Off the beat: In search of Walden Pond

More than my snug bed, more than Mom’s cooking, more even than that warm feeling of home, I miss Henry David Thoreau. Let me explain.

I was more than a little disappointed academically in my first semester at Cal — not that my grades were poor, but I didn’t think they reflected any real intellectual triumph on my part. I spent hours writing papers and entire days cramming for finals, but it was mostly just an endurance test. I guess you might say I didn’t feel really challenged — and it left me dissatisfied. I think many UC Berkeley students can relate.

I thought, as a freshman at Cal last fall, that if there was anything I could do well, I could write; I decided that was my greatest strength. But once I got here, I lost all my sense of enjoyment as a writer as I began typing to the tune of “academic analysis” rather than coherent and engaging prose. Here’s a quote from a poli sci reading I endured last fall:

“Social capital, defined as a combination of generalized trust and access to social networks, has become a key concept in the social sciences in recent decades because it correlates with normatively desirable qualitative features of liberal democracy, such as functioning democratic institutions, increased levels of civicness and citizens’ participation in social and/or public life, and, most importantly, with increased levels of performance in several public policy areas, such as education, health, development, and public policy at large.”

So, you still there? Hello? That was a single sentence, in case you hadn’t noticed — one sentence that said nothing, changed nothing and otherwise failed to stir the imagination or intellectually challenge the reader. Yuck.

One of the reasons I like Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. is that, unlike the academic analyses UC Berkeley students so commonly read, Pitts embraces big ideas. He once criticized American society, in an essay published after the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong, this way: “Big ideas (in this country) are unwelcome. We call it pragmatism. It feels like surrender.” In the context of both American culture and the state of modern American academia, I couldn’t agree more.

Somewhat disillusioned, I set off to read some “classics” this Christmas break. I flew through Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Thoreau’s “Walden” and Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and a few assorted short stories. I’m not writing this to try to impress, I promise. It’s just that, compared to Latin American history books titled “Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages” and comparative politics articles such as “Contesting Privilege with Right: The Transformation of Differentiated Citizenship in Brazil,” the classics are positively gripping, deeply challenging and astonishingly … interesting. As my friends and family know by now, I’ve unequivocally established that I learn more outside of school than inside.

I understand all the talk of late about “focusing on math and science” as a solution to our education problems — society needs talented engineers and shrewd scientific researchers. I understand the new focus on “pragmatic” higher learning — after all, some things learned in college have to be directly applicable to the workplace. I understand the proliferating “standards-based” approach to education at the K-12 level and even at the college level — it’s important that every resident of this country receives a basic level of education that can be used in a variety of occupations.

But what about learning for the sake of learning? What about the classics? What about writing, speaking and living in a way that brings value, purpose and meaning to our all-too-short lives? Does higher education teach us any of that? It should at least point us in the right direction.

At some point, I think, the nature of modern academics begins to interfere with true intellectual and ethical education. Teaching students to write “scholarly” political, historical and literary analyses in the language of academia doesn’t prepare them to write with brave passion, moving honesty, nimble clarity or moral integrity. Teaching students to follow merely the method of science doesn’t equip them to think critically enough to challenge shaky scientific theories or imagine creatively enough to conjure up new ones. Teaching by the book leads to living by the book, and there’s neither joy nor challenge in that.

I’m hoping the University of California and other American educational institutions reach a similar conclusion. I’m hoping we, as Americans, strive to reach into the depths of our minds, dare to defy social norms and begin to establish a new culture rooted in seeking deeper meaning instead of settling for a purely pragmatic education.

Henry David Thoreau, for one, would be pleased.

Editor’s Note: Sex on Tuesday will return Feb. 12.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]