October 12, 2021

WILK | Here Lies Learning, With Success in its Wake

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Learning became a loveless act for me by puberty, and in some circles that still makes me a late bloomer. 

This sentiment of love lost is so loud it sounds universal — It’s become a cliche to mourn the bookworm we once were in vain — but I do think condolences are owed to all the intellectuals that vanished with adolescence. Steeping in the realization that making a living necessitates schooling, and might be the end of what schooling offers, leaves little else to do but skate by. And from too young this made me a habit of doing exactly what was needed to succeed and only that. The unendingness of learning started to seem like a threat instead of a thirst that resisted quenching. Then succeeding took the backseat to staying afloat.

But this place isn’t for just staying afloat. It’s for jet-propelled water hoverboards, and then the covert uses of the technology those take. If we’re honest, nearly none of us here came just to get by.We’re in this for worlds more than that

We’re disciplined by it for twelve years at least, and in a perfect world I think school would be in part a parent too. If academia is what it has always premised itself on being, all of us entered in need of incubation. Our minds were meant to be nourished and our spirits nurtured. But academia aborts us. This womb is barren. Maybe because cultivating so many curious minds is too colossal an undertaking than it has ever been prepared for, or maybe because there is a single future it commits itself to constructing, and no one else’s can be of concern unless lest they converge with it, work to multiply it. Denied a space that fosters inquiries for a world not yet realized, rather, we “adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in [us].” Achievement blinds us from anything beyond us. So our dreams are simultaneously reduced and compounded.

Even now while our dreams are but designs, you can tell what they’ll be of service to. Involvement in the things that will bring them to fruition is typically so surface level, so aesthetic, so inconsequential. Our faces are made into billboards and the efforts afterthoughts. I wish there was more stress on what we have to share instead of having the most impressive intentions. It might help us rediscover lost love if we learned the range of things we bring to these seats. 

On the second day of the semester, I got a glimpse of this. Class introductions were a potluck, all ears ready to pry from one another’s pasts. But bearing this, admitting how much we didn’t know about what we were here for, took bravery. One student told us about a summer internship he’d had at a company you’d all recognize if I said it. He talked about its prestige and how proud it made his father – things I could relate to wanting. Until the only way for him to do his job right was by outsourcing tasks to Pakistanis he’d never meet, for pennies each. It would’ve been so easy for him to stay there. Smart, even. But, he’d realized something, so now we were together in Union Organizing.

Business is only one of countless pursuits caught in a banking model of education. There are far too many classrooms where you have to get comfortable in corners and press your ear to the walls to hear anything enlightening. Education is in the cracks of this place.

“Social justice” led me to enroll in a public policy course my sophomore year. In preparation for our first big policy memo we were practicing calculating cost-benefit analysis between new seat belts for school buses and the possibility of student deaths. The eventual memo was about conservation bins, but even in the interest of saving something there wasn’t any heart allowed, only strict guidelines to analyze the efficiency without giving any new ideas about how to stop the burning around us. Every lecture gave the impression we were encroaching on a world already dead, and the knowledge we took was meant to give us a check to survive it, and control over what gets a burial and where.

Weeks ago, a congresswoman cried on the house floor during roll call. Her humble roots and other things represent what a lot of people wish will come of change in the world. Unlike a lot of our student body, she has had to work, unglamorously, just to get by, and sits in the White House now because of the bigger dreams she studied and struggled to see manifested. But her tearful decision, whether sincere or performance of sympathy- admits something. She realizes the horrors she once missioned herself against are now accumulating by her hand. Five Cornell alum were also among the votes, whether or not any of their eyes were wet I don’t know.

It forces me to wonder if cognitive dissonance is what it takes to succeed. Or is it the fortunate avoidance of the truths that would provoke it? And between the possibilities of finishing our term here unconfronted by any of those truths, or untouched by our confrontations with them, which should scare us more?

The systems we go through disorder a desire for real learning, morph it into something potentially monstrous. We’re prone, or perhaps programmed, to forget that the world is more than just ours. It belongs to all that we try to render invisible for us to succeed in it. If all the inhumanity that upholds even our most virtuous-sounding lectures was known to us, our hands would be past shaking over our next move; I think it would lead us to paralysis. But there are lives for us to live and they can’t be put on pause. For a  few of us, this is the first time wide open space has been made for our dreams to develop, and the motivation of surviving our futures was allowed to snowball into a personal success that would only mount higher from here, But the space, I swear, can be vaster if we don’t delude ourselves into thinking our next steps have to follow our last.

I promise my fingers aren’t pointing. If you look at the lecture chair to your side you’ll see I’m a hypocrite sitting on my hands, because all of us have been robbed of answers worth raising them up, and I’m just trying hard to resist the puppeteer willing me to ace his own question. Maybe if the circumstances were different, we could traverse each other’s imaginations in search of better questions and better solutions too. Maybe we can make time for that soon.

Alecia Wilk is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Tuesday this semester.