L. Jackson Newell teaches a class of first-year Early Assurance Scholars in the Honors College. The 28 students have full-ride scholarships and “assurance” that they can attend almost any of the U’s graduate or professional schools if they graduate with at least a 3.8 GPA. Last year, the inaugural year for the program, Newell was invited to initiate a course for the students in that charter group.
FYI News: What does the course cover?
Jack Newell: For half of the course, I use elements of an Honors course I have taught for years called “What Matters Most?” My aim is to push each student to think hard about what she or he wishes to take away from the course—and larger engagement in the university and community—and apply it to how they wish to live.
FYI: Did you notice any common themes from the students?
Newell: Almost all of my students truly search for ways to live with integrity, to serve the larger good and to act with courage and compassion. The more diverse the students’ backgrounds, the more educational the experience is for everyone. Teaching continues to be my protest against the absurdities and excesses of our contemporary world. I am at war with cynicism, especially where we can afford it least, among the rising generation.
FYI: And the other half of the course?
Newell: I take my students around campus for two-hour sessions with about 10 distinguished faculty members—those who have become the best in their fields. We meet them in their laboratories, studios, or department conference rooms so the students can see them in their own venues. My task is to get the professors talking about what they do and why it means so much to them to be doing it.
FYI: What do you want to accomplish with your students?
Newell: My aim is to help the students to understand the range of possibilities that awaits them when they choose their majors and careers, and for them to sense both the passion and the exertion that must underpin excellence in any field. I also want them to see the intrinsic rewards that come from pursuing your dreams as far as they can take you, which is evident in the professors involved in this course. Imagine what a treat it is for students to get a sense of what makes them tick.
Joy in their work and in living is the common denominator among these splendid faculty members, and it can’t help but rub off on the students—and on me. If students can see healthy and diverse adult models like these all around them, they can’t help but make better choices about their own studies, careers, and lives. I just wish every student at the U could have these same opportunities.
FYI: What surprises you most about college students?
Newell: Whether they are my Honors E.A. Scholars or my low-income adult students in the Venture Course in the Humanities downtown, what surprises me is their amazing drive to learn and their joy in discovering new things—about themselves and about their world. So many people believe college students are lazy or frivolous or hedonistic or unprincipled, but my experience convinces me to the contrary. And it makes me all the more committed to give them everything I’ve got, and back them in every way I can.
Growing up, my own parents told me: “Choose the thing you love to do most and find a way to earn your living doing that. If you do, you will become the best at what you do, and you’ll make a decent living too, while being the happiest person around.” This is what I urge my students to do every year. Find your genius, and practice it with passion. The money will take care of itself if you are the best at what you do.
Jack Newell served as dean of liberal education at the U from 1974-90, then returned full time to his department (Educational Leadership & Policy) for five “enormously rewarding” years, before going to Deep Springs College where he served as president from 1995-2004. Returning to the U as professor emeritus, he’s been teaching in the Honors College and ELP (occasionally) ever since. Newell was the State of Utah’s Professor of the Year in 1991 and was awarded that same year the special rank of University Professor.