On University of Chicago’s Biggest Lesson

I learned today that intelligence is alienating, that criticism and critical thinking is the surest way to lose friends, that it acts as a prophylactic measure against developing friendships and relationships. I learned that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a college as glorious, prestigious, and engaging as the University of Chicago, and that I will be spending much of my life with individuals who went to schools without the small group discussions, punctilious focus on writing and argumentative articulation, and peer-to-peer collaboration so celebrated at U of C. Rather, I will spend much time with the blessed majority who spent their college days in lecture halls, assiduously taking notes, knowing them cold, passing tests and writing papers. And drinking heavily on weekends.

I call this group the “blessed majority” in complete honesty, un-ironically. With any luck, they’ve gone through schooling with their world largely intact. Whatever stories students told themselves about what their worlds are remain true. They have not been exposed as fiction, because the blessed have not been forced to confront these personal fairy tales.

In most of my core competencies, I am an autodidact. And although this is important, far too important, too essential to my being, to go into here, this fact explains the following.I am a big fan of iTunesU, a resource for recorded lectures and university courses–whole courses!–which I’ve digitally wandered about for ages. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve “taken” courses in philosophy, economics, art history, finance, Middle Eastern history, logic, astrophysics, cosmology, and aesthetics. My most recent conquest is a rhetoric class taught at UC Berkley, Rhetoric 10. The professor, who is not a professional academic and is perfectly successful without a PhD., said something in the first class that embedded itself deep in my brain. He said:

One day you will wake up, and you won’t believe me until you experience this. One day, you’ll wake up with this enormous feeling of vertigo. You’ll realize that nothing, nothing, in this world is certain. It is not terrifying. It is exciting. Your world will yawn and gape in all kinds of astonishing ways. It is open, and it’s free.

I listened to 30 hours of Rhetoric 10 lectures, the whole course, over a two-week time span some number of months ago–when I should have been studying for midterms. I can pinpoint the day six weeks ago when I woke up, and my world yawned in ways astonishing, exciting and a little terrifying. Since, in every thing I did, every conversation in which I engaged, I’ve systematically challenged everything. I mean everything.

But, then again, I’ve unleashed my brain occasionally for as long as I can remember. I gave it breathing room. And I learned it was carnivorous, and that it hunted its prey mercilessly.

David Foster Wallace, the closest almost anybody has come to being a “hero” of mine, said in the commencement address he gave at Kenyon College:

And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

I’m sorry, Mr. Wallace, I’m so sorry. I’ve agreed with you on so much, but on this I must simply say no. The person about whom you speak, this liberal-arts educated ideal, is not often the result of liberal arts education. Not where I’m going to school.

UChicago possesses a very peculiar anti-intellectual tradition: that of designating particularly talkative, strident students as “that kid”. And I used to harp on this designation. Privately, in close groups of friends, I’d defend the that-kid as a bastion of free-expression and general academic passion. I no longer do so. I haven’t for months. Although deep down I can sympathize with the that-kid, having the requisite cerebral weaponry to do his work, and, I must divulge, having been one throughout my early childhood, I express my displeasure at the that-kid fiercely. Because I know what he is doing.

I secretly find what they’re trying to do admirable, though their methodology is a little grating. The Socratic pedant, the gadfly is the pinnacle of infantile critical thinking. Though he fancies himself the superior intellectual, in sad fact he is deluded and sophomoric. He is marginalizing and, in so being, marginal. Even with his small peer group, he is still not at home. It is this person, whose own whirring cognitive machinery separates renders him naturally uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

I am not him. I have dedicated the past few years of my life to slowing those gears down, teaching myself to be quiet for once and to buckle down and listen and take notes during lecture instead of constantly waggling my hand in the air in a desperate attempt to get my instructors’ attention. Because the surest way to alienate yourself from others is to ask difficult questions. That sometimes there are more important things to worry about.

I’ve long joked with my friends that the most valuable skill one can take away from a University of Chicago education is the ability to genuinely forget everything one learned during the course of that education. Bring it to full stop. To stop trying to understand everything all the time, stop questioning it. To quit being ridiculous, and to finally allow oneself enough time to breathe, enough to keep telling oneself that this is water. To cut the charade of being “an intellectual.” Because, let’s be honest, nobody cares how critical your inquiry is. The blessed majority would rather be watching Glee instead, and that’s great. They can be content.

I’ve learned again to unashamedly accept certain things as truth if not fact. I can make my world stop yawning, so that I may wake up refreshed.


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