Saturday, July 31, 2010

The New American Scholar

I wrote this essay about 6 years ago for an Expository workshop I was taking at Northeastern University.  I can say with certainty, its a good piece of writing.  It concerns the American education system, the necessity of discipline, the pitfalls of lackadaisical work ethic and the severe weight of student loan debt.  It also concerns the illumination of self-education. 
If you have friends or family in college or preparing for college, send them a link to this blog entry.

“The New American Scholar”

I live most of my life avoiding the Daylight. At dawn, the world awakes and distractions roam the earth. The T-train starts riding at six. By this time, inbound commuters have fluttered by my Beacon Street window for nearly an hour. Road workers, who are not supposed to start work until 7 a.m., move into position with their vehicle’s back-up signals blaring. The telecoms are doing work, too, and forget about it—I’ve heard their jack hammers since four strikes of the clock. It’s a winter morning so the building is busy heating up for its residents. We’ve got radiators for heat and little monsters in the floor boards banging the heat into the pipes for us. Clink clank, cla-clank!

My cat wakes up around this time. He can hear my neighbors walking around in the next apartment and he gets excited. I have a long hallway where he likes to sprint from one end to the other, back and forth, all day while I try to sleep. At the moment, he has a toy mouse in his mouth. He jumps up on the bed, where he knows he’s not supposed to play, and I am forced to my feet with a water spray bottle in my hand. “Hector Rex!” Hector vanishes. I return to my desk, save my work on the computer, and then retire to my bed. My girlfriend has just left the apartment for work. Her day begins, while my day is avoided.

Hector4Hector Rex, circa 2005 

Before I fall asleep, I load up my CD player. Today we’ll listen to Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, hmm…Nora Jones, and, let us see, oh yes, Pink Floyd. I can appreciate the point of view Ralph Ellison takes in his essay “Living with Music.” Without this music, I’d never be able to get sleep around here. He says live with music or die with noise. I agree. And I’ve adapted my own mantra from his: Sleep with music, survive the noise.

I enjoy an ascetic lifestyle, in case you may be wondering. In my asceticlatter college years, I have found there is but one way to get work done and get sleep—I work at night when everyone else is sleeping, and I sleep during the day while everyone else is working. I could never be as productive on a daytime schedule as I am on a night time one. There are too many distractions. And I choose not to swim against the stream while I find that swimming in the same stream at different hours is the least resistant path.

My lifestyle is truly exceptional. And terrible. I endure, or rather subject myself to, this exile in the good faith that someday I may emerge and live in the Daylight with my fellow man, once more. But for now, I am a student, chained to my desk. And I must get my work done before my loans come due.

ralph_ellison Though our circumstances are similar, Ellison’s fortune is greater than mine. He prefers hearing composed music to the random chaos of the external world. He is distracted from his work by his noisy environment. He is idle at his typewriter. He has the luxury to sit still and tell a story about the effects that noise has on his writing and how it produces idleness in his typewriting finger tips. Ellison has that luxury and that’s where we differ.

I must stay focused and use all my free time to educate myself. No time to write loquacious ditties on my next door neighbors. No time to stop and chat. The Great Clock reminds me my loans are coming due. That is precisely why I avoid the Daylight, why I elect the viscous path through the Nighttime, why I am exiled.

Ralph Waldo Emerson would not be pleased were he to find me here, chained to my desk, spot-lit by one hardworking halogen lamp, or slumped fetal at daybreak, sleeping while the world about me hustles to work and Pink Floyd’s cool crooning insulates me from the world’s opprobrious bother. I believe Emerson would scoff at my resolution and would rather prescribe me a retreat into nature than a retreat into my study.

My dissonance with Emerson comes from my being anomalous to his logic. I am, rather, a New American Scholar. And so, Emerson has  little to say to me that is not infuriating. I wish I could spare a month, or a week, or even a weekend to go on holiday leave. But entering lakeside tranquility to spend days roaming the forest for clues that unlock the secrets of natural manhood is but a pleasant fiction for a New American Scholar, like myself. I am a student and have the loans to prove it. I thus cannot afford time away from my desk. I cannot even afford to break the chains that bind me to this desk.

Yet I was not always as mindful of my scholastic obligations. I was once a wilder lad, and care free of my inhibitions and duties. But that was before my rebirth and christening in the order of New American Scholars. Those were the days of self-mutilation, my college lackey experiences, when I shot two holes in my boat before casting off for the farther shore.

My early college days were haunted by distraction. And indulgence. And short-sighted activity. And long-term damage. I spent my days in much the same way I do now, asleep and idle. Classes were irregularly attended. My assignments were turned in to my teachers half-assed and wanting depth, for I lacked the ability to focus long enough to find and make a lucid point.

