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.

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