April 6, 2010

That’s Ms. Poobah to You

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Once upon a time, a long time ago — before my ancestors were running away from Cossacks, people still wore togas and the only twittering and tweeting and twatting came from small annoying birds — higher education was only for wealthy white poobahs. Said poobahs learned the exact same things: Latin and Greek, Plato and Aristotle, law and physics and how to train your dragon to whip your slaves into shape. At that ancient time, everyone was a dude-bro, although they called dude-bros “senators,” or maybe “sons of rich landowners.” I don’t know, really, my knowledge of history is crappy because I was never given a master sheet of must-know information or forced to take a class in each area of study.

Because these days, education and learning is fairly selective. Oh, we’re expected to learn world civilization and a certain amount of math and science before college, but most of that information trickled out of my head; over the years it was replaced by countless TV shows, and what’s left of my BAC limit before I’m too drunk to awkward-faux-hipster dance at Pixel. We don’t go to Columbia, where reading all of the “Western Canon” is a two year requirement; the joy of “any person, any study” is that it’s not supposed to privilege one type knowledge over any other. I like to think this is because we’re all about egalitarianism here, and are trying to fight the good fight against the existing white, western, male and wealthy power structures that are inherent within the ancient dude-bros version of learning. In truth, it’s because A.D. White and Ezra Cornell cared equally about farmin’ and learning to read good (and do other things good too), but that’s pretty important, no?

Confusing kidding aside, I’ve always been an active supporter of this egalitarian philosophy behind higher education, where post-colonial, post-structuralist thought challenged the status quo. Understanding why fungi do what they do (PLPA 201: Magical Mushrooms, Mysterious Molds), and interpreting ancient Sanskrit meditative texts are just as laudable as mastering the politics of international relations and parsing through Tolstoy and Joyce. Cornell students may fail (Western) civic literacy, but I like to believe we more than make up for it in the highly specialized knowledge other universities lack.


And while those things “everyone should know” are amorphous and perhaps arbitrary, we all have our lines. I was confronted with mine a few days back, when I learned that some fellow students had never read or seen what I consider the most seminal plays in the English language. I found myself snobbily and hypocritically ranting for hours about “the state of the American high school where people haven’t read Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire or A Raisin in the Sun” — “snobbily” because who is to say knowing Miller, Williams and Hansberry is more or less essential than anything else? And “hypocritically,” because only a few mornings previous, I had the following conversation with a friend:

Me: So … yeah, I haven’t taken a lab science class since junior year of high school.

Him: How?

Me: Well, when I went to sign up for a “real” physics class, the TA laughed me out of there …

Him: That’s douchey.

Me: Well… he had his reasons. Such as I’ve … never taken calculus and don’t really know what an integral is.

And then, readers, the metaphorical crickets chirped and actual birds twittered and tweeted in the silence (possibly in 140 characters or less).

Here’s the thing. For all that I don’t know — ancient Greek, how to build a website from scratch, what an integral really is — I feel pretty strong about the things I do know. But what’s to say that my system of knowledge, areas of academic “expertise” and the shit I’ve read makes me any more learned than you, or that reading Arthur Miller is “more important” than seeing Star Wars the whole way through?

That said, I think there are things worth knowing, and things we can’t blame our professors, advisors and educational system for not teaching us. It might be nice to have a stronger core curriculum, but let’s face it: How many of us actually read all the assigned books, anyway? Unless you’re a former professor of mine. In that case, I have read them all.


There are different types of education, most of which occurs outside the classroom. I may never learn what an integral is. And when I say I know what a wookie is, I may be lying. Truth or lie, integral or wookie, that’s on me.

Original Author: Julie Block