Choosing Crisis

One of the earliest German tales of the Arthurian romances, Erec, was written by Hartmann Von Aue in the late 1100s, and it tells the story of a young knight who sets out on a series of adventures in order to gain a wife, a reputation, and a rightful place in society. Erec begins well and has the best of intentions. After suffering a grievous insult, he travels from the comforts of Arthur's court to the castle of Duke Imain, where he defeats Iders in combat, thereby avenging the insult, obtaining the lovely Enite, and gaining his first victory as a knight. He subsequently marries Enite and distinguishes himself in a tournament prior to journeying home and assuming kingship of his father's lands. There, however, things start to disintegrate. Erec abandons knightly virtues and instead of investing his time in contributing to society, he spends his days lazing in bed with his beautiful young wife. The crime of which von Aue convicts Erec is that of comfort.

What's so bad about comfort? Few of us would deny that we like our luxuries, however small they may be. But the problem isn't just indulgence: it's getting to a place where you're so comfortable being where you are that you forget to grow. 

Forget? Well, yes. Growth is not an automatic process. It is the very intentional result of learning from the potent moments, those times in our lives when we are brought to a crisis point of personal identity (to borrow from Jerome Miller's description in The Way of Suffering), and then acting in accordance with those revelations. We always have a choice in the matter. We can take the easy road and remain more or less static, maybe even regress a bit. Or we can choose the harder climb, which requires not just a once-and-done decision, but also a moment-by-moment commitment to change.

In von Aue's story, Erec recognizes this or, well, something like it (I'm over-simplifying here, okay). He dons his armor, takes his wife, and sneaks away from his castle to enter the forest at night, the place where, in chivalric literature, adventures take place. Throughout the journey thus commenced, Erec denies himself the comforts he permitted previously. He and Enite travel through the night without food, avoid the homes of noblemen where they might dine and rest, encounter dangers and injury, and travel far. Erec refuses even to share a bed with his wife, so committed is he to correcting his error.

Erec follows a typical medieval storyline, in that he swings between extremes before reaching the virtuous state of moderation that von Aue repeatedly praises throughout the story. While such moderation is every bit as important as von Aue states, Erec's journey does suggest an additional point: that growth can be accelerated by intentional discipline. 

We don't always face crises in our lives, not the really big ones anyway. There are only so many loved ones we can lose or big decisions we can make, and there are a lot of "everydays" in between, during which we must somehow not regress into old ways of thinking or acting. How do we motivate growth? Discipline is the process whereby we introduce a myriad of miniature crises into our lives. By determining to do that which we might desire, for our own comfort, not to do, we create a moment of crisis. We are forced to make a choice that we might otherwise have easily avoided. Discipline asks the question over and over, while growth is the sum of consistent, positive responses to that which is asked of us. 

Ultimately, Erec is able to return home and be re-integrated into society. He proves to be a just and respectable ruler, who never yields to the excess of comfort again. And that's the period on the sentence: that not all comfort is bad. It only becomes a problem when it's too much of a good thing. The key to living well is the willingness to dwell in a tension between seeming polarities and to know when to sway to the one side and when to sway to the other. It isn't easy, but when it is done well, it is well worth the doing. And perhaps with time that which once required conscious commitment may become easier to say yes to. At which point: "further up and further in," my friend, further up and further in.


Learning to Live or Living to Learn?

For a very long time, education has been a cornerstone of the typical middle- and upper-class life trajectories. High school students who opt out of higher education are told - with a brick worth of statistics to the head - that they will not make as much money and are perhaps missing out on one of the most important life experiences.

I am a student because I want to be. I have always enjoyed learning new things and exploring new ideas. The world is a beautiful mystery opening itself up to be understood. But I'm not entirely sympathetic to the idea that college is for everyone. In fact, I am not infrequently left wondering whether college is even for me. Let me explain.

