October 29, 2004

Escaping Your Cornell Education

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In the exciting world we live in today, there are certainly enough issues to think about, such as: What really happened to Mary-Ellen on ABC’s Desperate Housewives? Who green-lighted Ben Affleck’s Stealing Christmas? What drugs are Teresa Heinz Kerry taking (and where can I get some)? As I enjoyed a week without prelims, I decided that what I really wanted to know is not, as you might rationally be wondering, why I occupy my mind with these seemingly irrelevant concerns instead of my schoolwork. Instead, I wanted to know why my schoolwork leaves me feeling that there are spaces in my mind that are not being utilized.

The university major system is arguably valuable. At the beginning of sophomore year I marched right over to the American Studies department, desperate to be a part of something, to ditch my randomly assigned advisor and to find something that fit a little better. At a big Ivy League university like Cornell we are forced to deal with intimidating intellectual pressure, as well as the feeling that we are just a number. But how many students do you know who have not been happy with their choices? It is not uncommon for Cornell students to choose and rechoose a major many times before graduation. Choosing a major allows us to be part of something that we hope fits, and it pairs us with a subject we feel fairly confident we can excel at. At the same time, however, it rids us of the ability to have a broad reaching education. After declaring my major, I was unable to tackle any other subject with confidence. A year of AP Bio and Calculus somehow did not seem enough to get me to take a science or math class any more difficult than “Why is the Sky Blue?” In my attempt to keep up my GPA, I sometimes feel that I have lost my intellectual prowess and ability to try new things, and I don’t think I’m alone.

One guy who seemed to be on the right track to having the answers to it all is A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs’ The Know it All: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World chronicles the Esquire editor and NPR contributor’s mission to “fill the ever-widening gaps in his Ivy League education” by reading all thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Inspired by Mr. Jacobs, I marched myself right over to Uris Library’s research section to fill the gaps in my own Ivy League education. After sifting through the first volume of the encyclopedia I found out that while I admire Jacob’s humor and stamina, there is a reason people don’t read the encyclopedia.

And then, there it was, in immaculately white and simple black block print: Emily Post’s Etiquette. Admittedly, I never took much of an interest in my Tiffany’s Table Manners, but now as a college student I find myself yearning for a book that can tell me exactly what to do in every occasion. The other impulse I had, however, and the one I found myself listening to, was to throw the book away. Part of life is about figuring it out for yourself and not knowing all the answers.

So how do you fill the gaps of an Ivy League education? And what about those questions that can’t be answered by a handbook or collection of encyclopedias? If choosing a major leaves students feeling under-utilized, and we give up on reading an entire encyclopedia, what’s the point of our Ivy League education? The answer is simple: Don’t let the fact that you’ve chosen a major define you. If you, like me, yearn to check Variety Online for box office reports to see how that Gigli: Part Deux is doing at the box office, make the time. If you can manage to keep up with your workload and check up on Page Six at the library, go ahead. Whatever your interests it’s important not to let yourself be limited by college’s academic requirements. For me, writing this column takes care of it. With that solved, now all I have to do is decide what to wear trick-or-treating.

Archived article by Logan Bromer
Sun Staff Writer