Issue August 11, 2010

Good old golden rule days

As the days grow shorter and cooler by degrees, so increaseth the glossy Sunday advertisements of painfully happy and fashionable children shilling for Levi’s, Nike and Trapper Keeper (which, along with the personal organizer, utterly failed in their tasks of making me organized — I’d like my money back, please).

Something still happens to my stomach in August, and it’s not butterflies. On the contrary, a sensation distinctly different from the peaceful, reflective wonder experienced in chance encounters with butterflies comes over me when I’m reminded of going back to school. It’s roughly equivalent to a couple of small, coke-addled squids fighting each other in my guts, spraying black ink on everything in sight, and rending at my insides with their huge sucker arms and freakish beaks.

Will this incessant late-summer fretting never cease?

“There are other things to feel weird about now,” I tell myself. “Grown-up things like why you can’t afford a house and the untimely end of TV’s greatest, most humane crime drama ‘The Wire,’ just to name two. You don’t have homework to do, it’s unlikely anyone is going to stuff you into a trash can tomorrow, and for the most part, nuns don’t even wear habits anymore. For Chrissake, stop worrying. You don’t have to go to school.”

Fair enough. But I sympathize with the kids, tweens and husky young pseudo-scholars of uncertain trajectory all the same.

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself:

What are we training our children and young adults for, ideally and practically? What essential lessons do we, as a culture, wish to impress upon the youth? Do we even have ideals and/or values that we can agree upon long enough to string together in a cohesive manner?

As I’ve been considering these questions, I’ve thinking about the Enlightenment and how intolerably boring it seemed in school. Some combination of my disposition and the curriculum kept me from understanding how relevant that material is to the concepts of learning and human understanding as a whole.

Why was it so difficult to see how the scientific and cultural revolution of Reason is a direct allegory for the importance of a thoughtful and broad education?

I wish someone could have helped me understand before I became an adult that Descartes, Bacon, Newton, etc. were the prototypical punks who intentionally and completely smashed everything in the established order and set their culture on a path out of the marshes of complacency and idiocy. Where did that path lead? Who’s got the map? Are we lost?

For my part, I would’ve appreciated it if, at some point in my educational career, I understood just what the fuck I was doing there and what we were hoping to achieve on my parents’ and other taxpayers’ dimes. Some understanding of the foundational principles and goals behind my education might have been helpful.

Did I end up in college for the sole purpose of landing a job more profitable than the ones I’d be eligible for if I’d slept all day and played music until dawn like I wanted to? If so, why didn’t someone tell me to get the hell out of the English Department and move to the I.T. building? Were we hoping to foster a mind strong enough to engage in the allegedly crucial and continuous dialogue between past and present? The generational discourse with our intellectual predecessors about our place in the universe? Is anybody even hiring for that position anymore? Do you get dental?

Assisting me with these existential queries were my student advisers who were, more often than not, just other clueless students. A paradox that, along with my gleeful acceptance of Cardinal basketball’s enormous budget as gospel necessity, even a 500-level Logic course could not untie.

There’s a lot to be said for presenting young minds with raw materials and allowing them to collate and connect them at their own pace. It is, in fact, one of the most exciting elements of learning when our neurons, stretched to near breaking tension, correlate seemingly disparate ideas. This, I’ve come to understand, is the purpose of a liberal arts education. In the end, whether the individual and cultural effort is salvational or completely pointless seems to lie in some discreet golden ratio of intellectual prowess and financial solvency.

And you wondered what algebra was good for.