The Death of All Beethovens... And the Veil of Achievement
I grew up with a father characteristic of most suburban white families. I studied for the spelling bee, and took gifted courses from top universities. I prepped heavily for the SAT, I skipped a year of high school. Throughout grade school, I fought for A+'s, 110%'s, to prove I was better than everyone else. I did it partly for my parents, and partly because I took a liking to the aggressive obsession over my coursework, easy and mundane as it may have been. And when I applied to college, I had every 99th-percentile test score you could ask for, and a resume thick with achievements. And get into college I did - multiple Ivy League universities - I had my pick. The world was mine.
Fast-forward to senior year of college. Burnout, frustration, and a general lack of enthusiasm for the coursework are driving a vicious cycle of depression, fury, and frantic cramming that results in half-assed work done just well enough to get the grades needed to avoid weeks of endless argument with Dad. I'm more obsessed with playing guitar and composing music in my head than getting my homework done. "What went wrong," asks Dad?
In high school, I was driven by grade-grubbing, and early in my university "career" I was simply bubbling with excitement (as any freshman is). What changed? A psychologist would point to personal neuroses, were I not more level-headed. And dad is quick to blame it on drugs, fraternities, laziness, and "hippie ideas." But does this really have anything to do with it?
I became disillusioned, in part, because my expectations of this place were let down. People here are supposed to be enlightened, brilliant, etc., but this notion is bullshit, especially at "top universities." Sure, there are hordes of intellectually bright kids here, but I've learned over the years that intellect alone is profoundly useless. The Ivory Tower is not a source of truth or real creativity, but of delusions derived from feel-good false ideals. It's a place where workaholics are the favored breed - where the Suzy and Charlie Wongs who remain locked in the library 16 hours a day beat the curve, and take all the slots for graduate school and high-paying jobs. Anyone who wants to spend an appreciable amount of time on social activities, or has the urge to even feel alive, gets left by the wayside and labeled as "lazy." (And laziness does abound, so this judgment may not be entirely unfair. But it begs the question of whether drinking problems and poor work ethic stem from internal shortcomings or simply a dislike of the lifestyle expectations imposed by the system.)
I also lost interest because I became tired of the college process. Read, take quiz, study, take test, write paper, review, take final exam, repeat, repeat, repeat. If it's not particularly demanding, as in high school, it's an easy continuity to maintain - or if it's hard but brief, like prepping for the SAT. But after 3.5 years of endless strenuous work, this shit gets stale. My frustration was compounded by the fact that despite the workload involved, few classes went beyond scratching the surface of any given subject. The professor always covered just enough to make up an exam; the focus was never on learning for learning's sake. On top of that, the material was completely inapplicable in any real-life setting. Some will cry, "What about learning for learning's sake?" A valid ideal, but after 17 years of it, I'm ready to actually do something with myself. Instead, I'm expected to pursue a PhD program, medical school, or some other program which will eat up another 6-10 years of life before I actually have the opportunity to do something I want. Never mind that Edison and every other genius was largely self-taught, or worked under the private tutelage of a mentor. "Don't fight the system," says Dad.
My father once said that the real value of an Ivy-League education is the depth of history it can teach you. "Don't you think history's important?" he asked. "It gives people a sense of culture and understanding of their society." Well yes, of course it's important - but if history and tradition are completely irrelevant to our (unnatural) lifestyles, can we actually expect it to make a practical difference whether we learn history or not? Ivy League teachings obviously aren't saving the system from itself.
Lest readers think this I'm using this space solely to talk about myself, there is a general point to be made from this personal story (or diatribe, if you wish). When one steps back from the situation, it becomes clear that the modern system of academic competition is not a meritocracy, but a way to promote the mediocre and to impose a one-size-fits-all blanket standard. Since most course material doesn't require any real intelligence outside memorization (which anyone can do with some effort), who succeeds and who doesn't boils down to who memorizes most thoroughly. Sound familiar? It works a lot like any corporate ladder, where the guy who kisses the most ass and spends the most nights in the office gets the fattest paycheck. (Of course, this system is necessitated to some extent by the sheer number of people that exist today. It's impossible to get a real in-depth picture of every job/program applicant: you'd run out of time. But that doesn't change the fact that the system's approach doesn't really work - or that there are simply too many people on the face of the earth.)
When one views modern competition in this light, it becomes clear why there are so many skilled musicians, and yet no great composers; why so many writers are endowed with large vocabularies, yet sound clichéd and can only recycle stale ideas; why there are so many engineers but little is invented other than techie gizmos that look cool but don't really benefit anyone. And why we talk about how "kids are so smart these days," that "our technology is so impressive," that "great things lie ahead," though the outward signs say otherwise.
Our system is one where, in actuality, real genius is not favored, but instead suppressed. It's difficult to say how many might have the potential of Beethoven or Da Vinci or the Wright brothers, but one thing's for sure: they'll never reach their potential in this society. Like so many lesser souls, they'll cling to their paychecks and grades and expensive possessions as proof of self-worth, forever in fear of being a disappointment to their family and friends, forever afraid to violate the fragile foundations which they know deep down to be false - and forever in doubt that they'll ever find meaning on the path that they've chosen.
December 13, 2005
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