23 January 2007

Flat Heresy against Intellectualism

There is not a sound here anymore
Except the neighbors singing opera next door;
And I am in the closet reading books.
You know, I never could quite find another soul I understood.
--Peter Breinholt, "My Little Town"
Recently, I've been disturbed by the idea that becoming educated is necessary to receiving exaltation. It's an idea that seems to thrive at BYU, since education and salvation are so constantly on our minds. In the Doctrine & Covenants we're instructed many times to seek learning, but is this a commandment that is necessary for salvation or is it simply a suggestion of how to build the kingdom? And what is the relative importance of socializing--being with people for no other purpose than to be with them--as compared to education?

Don't get me wrong, I love education. I'm much more comfortable with a book or a pen in my hand than with people. It takes me a while to recover from the overload of being in a large gathering. But more and more I wonder if my preference for books and learning is just that: a preference. Is there anything inherently important about reading the classics or learning science? (Oh, the heresy!) Are academics really in any substantial way higher than anyone else?

The problem with intellectualism is that we are encouraged to increasingly isolate ourselves from the outside world until, in the end, we begin to think that what we do is actually important. In a way, it seems to me that devoting our lives to academia is just as pointless and arbitrary as those who devote their lives to sports or fashion or television, only perhaps more insidious because our obsessive hobby has the illusion of eternal significance. But in actuality, all any of these groups are really doing is learning a set of conventions that apply to only one thing--the rules of a game, the trends of the day, the jargon of the elite, a set of novels to allude to. These sets of things to learn and master have no more real importance than a toy, something to bide the time as we are tested.

Is that all education is? A hobby? I'm beginning to lean towards yes. It's something we do because we enjoy it, but I doubt the inherent virtue some people read into it. Most of what we learn is convention, and the rest can be gained in such a multitude of ways that it seems silly to claim it as unique. It's only a matter of taste, it seems.

In Faith of an Observer, Hugh Nibley says something to the effect of the following: that the only significant things we can learn to do in this life are to repent and to forgive. None of us is particularly wise, particularly clever; we're all pretty much ignorant, but the two things we can do are to repent and to forgive. Intelligence, cleverness, and learning in this life are all an illusion. (Sorry, I can't find a transcript, so my memory will have to serve.)

So, if the rest is just a hobby, we should focus on how to repent and how to forgive. How to develop the first is obvious. We must develop our faith, our relationship with God, and our ability to realize our own nothingness. As Church members, we all know this. Nothing new here.

It is the second that interests me: developing the ability to forgive others. How would one go about it? And this is where we come back to the real purpose of socializing. All of these other hobbies we pursue--the humanities, sports, television--are simply ritualized ways of going about our real business: getting to know people. And not just know people as in, "Yes, I do know Bob in accounting," but know people as in understanding what makes them tick. Because, it seems to me, we must completely understand a person before we can possibly forgive them. Great examples of this in the omni-present Ender's Game. Charity comes primarily through comprehension of the person. (Perhaps this explains the unconditional love of parents. They understand their children almost completely.)

And even beyond the importance of general socialization, there seems to be special value in getting to know people who aren't like us--bridging social capital, if you will. I have learned so much this year by living with Kami, my elementary education major roommate. Our tastes in literature will never mix: she is bored by my sci-fi/fantasy, I gag over her romance novels; I want high philosophy, she wants believable life. It took me a long time, but I finally accepted this difference as a difference. It has nothing to due with her intelligence or exposure to the classics; it's 100% a matter of pure, inexplicable taste. She's part of the reason I'm questioning the importance of intellectualism. I know she can be a wonderful, fulfilled, interesting person without laying a hand on the stuff that I would choose to make myself so. Then what matters about a person must go beyond our interests, and we must seek out those of other interests in order to find out what that is.

Which is where the Peter Breinholt song comes in. Reading books is great, but at some point we must break out of our closet (no queer theory implications intended) and go find out why the guy next door likes opera, because nothing is sadder in this life than narrowing our interests so keenly that we end our lives never quite finding another soul we understood.

(Sorry this is really rough and confusing. Please, PLEASE ask for clarifications because I'm trying to figure out how to explain better what I am thinking.

As an addendum, I highly recommend the movie Faith of an Observer to anyone who hasn't seen it. You can even watch it online. Though I think the parts with the ruins are much better on the big screen.)


The Girl in the Other Room said...

*gak* I almost liked the lyrics of a Peter Brienholt song? *GAKGAKGAK* Disclaimer: this may have nothing to do really with your post btu I feel like commenting so deal with it!

Anyway, dear sister, I am a tad confused but that is mostly because I have been questioning the whole educationg thing too. I mean, I like education, the idea of it (it is a delicate blossom, as Lady Bracknel would say ...) but I have yet to put it into practice with real vim. I care but not enough to do my homework. I want to do good, but not enough to get up off the couch and stop knitting for five minutes.

I am no longer able to sit down and read a book for more than an hour before I get bored, even books I like. I feel like I am continually wasting my time, no matter what activity I am doing. I'm questioning even going back to school because I don't see what the point is anymore. What I want to learn about, I won't do for a job and what I could learn for a job, I won't like.

I have this continual mindset that jobs are not supposed to be fun. They are supposed to fill the otherwise unoccupied hours between eating and sleeping. They are supposed to inspire production and inventiveness doing something you care nothing about. Awful isn't it?

Liz, give me a call and talk to me because I have my educational goals on the brain twenty-four-seven and the only person who seems around to talk to is Dad and you know how much I love it when he talks to me about education and my future and being successful. Which is great because I want to be successful because if I am successful then I will at least have money which (sorry the Beatles) can buy me some love and comfort, if not all that I need.

I think I may be morally corrupt and depleated. At least, I have no convictions about much of anything right now ...

sarahaverillott said...

I really enjoyed reading this- I agree wholeheartedly. Intellectualism is a preference and surely not worth the ego-inflation we often allow ourselves. (Gotta stop judging the el-eds and MFHD majors just because they aren't in OChem.)

I took a class from J. McConkie where he reminded us not to stress over having to know everything to obtain Godhood (which is the goal, right?) He mentioned that no one has a total mastery of biochemistry and physiology and yet we are pretty much all capable of reproducing, i.e. creating, a child. We do this with only minimal knowledge as to what the process actually entails. I've pondered on that point often. We study, and apparently it does us a bit of good on the other side, but . . . come on now. We'll never learn all that much in proportion to what remains to learn until we're in Stage 3 of life.

That realization helped me tone down - my neuroscience/philosophy double major needed to no longer be about proving my IQ, but rather learning for the sake of enjoyment and potential employment. If both of those two weren't a factor, some reconsidering would be in order. I graduated in Dec MUCH less stressed about academia than when I started my degree 4.5 years ago.

Sorry for the long comment. I enjoy your blog. . . haven't ever met you in real life but stumbled across this via cmac's blog and am glad I did. We've got some things in common, but you're better at elucidating those thoughts than I. Thanks.

A fellow BYUite