Academia and Serious Students

Lately I have been thinking about College. What occupies me is not limited to exams, papers, and classes–but the institution itself and how we fit into it. An example from class, though, would be appropriate. At the beginning of the quarter, I was told that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is a discussion of how “nature comes to know itself” and how it manifests in the act of judgment. “Isn’t that what Hegel said?” my first instincts told me. My second instinct: “what the hell are we talking about?” It was at that moment that I remembered how far removed from the real world (common knowledge) our theories can be. The idea of “reality” itself is up for philosophical/intellectual debate, and I wonder why. What do we gain from talking about things this way?

Even more odd is how students start to see the entire world through the eyes of their textbooks. Like a demented Tootsie Roll commercial, I could imagine sophmores singing “whatever it is I think I see becomes psychology to me!” I’ve seen it: psychology recruits analyzing characters in movies, philosophy sophists prattling about dialectics, and science students trying to explain everything in terms of collapsing wave-functions. These acts seem downright ridiculous, but they seem like an attempt to make sense of the things they have spent so much money to learn. If not, then they are just attempts to sound clever.

It could be asked, “Why the hell are you in philosophy then?” I can only hope that there is some insight, some point, to be gained from all of this. Asking why we are talking about something–or why we speak of things in a certain manner might be a way of staying on the right track. It might be that, through questioning the legitimacy of the authors we have chosen to read, we will “thicken up” our understanding of life at large.

I won’t make any such appeals this time though–there’s something fishy here. Intellectual debate seems like a burden, a parasitic disease, that creeps it’s way into every aspect of the serious student’s life. It becomes difficult to watch movies or talk to friends without thinking about aesthetic puzzles, Aristotle on rhetoric, or whatever catches your fancy. The serious student–without a way to mix everyday life with her coursework–is left covering her mouth to keep herself from mentioning an unsightly philosophical problem. Even as I write this, I think to myself: “do I sound pretentious?”

The question to consider is how to be serious without alienating oneself. It is tougher than it looks, the ones I’ve seen keep a false distance from their work. With a few students, I would never have known them to care about their work until they stepped foot into a classroom. Philosophy, psychology, politics, biology, and all other subjects are in conversation with the world at large. Academia plays it’s part in the way the world works. Why should we treat it as if it were something to be done behind closed doors? Perhaps a discipline that proclaims to know “how nature comes to know itself” should be conducted behind closed doors.

There must be a better way to think about this.


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