a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Heart of Education
On the peril of being locked in your cranium
By Wes Tooke '98
The reason I only took
two English classes at Princeton was neatly revealed to me during
the second precept of a course I took on short stories. We had been
reading James Joyce, and the instructor decided to devote the entire
precept to discussing "The Dead." The end of that story
perfectly captures loneliness, an emotion that is as general all
over Princeton as the snow in the story is general all over Ireland.
In the opening moments
of the precept I listened to a girl share her own intense reaction
to Joyce's words in a monologue as moving as any I heard during
my four years on campus, and then watched as the instructor and
class ignored her larger point and spent the next 50 minutes describing
how onomatopoeia can be a powerful "tool" in the hands
of a writer.
The tone of that precept
perfectly mimicked my other English class. A friend of mine, who
graduated many years before me, recalls a similar level of frustration.
When we read about Blake's angels, he says, we discussed metaphor
and simile and drew clever parallels to Blake's contemporaries.
But we never asked if it was possible that the angels were more
than just metaphors. Nobody ever felt comfortable enough to admit
that they had seen their own angels, or that they at least hoped
to see angels someday.
The English classes
are the easiest for me to scapegoat - probably because I now make
my living as a writer - but that tone of detached intellectualism
defined my time on campus. My image of my body when I graduated
is that of a spindly little frame trying to support a head the size
of a zeppelin. If you asked me what I thought about love, I could
cite the romantic poets and how people maximized their utility by
finding psychologically compatible mates. If you asked me about
God, I could tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the
evolution of the Catholic church in Europe or quote the most moving
passages from Pascal's struggle to find his creator. Anything I
actually knew about love or God, of course, was buried under layers
of glib rhetoric.
And I don't think that
my experience is unique. Higher education in the U.S., as currently
defined, consists of teaching students how to construct "rational"
positions. Certainly, parts of that system are immensely valuable.
A Princeton graduate should be able to defend his choice of a presidential
candidate or his decision to fire 10 employees without having to
rely upon the phrase, "I feel." Yet the more I watch the
work of the educated men and women who define public policy and
run this nation's largest companies, the more I become convinced
that it is an equally enormous handicap to spend your life trapped
in your head.
I suppose that the preceptor
who preferred to discuss onomatopoeia was concerned that allowing
any other sort of discussion would be to let the beast of subjectivity
into the room. On one level I understand his point, but after four
years at Princeton I got very tired of pretending that I had learned
everything I knew from books. Because books, like everything else
in life, only awaken when attached to authentic human experience.
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