Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Chasm

They're not like us.

When I was in college, my professor assigned a book.  I read it, and from the first page -- my God, from the preface -- I realized that this was the most important thing I had ever read up to that point.  The preface was one page long.  It blew open my mind in a way I can't describe.  I wanted to think about it, write about it, build my bloody life around it.  The professor hadn't assigned anything but a class discussion, so I sat down and I wrote a ten page essay about that preface.  It wasn't so much an essay as an attempt at making up my own scripture.  It was terrible.  I hope it's lost, even though I posted it to the internet.  Fortunately, this was gopher days. 

Sound familiar?  They're not like us.

A junior in college, I read a poem translated from the Spanish.  I had taken Spanish in high school, so I went to the library and found the poem in the original, and got a dictionary, and sat down and learned the vocabulary so that I could read the poem in the original with the original meter and rhyme and assonance.  I wanted to feel it the way the author wrote it, without the condom of a translator in the way. 

They're not like us.

I was a senior in college taking a philosophy class to round out my gen eds.  There was a guy in the front row, a gorgeous black-haired guy with pecs and biceps and straight teeth and a badboy leather jacket.  But one day the professor mentioned the Existentialists and I stopped looking at that hot guy and started thinking about whether my life was authentic, and realized it wasn't -- I was living in bad faith.  I realized I had to change my life, right then, right there.  I asked the guy out after class.  He laughed at me, but I went home feeling so fucking free you can't imagine it.  I thought I might float away, no longer bound to the gravity of the earth.  I sat up all night and I read the rest of my philosophy textbook from cover to cover over the next two days. 

They're not like us.

They're not all like us.

Some of them might be like us. 

Maybe.

12 comments:

  1. As a freshman Business major in a non-major Biology course, I was so turned on by the Genetics chapter I changed my major. Went to the science library and took out about 12 large Genetics texts, brought them back to my dorm room, and genuinely attempted to read them. They are not like us!

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  2. No, they are not like us, but they are very much like many people I knew when I was in high school, or elementary school.

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  3. This. Yes.

    As a senior, I heard a snippet of Dante's Inferno read in the Medieval Italian. It haunted me. I begged my way into an upper division Italian lit class devoted solely to Inferno. I neither spoke nor read Italian at the beginning. I was getting the hang of it by the end.

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  4. I, too, have a hard time relating to students who aren't excited by the economic problems of the late Roman Empire, the metaphysical conundrum of Cartesian skepticism, or the despairing originality of Eliot's verse. That said, I seem to get them far better than some of my colleagues. As I've noted before, I was a TERRIBLE undergrad. So no matter how they lie about dead relatives, slack off on assignments, or even sleep during class, I've done worse, and frequently. I guess this gives me some sympathy for them, but it also gives me something else - hope. Hope that if I could be simultaneously the worst kind of student and yet still genuinely interested in the material, maybe I can take a bad student and still strike a spark.

    I get one or two each semester, and - so far - that's enough.

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    1. Thank you, Wylodmayer. I was feeling quite inadequate in the face of all these prodigies. I was a mediocre undergrad in an easy major, well-versed in methods of procrastination, and far more passionate about mastering Black Knight and Haunted House* than about reading Plutarch in the original.

      But I did read what was assigned (always in translation). And it never occurred to me to ask for an extension, argue for a better grade, or blame the professor for course work scheduled before or after a break. When I had something due just before a big concert (and man, did we have great concerts: Bob Marley! Bonnie Raitt with Taj Mahal! Talking Heads! Zappa!), I might curse myself for having procrastinated, but it never occurred to me to curse the proffie.

      So that's where the chasm is for me.

      *Black Knight and Haunted House were killer pinball games with Magna-Save AND Multi-Ball. Black Knight, a double-decker, taunted one in nasty French. Haunted House was even better, a triple-decker where the lower deck was inclined backwards. Total mechanical juggling madness.

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  5. You could argue that they never were like us--in any generation. Most are there to get the piece of paper that functions as the key to unlock the door to an adult job. A few--like us--were transmogrified by something we came across in the course of our education. How many of us started college thinking "I want to be a proffie!" No, we came across a teacher or a text that totally changed us in some way, and we set our feet on this path. Not for the faint of heart...

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  6. In most ways, BurntChrome is right, though I suspect that the relative proportion of 'intellectual romantics' (since the romantic draw of acquiring knowledge is basically what is being described) has declined in recent decades. This decline could be linked to the general explosion of college populations, drawing in people who are otherwise indifferent to higher learning, to the economic shift in neoliberalism making education a transaction rather than a pursuit, and broadly cultural shifts.

    Nevertheless, it really isn't a matter of whether the current student population is fundamentally different from past generations. It's a matter that they ARE fundamentally different from us, we poor souls who have voluntarily opted for the life of the mind. This is the central tragedy of college as it exists now. I can't understand my students' crass materialism, their cynical self-absorption, their cavalier disregard for decency and respect, and they likewise cannot understand the position I occupy. And I'm young! So this is clearly not only a generational divide.

    When I went to college, I read all my assignments seriously and with interest. I read extensively beyond the boundaries of class syllabi. I attempted Hegel in my freshman year, for god's sake. I was also enamored of Eliot, much as Wylodmayer. Camus, Dostoevsky, Plato, Virgil, etc, as well. The fact is that this choice of lifestyle isn't just different from the inclinations of most of the general populace, it is resolutely alien. My students, my family, and people I happen to meet, cannot manage to fathom why I think history and philosophy are important and relevant at the same time as they immerse themselves in reality TV, the latest in electronic gadgetry, idle gossip, and sports teams. Not to dismiss popular entertainment, as I have my own irrational attachments to teams and television shows, but if my life were nothing but that? Good lord, I don't know how I'd live.

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    1. My, my. I need to avoid commenting when grading stacks of exams. A tad high on the sturm und drang.

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    2. Not at all. Well said, fellow alien.

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  7. I have a few who are like me, but they tend to be our majors who plan to teach.

    My GE students: there is no species recognition there!

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  8. I got really into writing a paper (on something by T.S. Eliot, I can't remember quite what), so much so that I blew by the deadline (without asking for an extension; I don't think I knew such things were possible). I spent most of the weekend binge-writing and editing, and, when I handed it to the TA on Monday, I felt really good about the paper, convinced that I'd figured out the topic about which I was writing (which, interestingly I don't recall; I just recall being really into wrestling with it). The TA didn't deduct points for lateness, but I got a B+ on the paper. I was mildly disappointed that it wasn't an A, but only mildly, since I'd really enjoyed the experience of writing itself. That was what mattered. I'm not sure about my fellow undergrads., since I didn't grade their papers (though I do know that some of them retrieved and checked blue book exams, and negotiated with professors over those and other grades in a way that never occurred to me), but I definitely know that even the undergrads at my grad school (a place just about as fancy as my very-fancy undergrad school) weren't like me. I sometimes think I'm a bit too interior-focused (not so helpful when one is supposed to be communicating with an audience, of whatever description), but enjoying a task for itself, rather than for someone else's rating of it, does have its rewards.

    The much sadder way in which my students are not like me as an undergrad: they don't have the time to spend a weekend working on a paper, because they're too busy working for money to pay their tuition. I worry that I assign so much less work (reading, writing, everything) than I was assigned, but/and I'm also aware that my students wouldn't have time to do it (and I, having so many students, wouldn't have time to deal with the work produced).

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