This semester, I am taking five classes: Intermediate German, Medieval German Literature, Marxism, History of Modern Philosophy, and Language and Thought. In other words, my classes span foreign language, literature, more-or-less political and economic philosophy, general philosophy (dealing primarily thus far with epistemology and ontology), and psychology. Due to the nature of the school I attend, for each class except the foreign language course, I am required to read from a wide selection of scholarly articles on the subject matter. This means that in the course of a homework day, I'm going from a gender analysis of the Nibelungenlied to three papers on learning-from-observation vs. cross-situational methods of language acquisition, and none of these papers is at an introductory level. Neither of these topics is uninteresting to me (in fact, I'm intensely fascinated by the degree to which Kriemhild and Brunhild are labelled as she-devils or otherwise mocked for transgressing traditional female gender roles), but at the end of the day, I find myself deeply unsatisfied with this system.

Such an educational structure presupposes the path of higher education: that individuals become extremely well-versed in an increasingly limited field, such that they know a great deal about practically nothing. Dr. Jarosinski once used the German term, "der Hauptidiot," to describe such people. It translates roughly to someone who, as just described, knows a lot, but it is about such a small topic that they have basically become stupidly smart. Their knowledge is all depth without breadth. 

Perhaps it reflects a deficiency on my part, but I find it incredibly difficult to make the transition between reading in one field of study to another. The specialized language requires different vocabularies and even simultaneous retention of two different glosses on the same word and/or concept. I'm pretty sure that when Sterling-Hellenbrand talks about the self-other dialectic, she doesn't have quite the same understanding as Franz Fanon or Emmanuel Lèvinas. In a sense, prior knowledge of other subjects, because it is so tenuously grasped only through these relatively inaccessible readings, becomes a hindrance to the study of a repeated concept in a different context. 

The only way to cope with such a burden is either to embrace the challenge (with limited support mechanisms in place to ensure students' success) or to confine oneself, as the academic paradigm goes, to study in a very small area. The first option is what I would call learning to live, that is, receiving a comprehensive education in order to appreciate a wide variety of topics, acquire diverse problem-solving skills, and connect with the maximum number of different people from all walks of life. The second option is what I call living to learn, whereby your primary purpose is to acquire more knowledge about a limited field, using a small but fully master array of skills that do not necessarily translate well to other areas. Unfortunately, the college educational model seems to favor the latter situation.

At a surface level, it aggravates me, because I want to learn about a great number of different things. Whenever people asked me in high school what my favorite subject was, I had serious difficulty responding. Each different subject brought its own unique perspective to bear on the world, and while math might seem dry to the casual observer, the process of pattern recognition and the logical underpinnings are as lively and fascinating as a discussion of the Monroe Doctrine ever could be. I don't want to specialize, and everything within me resists it. 

At a fundamental level, this sort of partitioning denies the interdependence of all subject areas. If you want to become a really, really good psycholinguist, you are almost forced to abandon your casual interest in political philosophy. If, on the other hand, you've devoted yourself to political philosophy, you probably won't have the full flowering of appreciation for Sartre's analysis of time in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. There is a lack of appreciation, not because the individual has not the intelligence necessary to comprehend - most of my classmates are probably smarter than I am - but because he has no room left in his mind to entertain this entirely isolated web of new ideas. 

In the process of attaining to the heights, we struggle long and hard to gain inches, while below us spread the lowlands, rolling, green, and composed of hundreds of square miles of easily accessible and beautiful territory. Why must we fight for a peak, when a brisk, invigorating hike up the foothills will do just as well?

With the facilitation of technology, many areas have made leaps and bounds, not only in the scientific fields, but also in humanistic studies, and while I know there will always be some people who love and pursue their one thing only, it seems to me that this technology-fueled exponential growth has given those people power against the rest of us, who just want to love and pursue a little bit of everything.

And now that I've reached new heights of grandiloquence and flexed my analytical and argumentative muscles, I'm going to undermine my own argument by noting that I do go to one of the top research universities in the world, so duh, there is going to be an emphasis on depth in one field instead of breadth throughout many. But it does seem rather unfortunate that if one wants to be challenged properly and well, one can only do so at an institution that, by its very nature, is not favorable to the mental health and desires of the student.