The “planning problem” affects far more than our schedules. I would even venture to say that it paralyzes our intellectual outlook. We talk of jobs and internships, paper deadlines and thesis crises, but when do we take the time to talk about what we’re writing about and not when it’s due, or discuss the ideas we’ve covered in class that are the very reason we are taking the concept called “class” in the first place? Yes, admittedly, these conversations do occur, but in my experience and in the experiences of the many others with whom I’ve talked, I’ve unfortunately found they are the exception to the rule. True intellectual engagement — learning for learning’s sake, both inside and outside the classroom — does not consume or define our culture.
This is a deep-seated problem that is not entirely our fault. To be sure, it is the result, in large part, of the economic crisis: No one wants to end up starving in the streets. But it is also, I think, the consequence of a vast intellectual turnaround that has transformed the very practice and purpose of education and has infiltrated not only all segments of society but even academia itself. What is this ideal? That merely learning for learning’s sake, and to enjoy doing so, is selfish. Given the harsh economic times, the tyranny of the 1 percent and the starving children across the globe, it seems at best luxurious, and at worst downright sinful, to major in comparative literature when one could study to solve actual life-or-death problems.
Question: What ever happened to the life or death of the soul?
Engineers may build bridges that get people from home to work and back, but will these more mobilized people lead happier lives as a result? Our future policy makers may contribute to solving world hunger, but so far it is only Americans who have managed to demonstrate that a way of life can be built around bread — and its signal Golden Arches — alone. For all those who contributed to the “most useless major” poll on Princeton FML last week: Since when was art or literature ever “useless”? Since when did beauty lose all value? Since when was it “selfish” to remain in academia and to enter that once-noblest of all professions — teaching? Since learning, in the guise of “helping others,” lost all intrinsic value.
We must first help ourselves. Americans — and Princetonians — are some of the most ill-contented, overworked, unhealthy, imbalanced people ever (see, for example, Monday’s Gallup poll — “America’s Unhappy Index Climbs,” which attributes our increasing misery to a “variety of financial, health and social ills, ranging from poverty and the still-lagging economy to low levels of education and poor physical health”). Most of us may not go hungry, but we are striving and starving for satisfaction. Can we purport to save the Third World without first convincing ourselves that there is something intrinsic in the world — beauty, love, knowledge, life — worth saving?
We desperately need engineers and policy makers, doctors and future leaders. Given the growing global consciousness and community, we need these people and their skills more than ever. But we also need their souls. It takes more than a simple skill set or knowledge of the facts to save a starving city. It takes courage, compassion, commitment. It demands that we try to understand the two things that we understand the least — suffering and each other — and that we work through the first, and with the second, toward final triumph. It requires, in a word, education. Learning is beautiful in its own right, but contribution without real learning is impossible.
If no man is an island, neither is the University. It is exactly what it says it is — a “universe.” If it is a source of enlightenment, then it has a responsibility to reach out to others beyond its gates. But that means that we — its many “stars” — must discover something meaningful here, if we are to bestow our beneficence “in the service of all nations.” We must fully inhabit this place first. This must be our “real” world. We must bid farewell forever to the University as a way of life, as an institution that purports to provide the rest of the world with knowledge and hope, if we cling to two disparate, disenchanted visions of what Princeton means — either an ivory tower as a sanitized escape from life or a training ground for real life (that is, a career) outside our gates. Where are our scholars? Where are our poets? Let them take center stage. Where is the love of life as such?
Brandon Bark is a Classics major from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He can be reached at email@example.com.