Seven deadly sins: Vices of the mind

Sometimes the biggest transgression of college life happens in a classroom.

Published March 3, 1999 1:48PM (EST)

I ventured to take my first graduate level course as a sophomore in
college. My schedule was already overloaded with other classes, but I
decided that I needed to learn some philosophy while I had the chance. Before I knew it, I had agreed to give a class presentation on "The Critique of Pure Reason" in two weeks time. I had never even heard of Immanuel Kant.

A few days later, I found the book in the library and sat down to read
it ... or, should I say, to try to read it. For six hours, I sat in a
cubicle going over and over the ideas of a priori and a
posteriori, noumena and phenomena. I would have
understood nothing at all if it had not been for another equally important
book, the dictionary.

I continued to wrestle with the ominous text night after night, trying to
pierce the significance of the recondite language. Yet for every step I
made, I felt loss of ground in other areas. As the smallest increment of
illumination would come, my sense of self would diminish to the same
degree. Pressured by the upcoming report, I tried to read on, but soon
gave up. Was this book telling me what I thought it was? Why did I feel so
overwhelmed by the ideas?

Frustrated, I visited the professor in his office. Since I had mostly given
up on actually understanding Kant, I explained that the Critique was giving me personal problems. What does it mean we have no access to objective reality? Is this Kant really saying the world is mere appearance? Is that all I am?

The professor sat listening calmly. After a few moments, he said: "The Greeks thought people should not study philosophy until they have reached middle age." Then he turned and continued to work at his desk.

My presentation ended in utter disaster. I stammered on about illusion and reality, the class soon realized I had no idea what Kant had labored to explain. And I had bored them to tears (I suppose Kant is boring anyway, but I certainly had not helped matters). After class, I apologized to the professor for my ignorance and stated that perhaps it was in everyone's best interest for
me to drop the class since I was clearly too under-cultured to grasp the
philosophical issues. "Everyone's best interest but your own," he
replied. In these hopeful and challenging words, I found the inspiration to accept my intellectual defeat and complete the seminar.

Since then I have come to see just how drastically that class
and the professor changed my life. I never felt born for
intellectual circles, and a class on the history of philosophy from Kant
to Derrida seemed as frivolous as TV game shows. However, as
my sense of the "real" had slipped, so too had my limitations. My interest
sparked, I voraciously pursued studies in philosophy, psychoanalysis and
critical theory to catch up with all I had missed. Against the wishes of
my parents, I changed my major from business to cultural and religious
studies and never looked back.

The ivory tower has many faces. Some perceive it as a battleground for "fruitless" ideas on metaphysics and speculative science. Others see it as
a steppingstone to the "real world." Still others view it as an elitist
and even colonialist institution. The dictionary goes so far as to define
it as a "place of mental withdrawal from reality ... used as a symbol of
escapism." Never, though, have I heard the ivory tower described in the
way I experienced it.

I grew up within the conservative climate of North Carolina,
where intellectual exercises and the desire for knowledge were discouraged as
trivial and even sinful vanities. If this ideal of ignorance was not
enough to produce disdain for an in-depth understanding of the world, then 12 years of North Carolina public education sufficed. While growing up, I remember the motto of my (and other) parents being "Thank God for Mississippi" -- the state that saved our public school system from being ranked last.

By treating my education as a way to hone my mind and cultivate my intellect (rather than as a space of self-advancement in "practical" affairs), I was made to feel as though I had betrayed my culture. When relatives and high school friends, learned of my major, they were worried for my future. "What kind of work can you get with that degree?" they asked. Less sympathetically, one now-former friend insisted on referring to me as a "fancy lad"; a relative branded me as a "wannabe philosopher."

But both the concern and resentment originated from the same anti-intellectual source. If I was lucky enough to attend a prestigious university, why then should I waste this valuable opportunity on something so impractical and frivolous as a liberal arts degree? In their eyes, I was taking a major risk. To make matters worse, my childhood friends and family saw my interest in theory as deeply antisocial. In our small Southern town, where duty to the community was so highly valued, my interest in theory was seen as a way of putting on airs and a surrender to vile individualism.

But once I had tasted what the university had to offer, I could not go back. College brought me worlds I had never encountered, knowledge I had never imagined. It was not simply a hotbed of ideas, impassioned debates and rhetorical arguments, it was the place where I broke the shell of my childhood and joined the world.

Far from being a tool of escapism, higher education prepared me for a lifetime of learning and reflection. In a word, college liberated me. I would even go so far as to say I owe my courage to academia. In many respects, I categorize my university experience as the ideal of democratic education. Because I had access to it, it accessed a new part of me -- and changed the rest of me forever.

All too often, the "pretentious" and "pedantic" deliberations in academia
eclipse its positive attributes (which are already ignored by a society that remains wary of critical thinking). But as sure as I exist -- even if only as a Kantian figment -- liberation can and does come from ideas. Amid all the bitter babble of the ivory tower, sometimes those words make a picture that transforms us. As Nietzsche once wrote: "Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall."

By C.K. McCabe

C.K. McCabe is a recent graduate living in New York City.


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