The Secret Syllabus, A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success* by Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham is an unconventional yet science-based analysis of what a student entering college should do, to make that endeavor worthwhile. It is entirely counter-intuitive, and even shocking. Phelan and Burnham toss the usual advice into the garbage heap, and replace it with an entirely new mythology of how one should think about, and try to achieve, success in college.
And I’m sure this is excellent advice.
I’ve been advisor to college students, directed an admissions program, and I tutor college bound high school kids, so I know something of what I speak. I found the approach taken in this recently published book to be refreshing and very much on the money. I also know Phelan and Burnham pretty well. Jay Phelan and I taught together at Harvard for years, and I was one of Terry Burnham’s PhD thesis readers. I’ve been waiting for years for them to write this book, and now that they’ve done it, I’m very happy to recommend it.
The perspective Phelan and Burnham take is in part anthropological, in part rational-economic theory based, but mostly just plain creative and innovative. How to study. How to study a language. How to be job-marketable. How to have an effective plan for your college major and coursework, instead of the usual bone-headed plan everyone else has (and so often fails at). How to get a mentor and develop a productive relationship with them. This series of dependent clauses may not make great sentences but they accurately describe what you will get out of this book.
As with their earlier work (this is not their first book), Phelan and Burnham have their magic fingers on the pulse of current culture, and fold this into an engaging and humorous writing style. I know that these two authors have been through a lot, and they’ve turned their long and diverse experience into valuable advice.
If you have a kid heading for college, or even one who has been there for a year or so, just give them this book. If you are an advisor, counselor, or just the sort of prof or high school teacher that students look to for guidance, read this book, it will make you look wise. If you are a first or second year college student and want your instructors to be more helpful to you, and want to feel better about the choices you are making, put this book on your must-have list and actually read it when you cop a copy of it.
Here’s a video of the authors talking about The Secret Syllabus. Man have they grown up!