which may be more appealing to you.

This world, our country, this university, and most segments of our society are in a zero-sum game. In other words, if you want to do something in one place, you stop doing something in another place. It applies to resources, markets, jobs — you name it. There are some pleasant exceptions by industry, geography, and institutions, but they are indeed exceptions.

This has significant impact on you and the jobs and opportunities you would like to have. Your competition is not just the others in your class, other students at MSU, or students at other Mississippi institutions. Your competition, more and more, is worldwide. Students in Seoul, Hong Kong, Cairo, New Delhi, Brussels and Sao Paulo are wholly committed to winning the game. Some of you may be thinking, “Not me! I’m going to stay in Mississippi, and a) teach; b) farm; c) run a small business, or d) get a job in the government.” A boxer once said of his opponent, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” You will have to compete.

The well-being of all of our institutions, as well as of individuals will depend on whether we perform in a superior manner. You will be faced with competition on an international level to a degree that my generation never dreamed.

In the past, the institutions of this state and individuals used the right yardsticks by which to measure progress and accomplishments. They just did not use enough different yardsticks to measure how we were doing. It is no longer sufficient to be able to say we’re doing better than last year or the last decade, or, we’re doing better than anyone else in the state or better than Arkansas, Louisiana, or Alabama. Not that such progress is not good — it is. We must measure ourselves and our institutions against the broader community where we exist. It may be tough, and it may not be fair, but we all know that the world is not fair — and never will be.

If you are to give yourself the greatest opportunity to reach your full potential, to achieve those goals that you are capable of, then you must recognize that the best way to lay the foundation of success is to seek opportunities of being a perennial freshman.

I close my remarks by congratulating you again for your achievement. More important than a recognition of what you have done is that it is a reliable indicator of what you can do and what you can be.






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