September 3rd, 2010
And so it’s the beginning of a new semester and soon to be the end of a decade, old and new doing their dance, as usual. Students returning to Memorial in the fall of 2010 will certainly face the old: parking remains hideous; bottled water is both banned and conspicuous; the food court is too crowded and you still can’t get a decent salad there; the Science Building is, well, still the Science Building.
They will, fortunately, also face the new: evidence of building construction, President Kachanoski , new professors and deans; new courses and programs, and so on. Sure, some old stuff is good—your favourite professors, the pea soup at Roasters, the Breezeway, the Field House—but the fall semester always seems most fresh when there are many new faces wandering the tunnels with anxious eyes, clutching campus maps and looking scared. What’s amazing is how quickly those expressions disappear, transformed by a sober first week of classes and the sudden familiarity of beaten paths.
For a few days, anyway, the whole campus will seem strange and intense. After a summer of easy parking and warm, quiet afternoons, the landscape will suddenly be transformed into a bustling microcosm of denim and chatter. For those of us who never leave, in effect, September brings its own rush of excitement. There is something primal in the experience, as we draw reflexively on memories of all the Septembers in which backpacks were brushed off, sleeping habits adjusted, expectations heightened. Those who have never attended or worked in a university are not likely to appreciate the annual paradox of end-of-summer blues and fresh-start giddiness.
American poet Stephen Vincent Benét gets at this in his charming poem, “Going Back to School”:
One splendid instant — back in the great room,
Curled in a chair with all of them beside
And the whole world a rush of happy voices,
With laughter beating in a clamorous tide. . . .
But then Benét famously hated sports and preferred reading books, definitely an odd thing for a guy sent to military college. To be fair, many other poets found education to be a very dull thing, indeed. No less a self-taught brainiac than William Blake despaired because school “drives all joy away, “ while Mark Twain remarked that he never let schooling interfere with his education, a typically sarcastic crack that Albert Einstein, shockingly, seemed to have plagiarized. I uneasily admit that as a graduate student I personally shouted along with Roger Waters and David Gilmour that “We Don’t Need No Education” (We don’t need no thought control), a generational anthem shared by almost all of us who were pursing masters and doctoral degrees in the late seventies. Of course, we were educated enough to know that two negatives make a positive, but screaming such an ungrammatical chorus as we were struggling to write our learned dissertations sure felt liberating, if a bit hypocritical.
To be sure, there are many quotable aphorisms on the limits of education and formal learning, most uttered by highly educated people.
I prefer the unlikely company of a nineteenth century poet , a twentieth-century blues artist, and a twenty-first century hip hop duo.
“Education is not the filling of a bucket but a lighting of the fire,” or so wrote poet William Butler Yeats.
“Don’t be a Dropout,” belted James Brown, and he should have known: “Without an education / You might as well be dead.”
“Don’t let the days of your life pass by
You need to git up, git out and git something…
I don’t recall, ever graduatin at all
Sometimes I feel I’m just a disappointment to y’all…”
or so waxes the questionably spelled OutKast, whose lyrics capture the right school spirit, albeit a little short on standard English.
Welcome back y’all. See you on campus.