April 23, 2012

Skip Class; Learn Something

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As the semester draws to a close, I look back and try to take stock of what I’ve learned this year. I wander deeper and deeper into the dark, strange swamp of academia; I hear my words twist themselves into incomprehensible jargon; I feel my head fill up with — well, whatever this stuff is that’s filling up my head. This place increasingly feels like a game unto itself, an elitist club separated from the real world as much by its irrelevance as by its inaccessibility. These doubts have increasingly driven me off-campus in search of an education.

I don’t want this to seem like a wholesale condemnation of the education I’m receiving at Cornell. My professors are always giving me shiny new concepts with which to poke the world, and for that I am grateful. But this Ivory Tower does a really good job at divorcing the “knowledge” it produces from the world that its knowledge supposedly describes.

Take, for example, a lecture given a couple weeks ago by guest lecturer James C. Scott. If he had given his lecture in non-academic English, it would probably have gone something like this:

Social change has pretty much never been achieved in this country without some hard-core agitation, usually violent. We like to focus on the non-violent movements, but historically speaking, events like riots really, really matter. Without violent expressions of rage by the oppressed, Scott argued, the oppressor tends to keep oppressing.

If he had said those words in his lecture, the Q+A could have been wonderfully contentious. Scott offered a strong and troubling challenge to accepted pacifist doctrine. We could have had real conversations about the real world. But we didn’t. The lecture was so wrapped up in the academic code that Scott’s message was softened and made non-threatening. That’s right: Through the magic of academia, he made riots seem soft and non-threatening. I sat in the audience decoding the lecture, learning how to reproduce the code so that my lectures, too, could one day mean nothing.

It’s not fair to simply blame the professors, though. As I said, professors give us concepts with which to poke the world, and it is arguably our job to go out and do the poking. If we’re actually passionate about what we’re learning (and we are passionate about what we’re learning, right guys? Right?), then our leisure time should be spent, at least in part, playing with what we’ve learned, using our education to converse about the real world.

Call me naïve, but as an incoming freshman, I actually imagined that I would find this sort of meaningful intellectual discourse at Cornell. I imagined that on weekends, people would hang out and have intelligent and informed conversations about things that matter. Within the first couple months of freshman year, I came to understand that the Cornell student body, like the broader American public, is dominated by an intensely anti-intellectual culture.

A wall of apathy stands between schoolwork and leisure time, and most Cornell students greet any attempt to mix the two with active hostility. There are definitely Cornell students out there who are passionate about what they learn and would love to talk about it, but cultural spaces within which that kind of conversation can happen are few and far between on the Cornell campus, since we’ve trained each other to believe that fun necessitates intoxication and loud music.

Intellectual discourse outside of class isn’t impossible here, but it’s definitely not mainstream. To look at what most of us do with most of our weekends, you’d think we’re trying as hard as we can to forget the week. We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for this playground, and apparently most of us care so little about what we study that we’ll only talk about it, only think about it, when coerced by an authority figure.

So come Monday, we lock ourselves into rooms where people with letters after their names spoon-feed us what passes for knowledge, and we practice vomiting it up for the next person down the line. Maybe occasionally we go out and do “research,” whereby chunks of the real world are translated into incomprehensible academic jibberish and added to our hoard of “knowledge,” i.e. the library. Sitting in the stacks on the seventh floor of Olin, I feel like a dragon atop a massive pile of jealously guarded treasure.

All that being said, I’ve learned a lot this year. For all I object to the hierarchical, encoded, self-referential nature of academia, I love college, I respect many of my professors and some of my classes really have helped me more fully understand the world I live in. Somewhere between Cornell’s dual cultures of useless hyper-intellectualism and useless anti-intellectualism, there is real knowledge on this hill.

But as long as that knowledge stays on the hill, it is nonsense. The moments of the past year that have most transformed me, as a student, as an activist, as a human, have not come in lecture halls, but in diners and in forests and in jail and, perhaps most importantly, in public spaces. I’ve been reminded, time and time again, of what should be obvious: If I want to understand the world around me, I need to get the hell off campus and start having good conversations with the people around me. Every once in a while, this means skipping class to learn something.

Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore