Like Onie

6 April 2001

Ling's journal today and Salon's letters about a Camille Paglia column they printed have finally brought to a head something I wanted to talk about for a long time. Only there's been other stuff, and I forgot. The big topic of the day: what is our educational system for.

Getting an education. Sure. But to be what?

The answer: low-skilled clerical workers. Not the folks who design anything or advertise anything or research anything. The people who file things. That's what our schools are teaching. Do I mean high school? Partly. I also mean college. College is not currently designed for education. College is designed to be a one-way ticket to the middle-class.

I'm not saying that you can't learn anything in college (or even in high school, although there the odds are pretty grim). But I am saying that that's not what it's designed for. You can get out of college without ever taking a rigorous and challenging course. Have you ever known someone able to get out of college without taking a stupid and pointless course? Please e-mail me if your college career featured no required stupid, pointless courses.

It's not that I went to a bad school, either. I went to a good private liberal arts college, learned a lot in my major as well as out of it. The physics professors were pretty fantastic, and I found some other profs and classmates who made the whole thing worthwhile. But there were whole classes that were awful. My writing fiction studio, for example, was packed with people who didn't write by themselves. It was first-come first-serve, and the 95% of the people on campus who were there so that they could get houses in the suburbs later on, well, most of them ended up coming first. Guess how much I valued the feedback on my work. Oh yeah. Quite a bit. The people who produced a rash of "my first oral sex" stories (which were literary in that nobody was really enjoying the sex they were having -- this is, Timprov and David and I decided on Tuesday, the difference between "literary" fiction and erotica: in erotica, people are happy) -- those are the people I want finding direction for my work. That's sure worthwhile. Half the people I met outside my social circle at college didn't even like to read, and that includes my writing fiction class. This is a place where the love of learning is central? I don't think so. This is a place where people are hoping to get more money for less effort in the future.

This is the problem: that there's almost no way to separate out the people who care about learning and enjoy it from the people who don't, under the current system. Everybody is shoved together. And people who want to teach are handed classes full of people who are there for the Middle-Class Express tickets, and nobody is happy.

A recent development at MIT may confirm my impression that college is not about gaining knowledge. They're putting all of their course material on the internet for free. The administration's claim is that they won't lose any potential students by that because the MIT experience has a lot to do with labs and discussion groups and so on. I agree that they won't lose any potential students by it, but I think it's because the commodity they're selling is no longer "a level of knowledge and experience gained at MIT" and has become "a degree from MIT." Which you can't get from studying their courses on their websites, no matter how much you learn. Maybe I'm too cynical about this, but I don't think it's just that MIT has faith in the power of the web for advertising or anything sensible like that.

What frustrated me about the Salon letters was twofold. First, people kept assuming that it was somehow more noble to Work With Your Hands than to Work With Your Mind -- they were overcompensating, I think. Nothing inherently more noble about either one -- it depends on who's doing them and what gifts that person has. And second, they were assuming that a college education is necessary to do a white-collar job. It isn't. It's helpful to get a white-collar job in some cases. But as for actually performing the job, usually not.

And it all stems from the same attitude that was giving Ling fits, the same attitude that George W. Bush tried to use in the election: that nothing you do before a certain age really matters. Often, people pick a base-five number: 30, say, or 35, or 40. Before that, not only does nothing matter, nothing can matter. We set up some pretty harsh social pressures so that people who want to do actual productive work while they're young are discouraged from it. And to have it be productive, interesting work, well, God forbid!

So high school focuses, if at all, on silly things, and college turns into an extension of high school. Yesterday in the car, Amber said, "College was like high school, except that you got to sleep over." In some ways, yeah, pretty much. I met a lot more cool people. I took some fascinating classes with bright professors who knew their stuff. But I was also forced into idiot work, and that should not have to happen in something that claims to be an institution of higher learning.

If you didn't follow the link, people were telling Ling and some others that people shouldn't write novels before age 35. Couldn't. Didn't have anything to say before then. I think one of the things that annoys me the most about Baby Boomers is that one of the best lessons of the Sixties was that young people do have something to say. And yet it's the people who were around for all of that who are trying to claim that young people know nothing.

Listen. I figure if you are reading this, there's a better than average chance that you were not an idiot in your youth, either. But if you were, don't blame me. It's not my fault. Don't assume that if you couldn't write a decent novel at 22 that you won't like my stuff. Just don't do it. Not acceptable. Becoming a specific person is an ongoing process, sure, but if you're not still growing at 35, 45, 85, whatever, that doesn't mean that you've succeeded. It means that you failed. You screwed up, and you need to try to fix it right now. But assuming that people who are still growing are not worth listening to, that's not a viable option. That's a dead option.

Over Christmas, we took my Onie to a "contemporary northern Italian" restaurant. She had her first ever risotto. At 88. Went home and shoveled the walks at her apartment because the "hired man" had left ice on it. She tries new things. She gets stuff done when it needs doing. And she lets people know when she loves them.

Go thou, and be like Onie.

I wake up in attack mode sometimes, as I told Ling, and this is one of those times. Really, I'm in a lovely mood. Yesterday, we hung out with Tim and Amber, and I got a Raspberry Julius and some lovely yuppie pizza. And we drove around, and it was kind of pretty out, and the daffodils were in full bloom on the table. And tonight I'm going to try to talk Mark into Chinese food (he doesn't know yet) and relax. If I can get the "Irena's Roses" edits out before my parents get here, I will be satisfied. If I can get them out before the end of tomorrow, I'll be positively giddy.

My parents and my grandparents are coming next week, and they just found out that my godfather David will be able to join the rest of us. I love all of my godparents, but David was the one who was there the most when I was a little kid. Joe is really cool and the best kind of relative to have in town. Aunt Mary is great to talk about Art and Meaning with. But David taught me how to speak valley-girl when I was five years old. David taught me about dumping a guy when I was nine or so. David was the one who told me how proud he was of me when I quit grad school to become a writer, and how cool he thought my stuff was -- so David was the one who made my heart sing. And I get to see David soon.

Like I needed anything else cool in my life! One of you guys can have some of this. Really. I've got more than enough.

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