You must work for this one. “It’s said that some time ago, a Columbia University instructor used to ask a harsh two-part question. One: ‘What book did you most dislike in the course?’ Two: ‘What intellectual or categorical flaws in you does that dislike point to?'” (“On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students” by Mark Edmundson).
God have mercy on us for our damnable, blase attitudes.
Sometimes it feels like we live in a modern-day Versailles. Have you ever been to Versailles? If you’ve been to the house(s) that Louis built, you know that the lifestyle undertaken there was designed to sate and intimidate one into incurious complicity. We put up with our little inconveniences, and in return we receive comforts, diversion, and, hopefully, a job. Sometimes the academic palaces and perfect campus mani-pedi don’t seem real. Have you ever walked around campus at 4 a.m.? On a weekday? Do you know how much landscaping gets done in the dark?
Have mercy on us for the phones sitting on top of the desk during class.
At what point did it become acceptable to just leave the thing under the professor’s nose? Actually, that’s better-it’s at least an honest gesture. Rather than attempt to conceal the boredom and short-attention span, announce it with integrity, with courage.
Forgive us when we pay hundreds to travel halfway around the world to “serve” but cannot manage to look at the woman who sits in rags in the damp corridors of the New York subway on a snowy February day. Be not angry when the contents of our stomachs line the sidewalks on Monday morning-just in time for the tours.
All of this too cliche for you? One more time-what did you most dislike, and what intellectual or categorical flaws in you does that dislike point to? This generation of students will join the ranks of unoriginal practitioners of originality and novelty. The uncompromising and flighty search for the new arrests what progress might otherwise be achieved by honoring-steeping in-the old. The great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry had but three words to describe his philosophy for learning to improvise, “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.” By all means, tear down foundations, question custom, reevaluate principles-but there’s no foundation to tear down unless you build it first.
This process of building, destroying, and recreating is an immemorial concept-it exists outside the domain of human history and time. The variations in which this theme plays out are unique in that each individual will encounter the cycle mediated through her own “I.” Even now, in our climate-controlled world, we can still reconnect to the seasonal rhythms that apportion a time for all things. Some of these rhythms are natural and inherent in our bodies. Others are chosen, ascribed to, historical. On campus a substantial group of students, faculty, and staff are quietly attempting to live a season of the Catholic tradition, the period of 40 days known as Lent.
If you attended Catholic grade school or grew up in an actively practicing family, “Lent” likely elicits ambiguous feelings at best. Every year it sneaks up too quickly. First it’s Christmas, and then bam! Ash Wednesday, meatless Fridays, and the same insipid homilies about breast-beating and garment rending. Why all the drear and fasting-what could personal discomfort do for one’s relationship with God? Haven’t we been through this enough times? It’s bad enough that we live it-now we have to read about it … again? And the marathon of Holy Week hasn’t even come up yet! Why repeat the ritual, why privilege practices that seem empty and medieval? (And this is, admittedly, a very stereotypical portrayal of Lent, but the popular image, nonetheless.)
Lent and a select number of other well-worn rituals of our year remain relevant practices and topics of conversation because we return to them as different people. In contrast to a restless environment that values new experience and almost always jettisons what is old because it is old, the return to sources of consistency and stability is a reliable means of measuring personal growth. The same text can hold wildly different meanings for the same person at 20 and 45. Do not engage the ritual or encounter the season with expectations that the content will be different-there will inevitably be a Good Shepherd, an unbearably long reading of the Passion, Jesus will die, and He will rise, and the cycle begins again. Do engage it with the expectation that you are not who you were last year, and you will find something of novelty in the ritual because it was imported through you. And if you are not Catholic and this discussion doesn’t apply, then read this as a caution to differentiate between the authentically cliche and the recurrent themes that demand more than apathy and blase-ness. The depth to which we are capable of reading a text is only a reflection of the depth we bring to it. Finally, “Repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain” (Przeslanie Pana Cogito by Zbigniew Herbert).
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.