Legion. An amalgamated journal.

Ourselves, under observation

Are we too busy studying in the mirror?

April’s coughing its last, which means it’s final paper season: that time of late-night crowds in library reading rooms, traffic spikes to JSTOR, and clever colon-cleaved titles. We’ll concatenate what we’ve learned into neat ten-to-twelve page essays, double spaced with 1.25-inch margins, thereby proving that we’ve gotten more out of our education than some amusing margin doodles.

In a number of my classes, the allowances for final paper topics have been quite generous. Take something vaguely related to the scope of the course, and explore it. Be creative, the professors have begged. Write on a topic you’re passionate about.

And what we seem to be passionate about, more than anything else, is ourselves. Given the chance to explore, our minds don’t turn to exotic cultures or esoteric minutiae. They turn to the mirror, to the things which we perform ourselves. In just the course of this semester’s paper cycle, I’ve seen a member of the crew team write about crew, a gay student write about gay imagery, a New Yorker write about New York, a future banker write about Harvard investment culture, and a Latino wite about the establishment of Latino identity—along with numerous other variations of the identity-as-academic-topic trope. Social Studies, with its enormous range of thesis possibilities, is notorious for this sort of thing. I read one thesis written a few years ago in which the student’s own father was one of the primary historical sources. So we end up with a lot of academic work situated somewhere uncomfortably between the genuine ethnographic gaze and a LiveJournal.

I suppose the old chestnut about ‘writing about what you know’ has some sense to it. But a major part of what it means to get a liberal education—the most important part, in my opinion—is stretching our moral imaginations to encompass ideas, situations, and identities which are unfamiliar to us. Nobody reads Prometheus Bound because they just had a liver transplant and are seeking to reaffirm the identity of that experience. People read it because it’s a commentary on universalities, or at least particular moral ideas which gesture at universalities.

I’m not holding myself exempt from this. I’m writing a thesis about rural studies, which is at least in part impelled by my experience growing up in New Hampshire (though I’m a wannabe yokel at best). I wrote one paper this semester on the cultural myth-space of LEGO sets, and another about telemark skiing. I alpine ski and don’t know how to telemark ski, and my work on LEGOs was much more based on semiotic analysis than on my own experience, but I’d be lying if I were to say that these topics weren’t at least partially motivated by the reflections of myself that I saw in them.

Still, I think the inclination to consider ourselves the central object of study is something we’ve got to be cautious of when constructing our philosophies of education. The historian Tony Judt said to the New York Times that the modern university is “much more like a supermarket — kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.”

The common criticism, of course, is that the ‘canon’ (in whatever form it might take) is primarily a chronicle of the achievements and ideas of white Western males. This is, I suppose, true to a degree, but an increasing effort is being made in working towards an integrationist canon. What’s more important, though, is that I don’t think anyone (with the possible exception of Chris Lacaria) relates to the canonical works at an identity-based level. That is, I feel as much of a cultural observer reading Aeschylus as I do reading about Trobriand Islanders.

Self-examination is, of course, a crucial part of any intellectual development. But we’ve got to take measures to ensure that we don’t become academic Narcissuses, turned away from anything that doesn’t “speak” to us at the level of our identity. The bulk of learning is about conceptualizing a view of the world which is unchained from identity, that is, one which is flexible enough and abstract enough to be morally useful to all of humanity.

Garrett Dash Nelson

April 30th, 2008 at 11:11 pm

But perhaps you disagree

One response so far

  • [ # ] Darius WeilMay 4, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Hmmm… Comments turned on. Does this mean you’re looking for a response? I’ll write soon.