Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

November 21, 2001:
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.

You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu