April 15, 2015

BYRNE | Skimming the Surface

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My roommate is teaching me how to swim. When I say that to people, they mostly respond incredulously, “You don’t know how to swim?!” The truth is that I do, just on an extremely cursory level. As in, I passed my swim test, but probably couldn’t successfully complete more than those three lengths of the pool. As in, I haven’t quite mastered the art of breathing, in air or in water, and frequently feel like I’m drowning when I do happen to find myself in a swimming situation.

I grew up in a lake community, and from basically birth until fifth grade, every summer I was forced to take swim lessons. My sister, because she complained constantly and refused to get in the water at many of said lessons, was made to take supplemental lessons at the local Y, so that she could attain the swimming proficiency necessary for my mother to read a book on a beach blanket instead of constantly watching us at the water’s edge. I, on the other hand, quietly went about my swim lesson business, completely what was required of me and nothing more. Because the lessons were usually taught by local teenagers, who wanted to be there perhaps even less than my 10-year-old self did, we spent many of the lessons treading water for what seemed like hours, as they chatted on the docks about whatever mystical nonsense teenagers discuss.

This is all just to say that I am perfectly proficient at not drowning, but the finer elements of swimming escape me. So, I am trying to learn.

As the date of my graduation too rapidly approaches, I’ve been thinking about what Cornell has taught me. In many cases, these lessons are real and profound. However, in many other cases, I have learned, as I did in my elementary school swimming lessons, how to do just enough to get by.

When I was a high school senior, looking forward to my future at college, I truly believed that I would become, if not an expert, extremely knowledgeable in one field. College seemed like the time to specialize, to learn deeply rather than broadly, to move toward expertise.  Instead, I have learned how to start studying the day before a test and still get an A. I have learned which classes and which professors require participation and attendance, and which read directly from the textbook during lecture. I have mastered this environment, while mastering shockingly little actual content. The other day, I was talking to my friend, an English major, who expressed the same sentiment. She thought she’d be reading all of the classics of modern literature, leaving Cornell with a complete and total background in her field. Instead, the past four years were full of late nights finishing essays that could have been better if done at 4pm rather than 4am, discussion sections pretending to have read the chapters assigned for that week, entire papers written on books never completely read.

When I studied abroad in Paris, I took a film course, and everyone in my class was a film major. In the university system there, students only take classes in their major, so each person in the course was a sophomore studying film, and had taken all film classes, with all film majors, for the past two years. They had watched every film we discussed in class, whereas I had only seen or even heard of a couple. They could point out the style of certain directors, cinematographers, actors, from a three-minute clip. But when I talked to them about what I was studying, or anything else — theatre, history, biology — they had almost nothing to contribute.

So, while the past four years have been challenging, mentally taxing years, during which I actually did a significantly lower portion of my readings than I will readily admit to anyone, I have learned so broadly. I took a philosophy class on religion, some theatre classes, a few anthropology ones, some math, some human development. I will be the first to admit that today, I could not pass a test in any of these topics if my life depended on it. But still, at one point I could have. And more than the content of any of these courses, I was exposed to so many different ways of thinking and communicating.

Different professors and students in different disciplines solve problems in different ways, think in different patterns, and even write papers in drastically different styles. It has been a pleasure to be a part of so many of these thought processes, even in a small way, and I don’t regret that I learned so broadly: depth will come. For now, against all of my expectations, I might have received a liberal arts education.