January 22, 2018

KANKANHALLI | I Never Learn

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What do a green circle, a blue square and a yellow triangle all have in common? You might recognize these humble shapes by their sturdier aliases: Open, Closed, Wait List. Student Center’s three beloved icons, occupying hardly a few pixels on screen, command quite a few fates. In my experience, they share a mandate to gamble recklessly with my intellectual journey. They taunt me, as if saying “it would be a shame if you accrued massive debt to attend Cornell and didn’t glean a single practical thing from your stay, huh?”

Yeah, it would be. Hypothetically.

If my opening wasn’t explicit enough, the immediate problem is this: my spring 2018 schedule is a sizzling hot mess. I’m enrolled in classes that are total outliers, I’m waitlisted in classes that I desperately need, and chances are I’m not even aware of the end-all be-all classes that meet five requirements at once. Your schedule is probably messy too, and so is everyone else’s, so let’s elevate ourselves to a higher plane of lamentation.

Fussing over the logistics of schedules serves as a portal to some larger concerns, which, truthfully, would be better off dormant, because I don’t think a fix is likely or possible. Now, I’m worried that I’m not learning anything at all, in school or otherwise. Why am I even trying to take these classes? Why aren’t they the slightest bit cohesive? Why does extrapolating a professional title from my coursework feel like a scam? Why are my mental filing cabinets more comparable to a porous sponge than anything concrete?

Sure, nobody knows it all, and that’s comforting. Sure, learning is a process, and we’re all chasing information that combats the mystery in our worlds. Lots of classes promise high knowledge yields that counter my claims of scant learning. Organic Chemistry is one of them — I’m told students emerge with the formula to reverse global warming and supreme authority on mixed drinks. Functional Programming too — did you know programming languages can be lazy, just like humans? Economics of Development, of course — a step-by-step guide to resolving poverty. Clearly, there’s a small sphere of worthwhile courses that impacts daily life, contributes to character arcs and shapes society, but I haven’t enrolled in many of these mythical courses thus far. (Coincidence? Strategy? You decide.)

Potentially, the observed elusiveness of a fulfilling course is linked to the age-old quarrel between viable and less viable career tracks. Maybe a course in the College of Engineering just feels more constructive than a humanities course. That isn’t the way it should be, but sometimes that is the way it is.

Regardless of the utility offered by a course, I wonder how to retain information I’m exposed to, employ it in conversation and channel it towards meaningful outcomes. Sadly, in a jumble of mismatched and floating commitments, knowledge becomes temporary. The task of aggregating enough stable information to someday be an expert is daunting. Then, even if I were to excel at passive information absorption and retention, it would pale in comparison to generating new, useful information, as researchers often do. Ah, it’s a beautiful spiral of doubt and uncertainty.

The obligation to learn through coursework is only the beginning of a constant movement to accumulate intelligence and awareness. Aptly dubbed the Information Age, our period in history is defined by its scholastic bounty. We live with infinite sources of information. Ironically, the inescapable presence of information perpetuates a sort of ignorance. Now, immersed in staggering densities of previously latent information, it’s easy to feel less guilty, less accountable for neglecting retrieval.

Life is kind enough to chip in from time to time with its valuable, albeit jarring, lessons, which feel like a tiny step towards wisdom. And the internet’s here to stay — that lightens the burden a little bit too. Still, I don’t know a lot more today than I did yesterday, or even a month or a year ago. Apart from the occasional facts I gather by clicking on Google Doodles (when I can summon the curiosity and will to digress) or chatting with friends, it seems like the graph of my overall information acquisition has plateaued.

But, if you zoom out far enough, everything’s alright – I definitely know a lot more than I did on the day I was born. So, hey, there’s time, and maybe I am learning after all.

Priya Kankanhalli is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pkankanhalli@cornellsun.com. Matters of Fact appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.