Saturday, September 20, 2008

What did I really learn in college, and what use is it?

After reading some of DFW's (David Foster Wallace) essays, I was reminded of my astonishment of his vast array of interests and passions. With some reflection, my astonishment quickly turned to a mixture of shame, curiosity, and inspiration. The inspiration hit me as I walked from my local coffee shop after chowing down on a piece of blueberry pie and a cup of white tea. Why don't I teach myself what I had supposedly learned in college? Why don't I relearn calculus, statistics, physics, chemistry, biology, and even literature? I have let my knowledge decay and die, existing only as footprints and wayward spirits in my mind.

How can i consider myself educated if I can't remember the definition of a derivative, or the laws of thermodynamics, how to reduce and oxidize basic chemical reactions, or even the significance of Thomas Mann, or yes, the Canterbury Tales and Aeschylus.

How I got Here

Lately, I had been feeling a bit lost on what I should do with my free time. I gave up a habit of playing WoW.  Playing WoW started as all entertainment and distractions start, which was simply a way to unwind, and ultimately be passive.  The allure of course, was that the game demanded attention, focus and participation.  It was these demands that gave the game the illusion that playing it wasn't a passive way to spend one's time. There was social interaction, there were tasks that need to be completed, and of course, there were jolts of reward and reputation. Ultimately though, the singular reason i played was because it was a bridge from the time i came home, to the time i could force my head on the pillow and fall into an exhausted sleep. The bridge that occupied those hours of my days were certainly enjoyable, yet, when distraction is all that i could get out of it.. well then it is time to move on.  

Why not Something Else?

There are two obvious questions. One, isn't my work fulfilling enough as it is? Why not use the time and energy more towards my work and career? Similarly, why don't I just use this time to develop or cultivate my personal relationships.

First off, I do find my job fascinating, challenging, fun and exhililarating, and do so often.  However, I had a father who, to my young eyes, seemed to throw his whole self into his work.He lived and breathed his research.  If he was not at the lab, then he was merely at home asleep on his bed, or asleep in front of the television.  I would give him books, but they were often unread, as he never seemed to have time for anything other than his research. 

One seemingly very american cultural ideal is that we are what we do.  I feared that ideal and lost of identity.  In the end, I don't want my tombstone or legacy summed up by my work or my career.  

As for my relationships.. this is a much harder question to answer.  I have no doubt that if I were  currently in a meaningful romantic relationship, or starting a family even, that i would never try this project.  In many ways, the fear of distraction, can easily be abstracted into just loneliness. On the other hand, i hope i am wrong about my prediction that a relationship or a family would prevent me from fulfilling or even conceiving of this project.  Just as i don't believe my idenity should not be summed up by my career, i also believe, that my identy shouldn't be wrapped up by my relationships with others.   It would be my hope, that even with a girlfriend/wife/children, I would still see the need to shore up my basic education and knowledge.  

The less obvious question, but equally valid, is why not try something more "normal." Don't most people in my situation go and try to learn a musical instrument? To travel? Learn to dance, or to take up a new hobby, perhaps building furniture, or scultping or bird watching?  I suppose most would, and here is the thing.. I plan on trying all of, or in part the above.  I want to learn a new language, would love to travel the world, and finally figure out if i can ever learn to create something meaningful.

And yet.. I don't feel prepared to do what "normal" people do in pursuit of cultivation.  (I use that term not in reference to "high" art such as ballet or opera, but more of a fertile vision of cultivation as in agriculture, with our identities and beings as the black, rich soil.)  One of the taglines we hear about education is that it helps us no matter what we want to do.  We may not use geometic proofs, but learning the ability to go from Axioms to Rule teach us how to think clearly.  We may not use literature outside of cocktail parties and attempts to impress women, but literary characters from Electra and Syndey Carlton gives us insights into ourselves.  So it seems like a gaping maw, a missing building block of who I am, when I have let my knowledge to decay the way i have.  And so, why not try and fix the situation, feed the soil of me, and ready it for new and interesting growths. 

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