Education without purpose means we might still have learned nothing

Graphic by Adam Wolfe | The Oswegonian

Writing this now, I can feel a dull pain in my lower back. I started a yoga routine this morning, and whatever an asana is, it’s hell on my spine. This I will blame on my education at Oswego State, so close to its end. If I see a chiropractor, then you better believe I’m sending the bill straight to President Stanley.

I’m trying to find in this yoga what I have not found in any classroom or professor’s office. I’m trying to find a sense of meaning or transcendent purpose, the pearl for which I have already paid a great price (or at least taken out loans to that effect). Mostly what I’m finding is that I’m not as flexible as I was when I was [insert age above fetal here].

There’s a question I’m ruminating. It is this: When I graduate, will I be more or less intelligent than when I arrived? Surprisingly, every time I work it through, the answer seems to be, ‘less.’

Don’t get me wrong, I gained myriad marketable skills in four years. Public speaking, Adobe InDesign, copy editing, an inch-width of calculus and the proper use of the semi-colon—all of it crammed into four years of sleepless nights and the heady trances of a so-called ‘education.’ Also, the Milgram experiment; if another white lady lectures me about the Milgram experiment, I’ll sacrifice a goat to the education gods. I swear, I get it already.

Still, only a fool confuses knowledge with intelligence. Mostly, what I have learned are languages. Not in the traditional sense (ex: Dónde está la biblioteca?). What I mean is that every discipline, every theory has its own vocabulary, its own way of making distinctions.

Evolution, existentialism, or E=mc2 — they’re all languages in that they form a set of words that interact to produce descriptions.

Yet, once you can describe anything, one is left standing back asking what it means. Asking where exactly its meaning would come from. That is the abyss. That is the last frontier.

Before college I bandied concepts around with reckless abandon; nouns, verbs and even gerunds, all of them tossed around with a secure idea that they meant what I thought they meant. That they were meaningful.

Now, I have seen how the sausage is made. And I can’t un-skeptically eat that sausage anymore, which is a shame because that sausage of meaning was tasty and delicious, and other words that mean I will gladly have seconds </metaphor>.

What’s worse is that education, as it is delivered today, is so career-focused that very often a professor will just provide students (namely me) a new language of criticism and then relegate its contextualization to the end of the syllabus. Name one class where you have gotten to the end of the syllabus. You can’t; it’s like an attractive person with a goiter. It doesn’t happen.

All of this means that I lie awake at night criticizing and deconstructing every thought and notion my poor, beleaguered imagination can conjure. My rational mind yells ‘cut the potatoes thinner!’ But my imagination has not yet invented the potato chip.

So I ask: Is there a beautiful creation? No, more likely there is just a set of small-probability occurrences that led to the Earth and eventually life. Do I have a self? No, I’m just a bundle of perceptions and past experiences. Is there truth in narrative? Certainly not—all the facts are equally true and causation is almost un-provable, meaning narrative is a flimsy tortilla in a world full of chunky salsa.

At the end of the day, all I have left are my doubts, which are free from errant assumptions. But doubts don’t inspire the kind of zest for life that certainty does. At least when I was younger I had the courage, if not always the logic, of my convictions. One can see how the courage of my doubts is a much less sexy prospect.

So I still search in vain for a universal signifier or singular objective truth. Failing that, I search for a truly low-calorie margarita mix (because that first search is tiring). Both efforts are in vain. It is in this way that I feel my education has failed me. No professor ever said, ‘and this how I reconcile myself; this is how I sleep soundly at night. This is where I get my peace.’ Admittedly, perhaps an integrated sense of purpose and meaning cannot come from another. But then again, I’m not sure anyone ever tried either.

So this is it. Welcome to the examined life—no one said it would be pleasant. Just a funeral procession of, ‘Why? Why? Why?’

The saying goes that is better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied (to this I ask exactly how satisfied a pig could be, having never tasted bacon). Intelligent people say Socrates was the world’s wisest man because at least he knew that he knew nothing. But then again, this supposedly wise man willingly gulped back a glass of poisonous hemlock (which I’m sure had very few calories). Part of me wonders if he didn’t do it with just a little relish.