Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Sometimes, you just need a self-affirmation

I've heard it said that high school English is specifically designed to make students hate literature. Having gone through four years of it and earned relatively good marks all the way through, I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. If you're not interested in English in the first place than it's soul-crushingly boring, but that's true of just about any subject: high school math class didn't make me hate math. Math made me hate math. As a dorky, lit-inclined sixteen-year-old, high school English gave me a creative outlet for my various feelings on the literature we were reading. It also gave me a bitchin' excuse to read Lady Macbeth's part out loud when we covered Mackers. Admittedly my creative writing course did briefly make me hate writing when my teacher advised me to think of myself as a conduit rather than a writer and let the words "flow through you to the page," but I got over that quickly enough. I still wanted to write, I just didn't want to write that. And at the end of four years, I left with a diploma and my faith in literature relatively unshaken.

No, high school English did not make me hate literature.

College English, on the other hand . . .

The way we've structured higher education in general is pretty much designed for maximum pain, regardless of what you're studying. You spend four years, minimum, cramming information into your brain at a rate that you can't possibly process, and promptly forget about it during the next block of classes because you have new information to cram in there. You squeeze yourself through a meat grinder of papers, tests, and evaluations with the goal of "get good marks" rather than "learn." At the end of those four years, you have the option of either launching yourself into the workforce with the knowledge you've forgotten, or go on to incur even more debt and forgotten facts by going on to graduate school. Congratulations! You have successfully navigated through our culture's rite of adulthood. As a prize, you get student loans!

Our culture's attitude towards grades is- pardon the language- really fucked up in general. There's a narrative that says your grades (usually equated with your intelligence, though the two actually have relatively little to do with each other) mean you're a better person, a smarter person, a more patient and hardworking and generally worthwhile person. Why? Because you can explain algebra? Because you understand the literary significance of the scarlet letter? These things are your abilities, and you have the right to be proud of them. But they don't make you a good person, or a kind person, or a person who does good in the world. Hell, even all of those things don't make you a worthwhile human being. You're a worthwhile human being because you're you. You bring something new to the table simply by virtue of being an individual. If what you want to bring is pumping gas or working in a bookstore or staying home with your kids, congratulations. You're making it. You're making it because you are doing something that changes the world, however small. You think pumping gas doesn't change the world? That person who needed to get to work might disagree. Working in a bookstore? You may have just sold a book that will inspire the reader to get up and keep going for another day. Staying at home with the kids? You're raising the next generation, and God knows we need more kind, caring people in the world.

A friend of mine, Hannah Johnson, has a book out called Know Not Why. I'd recommend it because it's an excellent book in general, but there's one passage in particular that I go back to when I'm feeling down about my purpose in life:

It's like she's thanking me for something way bigger: getting her kitten out of a tree, helping her granny across the street, I dunno. It's funny, how stuff that seems so small can be so important. I guess there's no real way of telling how much something can mean to somebody else. Maybe even this job is sort of important.

A few years ago, I worked at a museum where part of my job was to help pick up artifacts from donors. The first trip I went on was to a woman's house, where she told us all about the problems she was having with her son and her landlord. As we were driving away, my boss explained to me that the real purpose of the job wasn't picking up the artifacts: it was letting the donors talk it out for as long as they needed to. Sometimes they just needed a listening ear. Of all the things I learned in that job- cataloguing, restoration, museum curation- that's the lesson I've kept with me the longest. Sometimes it really isn't about the letters you have after your name, or whether or not you can explain Godard's King Lear. It's about whether you're happy with what you're putting out into the world. If you are, I think you're doing okay.

No comments:

Post a Comment