I find myself undergoing a mid-college existential crisis as I finish what has proven to be a rather formative sophomore year here at Cornell. It is not so much a cerebral catastrophe, one marked by some bleak, emotional indifference, but rather the overwhelming curiosity one experiences when discovering the utter vastness and complexity of the world, or less loftily, our own university’s community — less L’Étranger and more the end of Boyhood. I recall a moment that occurred in one of my first lectures at Cornell, ECON 1120: Introductory Macroeconomics back in the fall of 2015, when our professor offered us a bit of sage guidance: “During your freshmen year of college, you do not know anything, but you do not know that you do not know anything. In your sophomore year of college, you realize that you do not know anything. At the end of your junior year you definitely know some things, but you do not know that you do know something. Only in your senior year do you know something and know you know something.” In my freshmen ignorance, true to form, I assumed that this advice did not apply to me. Now, at the end of year two, and after believing on several occasions that I had figured things out, I realize that I really do know nothing. What is life? Who the hell am I? Who the hell are all of you?
I have certainly been trying to ask some of these deep questions throughout the past several months, though. After spending my first three semesters in the ILR School, I have transferred to Arts and study music, among other subjects. I used to spend my academic time thinking about labor relations, but in some ironic twist of fate I am now asked to ponder more philosophical dilemmas such as the very definition of music.
Cornell’s music department obviously offers some brilliant opportunities for rehearsal and performance. It also possesses a rather innovative theory and composition sequence. However, I have come to find myself far less interested in these more mechanical processes of music, especially those of the western performative tradition, and I think my disinterest echoes the spirit of the department. Instead of thinking about “how” music is done, I think it is more intriguing to question why ordinary people in any society make or listen to music at all. The study of music need not be about conserving old habits, but rather serve as a gleaming point of access to the humanist disciplines in general.
It seems that all of the subjects within the realm of the humanities are trying to serve the same purpose, and that is to run tangent to the meaning of life in their pursuits without ever directly approaching the essence of being human; such a frontal assault is likely impossible. This, I believe, is the supreme goal of the humanities. As a music major considering, for instance, the interplay between lyrics and music on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, I am not so different from an English major studying, say, Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. We are both examining some cultural artifact in the attempt to discern why humans express themselves in the wake of a planet that is seemingly limitless in its complexity and weight.
What about music in my own life can offer some form of guidance during this time? A loaded question indeed. In the fall I developed a pretty strong affinity for Joy Division, specifically Unknown Pleasures, because I feel a profound sensitivity in Ian Curtis’ lyrics and voice. Over the course of this year I realized that I like to dance at parties; there is some cosmic inspiration in being taught how to dance, merengue, by a stranger in a dark, packed basement after midnight. So maybe I can assert that I am one to challenge the heteronormative machismo that often accompanies male identification?
If it was not for the humanities, I would likely not read so deeply into these seemingly harmless aspects of my recent life. The humanities and the type of critical thinking that they promote are profound ways to augment the dual crises of identity and existence that I and other newly turned 20-year-olds experience around this time in college. It pains me to see these disciplines strained and attacked under the weight of STEM fields, for they are also noble and imperative pursuits. I encourage everyone to listen to some music, read a favorite novel or even observe a great painting, and simply think about why it is so great. This humanistic introspection has yet to bestow upon me the meaning of life, but in realizing that I know nothing, perhaps this way I can hope to learn something.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] His column Swan’s Song ran on alternate Thursdays this semester.