College Matters: Things learned before college

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, June 9, 2022 - 2:30pm

Long before the internet and Facebook, and somewhere around the age of 18, we were pretty smart. We knew things. There was certainty. The world was flat. Cars were fun. Ice cream tasted good. There were only a few TV channels. People were kind. They had manners. Younger siblings were still annoying. The news seemed real.

There were very formative places where we learned social behaviors, such as the church, or grandparents’ homes. We also learned things at our friends’ homes and school, and from our parents or coaches.

In Life’s Little Instruction Book, written by H. Jackson Brown, there are many lessons shared through simple sentences. Examples from Volume I include:

  • Say thank you a lot.
  • Say please a lot.
  • Be the first to say hello.
  • Be forgiving of yourself and others.

These are just four sentences out of more than 1,500 in three volumes. They seem so simple to say, yet at times so difficult to do.

As university leaders, we tend to make many assumptions about people, students, leaders, and our world. For example, we can assume students are ready to learn and generally know how to from their high school experience. We can assume that people are well mannered and want to practice the “golden rule.” We can also assume that people want to enjoy their colleagues in the workplace and to have engaging conversations. These and many other assumptions drive the university experiences of not only employees, but also students and alumni.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, we have more than 50 major courses of study and more than 1,000 different classes. We can teach people to explore the animal and plant life found in a redwood canopy. We can help people become world class artists, scientists, teachers, entrepreneurs, and more. Still, fundamental to all this learning remains the simplicity of the lessons that H. Jackson Brown describes.

Following are other stories and lessons learned from both of us. Many of these might not be found in any of the Brown volumes.

  • When I was a young child, my parents imparted a number of important life lessons. The first was, “be kind.” Although I can recall many longer speeches from my parents, those two words stuck out. If a relative was at the house a bit too long and I was ready for them to go and begin to try to hurry the evening, my grandmother would look over and say “be kind.” The sentiment would be echoed by my mother. If a neighbor showed up a bit too late in the evening but needed counsel or advice from my parents, I would often be bothered. It might mean turning off the living room television when I wanted to see something during my precious TV time, but my parents had a mission to help the friend or neighbor who sought their perspective and insight. Television was not as important as friendship.
  • When someone offers you something, you should say “thank you.” On more than one occasion, as a child and later as a parent, I didn’t say it, and my parents would repeat once again, “Now what do you say…” Of course, that was my cue to then do what I should have remembered to do, and that was to say “thank you.”
  • “Do right and right will follow you.” Grandma used to say that. And it is a simple truth. Work really hard to do the right thing. This doesn’t require perfection or greatness. But it implies the mandate to always give an earnest try to do the right thing. This especially matters when there is a disagreement or an argument. Oftentimes, especially as a child, the instinctive response is to get loud or brash; or even to fight to prove being right. These are the moments when my grandmother’s guidance has the most meaning. Treat people the right way and you will always see it return.
  • “A broken clock is correct at least twice a day.” You just have to have enough sense to look at the right moment. My father often spoke these words to imply there’s always a lesson to be learned. Today, my father’s words often echo in my ears and help me learn to listen to people rather than to ignore them because I don’t agree. I think my father really meant for us to see the humanity in people.
  • One of the thoughts from my mother that has stuck with me since childhood was, “You don’t have to holler to be heard.” Well, as a child, I believed this was simply her telling us to stop making so much noise. I realize today there was a greater simplicity in my mother’s comment. Talk to people. Hear their ideas and perspectives. Listen to their stories. And don’t always assume the worst. Launching into a battle prior to a conversation is never healthy. It’s really important to not assume the worst. We get much further talking then we do yelling, and we get even further listening than we do talking.
  • Long ago the best time of the day centered around graham crackers. After a few hours of lessons, the teacher would announce the time had come for graham crackers and milk. The classroom would fill with excitement as we “shared” graham crackers with our classmates while drinking a small pint sized carton of milk. We would sit in a circle and share stories, laugh, and have fun with each other before a short nap afterwards.

Yes, we know we can teach people many things. We also know that some of the best lessons we have learned had nothing to do with college. Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr. is the President of Cal Poly Humboldt. Dr. Jason Meriwether is the former Vice President for Enrollment Management at Cal Poly Humboldt.