Just let me listen

I’ve made an awful blunder. I’m in Paris as I write this, not necessarily in the shadow of the Louvre but nevertheless aware that the Louvre is there. And so are the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de Cluny, the Orangerie, the Musée de Rodin and the Grand Palais. You tear up often enough at paintings and in churches, you meet enough sweeping architecture and crumbling walls and you start to think, “Gee, I shoulda taken that art history course.”

Also, mime classes are about to begin, which evidence the necessity of my adding a theater major. And woe betide me if I find that this modern cinema course demands my immediate creation of an interdisciplinary major.

Of course, I can’t do any of this. Couldn’t, I thought, as an over-organizing frosh. I was taking the first year of French. I was doing my divisional requirements. I was being smart. I was studying astronomy with that Polish guy! The trouble with college is, it’s the best education in how to go to college. And by the time you learn that lesson, you’re done. Starting grad school. Working at McDonalds.

I really did think, when I began, that I was being very wise in taking one course in each division each semester, doubling up in the arts and languages to accommodate the French. And it is true that my love of English never wavered and my bio courses were painlessly, even happily, checked off. But what I didn’t do was give myself the opportunity to take courses in subjects that actually had a prayer of swaying my favor: art history, sociology, comparative literature, theater. And while I availed myself of some wonderful mentors, I’ve missed more and more what I didn’t choose: a sense of structure, a common canon, an education that is building a body of knowledge rather than accumulating a mass of parts.

In Paris, here is what I’ve found: Kids patterned to their subjects since the age of 15, large and lecture-heavy classes, a problematic, synthetic methodology and a way of work that is connecting all my dots. People here write papers the way I’ve always wanted to. Theses, in the way we conceive of them are strictly forbidden. Instead, the outline of your paper or presentation (which will itself be graded) is your guide to your own thoughts, a handy marker of key points not in an argument already attained, but in the complex treatment of multiplying questions put in logical, elegant form. I think this pattern always existed; I remember the color-coded outlines I admired in the notebooks of friends. But I think I believed that “study skills” courses were remedial, and so I never really learned to study.

My other inculcated belief, brought home through high school “seminar” courses and the 19-student caps on our writing intensives, was that a discussion-based class was always best. Thoughtful, provocative discourse, students going head-to-head and heart-to-heart under the watchful eyes of an expert professor – that is the dream. But be it ever so Socratic, we’re drowning out something with the sound of our voices, something our Parisian colleagues and friends at big universities have in abundance: the voices of our professors.

There was a time in my sophomore year, not so long ago, when I went to hear a professor speak on matters of the heart. He detailed his qualms about the role of the professor in students’ lives. The weight of his concern rested on the difficulty, discomfort and perhaps even impropriety of filling the professor’s traditional role – that is, of accepting a métier in which a professor would do just that: profess an opinion or belief or assign personal value to a system of thought. The insistence of several students that such mentorship would be welcomed, that the intrusion of the private into the public sphere might indeed prove edifying, fell on, if not on deaf, then certainly unwilling, ears. It does seem that confessions of faith in anything but doubt, confessions of system, of rule, of code, are gauche in the free plains of our modern academia.

But there is something another Williams professor brought home: the paradoxical liberty of certain restraints. He was talking about Emma and talking about marriage, but I have faith that his statement can apply to other unions, even those we enter with our universities. I’d like to propose sitting, once more, at the feet of a master.

There’s a bit in Anna Karenina where Tolstoy talks about the problem of the young, who arrive at nihilism with no idea what they’re rejecting. We’ve been striking out on our own, it seems, for quite a while. So what happens when we masters of our fates ask someone else to take the helm?

It’s a curious proposition; here in France, the students rebelled to have something like what we have at Williams. Autonomy, authorship. They stormed the Sorbonne. I’d like to storm it and say, give me your knowledge! For doubt’s sake, tell me what you believe!
And I’d like someone to tell me, calm down. Art is good. See this line? Let me tell you why I have faith.