Ancient secrets for university success

Hippocrates offers students seven timeless truths

Recently I was reading a very old book, John Cotta’s Short Discovery (1612), and I came across a list, attributed to the ancient physician Hippocrates, of the things necessary for serious, advanced learning. I was particularly struck by the fact that though Hippocrates lived nearly two and a half millenia ago, his list still constitutes good advice for anyone who wants to make the most of a university education today. Hippocrates’ list is as follows: nature, precept, fit place for study, study, institution, industry, and time.

Nature, in this case, refers to the nature of the student. Before investing all the time and money and effort that university education requires, you should ask yourself if you are cut out for it. Do you really want to go? Are you really prepared for the long hours of work? Would you rather be doing something else? I often hear people lament that “people think everyone should go to university.” I don’t know what people they’re talking about. Not anyone who teaches at a university, that’s for sure. We know that lots of people should have thought twice.

Precept means that once one decides to undertake serious studies, one must accept that some of the basic things about higher education are actually true. It really will be harder than high school. Your professors really won’t track you down to make sure you’re getting your work done. Lots of people really do fail university courses. Don’t wait until experience proves these things to you, because by then it may be too late.

The importance of a fit place for study cannot be overemphasized. When you choose a place to live, don’t just judge it on the basis of the social opportunities it provides; ask yourself, where are you going to work in this place? Is it going to be quiet enough for you to get that final Sociology paper done?

If your living arrangements don’t allow for a fit place for study, find a place that does. Libraries are a good, if obvious, choice, but keep your eyes out for reading rooms, student commons, quiet coffee shops or any other place where people will leave you alone and where you can concentrate. You will never do your best work next to a puking roommate or blaring death metal.

Study seems obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me how few people see the connection between being a student and studying. If readings are assigned, read them. If papers come with instructions, follow them. If your professor has office hours, go and ask questions. When an exam is coming up, study.

Institution here refers to everything you’ve learned before university, and this is one where, to some extent, the die has already been cast. But though, as I suggested earlier, you can’t expect university to be like high school, don’t forget what you learned in high school either. Education is a ladder to be climbed and each step takes you that much higher.

Industry means hard and sustained work. Go to every class. Stay up late if you have to. Get up early if you have to. Make them kick you out of the library. No matter what they tell you, university is not a time to have a balanced life. It’s a time to learn as much as you can because you will, in all likelihood, not be back any time soon.

Time is perhaps the most important of all, because without it, none of the other things will matter. So make sure you have the time to devote to your studies. Sometimes students complain that they deserved a better grade or more consideration because they didn’t have the time to do the work that was expected. I feel for such students, but ultimately, if you don’t have the time to do the work that a course requires, you don’t have time to take that course.

This reality can mean hard choices, no doubt. You might not be able to play on that team, or go to those parties, or have that job. You might have to wait till your kids are older or until your health is better. You might have to go part time. Whatever you do, though, don’t imagine you can do it without putting the time in.

Hippocates’ list is heartening to me because it reminds me that, for all the talk these days about how education must change to meet the needs of the modern world, the fundamental things still apply. Learning is not easy.

It never was.

Todd Pettigrew teaches English at Cape Breton University. Follow him: @ToddPettigrew