Maybe “lack of ability” is not as accurate as a lack of care for work, in general, or an over-care for play. I spent my nights reckless without attention or focus. I played video games with my dorm mates. Large 16- or 32-player ‘shoot’em up games’ that would last well into the early morning hours. If I managed to escape the video game bogs, it was only to go clubbing for a night or to hit out a fraternity party. Never to study for longer than an hour. Never to research to freshen up my mind. Never to work hard or embrace the harrows of intellectual reverie. Never to push my collegiate mind the way I had once pushed the athleticism of my body in high school.

Indeed, distractions were abounding and I was seemingly defenseless. I came into a city college out of the loins a small town high school. Leaving my parents’ custody, I felt a heavy veil uplifted and all my vestal quality washed away like the emulsion layer on film. I became a negative through which the orange glow of Boston’s night life would shine through and burn a terrible image on the Oak rings of my young adult life. I became America’s Reckless Youth paying America’s Top Dollar to play America’s most elaborate game: College. College Idiot: There’s your reality-based show. Go produce it.

In the old days, Emerson’s American Scholar went to college prepared to work. The Scholar of my day is shoveled from high school into the post secondary compost heap—that’s the American Education system nowadays. I was not prepared for college when I came. I understand that now. And I had been highly placed in my class in high school. I was an honor student. I was well rounded. An athlete and a leader. Ambitious. Dedicated. I even believe I was virtuous.

Yet I fell hard when I came to college, for I was unprepared to handlequake1 the endless array of distractions. I admit, there were a few virtuous pagans on my floor in the dorm (or Residence Hall, to utilized the administrator’s adored terminology) during my freshmen year. These few would never join the fray on game night—not for Quake, not for StarCraft, and certainly not for Half-Life. I envy these Old School Scholars for their integrity and dedication, for their sheer resolve and will power to stay focused in the face of their fellow’s ever pressing ploy to lead them astray.

And every night, now, that I tend my lonely vigil at my singly lit desk, I say a silent prayer that they live long and prosper. To my mind, they are the free ones, the unchained ones. They are the Scholars of early merit. And so they don’t need loans to prove it. Why am I able to pray for them and yet loath Emerson’s preaching? I do not know, for sure. My bitterness is chaotic. I suppose I have a natural fellow feeling for the members of my generation who have the gift of self-awareness and have escaped the myriad gravity wells of social distraction. Whereas Emerson simply represents a history of scholars who had it better than me, theirs is a history of life without distraction by modern means. Emerson’s generation had very little of this modern type of distraction to contend with their studious minds. Nothing so attractive as a LAN-based virtual melee with thirty of his closest friends drew Emerson away from his books. The progress of our age has achieved a new irony.

I have learned to control my focus in the midst of distraction. I wear a hair shirt, so to speak, like an old monk. I buckle down and stay busy and live without the frills, or the gratification, for now. More importantly, I have found an object to pursue. I have a vocation in mind. My calling is to absorb a tradition and locate my point of departure. I am becoming an Artist. Or I already am one and am growing strong in my artistic skin. So having found an object worthy of pursuit, I am dedicated once again. Perhaps that was the problem all along.

I came to college without an object in mind, with nothing to pursue save vague intangible uninspiring notions of a career in law or politics or something similarly as fashionable, represented in a movie I may have seen growing up. Well, problem solved now. An artist I am become. Only took four years and a hundred fifty thousand dollars. I will not waste anymore time or lose anymore money.

If, at some point in the year, I go out into Nature, then I do so as a minor indulgence, a guilt ridden vacation. I will not go into the woods seeking a new way of life, or the city of God. I will simply acknowledge that I am ever captive in the city of man. I will acknowledge also that the city of God is but a myth to my fancy, and an uninspiring one.

Emerson’s or even St. Augustine’s idea of a City of God is a waste St. Augustineof  time for me to indulge, it is impractical. I have student loans. I am  chained to my desk. And every minute I falter, every minute I am idle, I tighten the shackles that bind me, and I close the door to my future one inch. This door may never be re-opened, and there may be no reversing the damage of idleness. I have already slammed the door half shut on me, by my unfocused collegiate entry.

In my comeback and finish, I resolved to fit through that door, squeeze through what space is left by that slotted crack, and makeThoreau by Ortiz my exit. In preparation, I learned I must get small and live small. And I have since reduced my life somewhat to the barer essentials, as Emerson and Thoreau advocate. Maybe not all the way to my fingernail, but nonetheless I am getting small.

I am now wary of what I allow to cross my path—censoring anything detrimental from the commercials on television or the radio, to fast food and pizza delivery, to video games—I am resolved to let nothing impede my advance. I stay focused so I may one day wield my object and become a Master of the Arts. But I must do so from within the city walls. For I am student and have loans that chain me to my desk while I earn my Art and its tradition.

Beauty placates. Emerson’s beauty was Nature. Ellison’s beauty was music. Both expressed their feelings through prose. I find beauty in both Nature and music, in the inward and outward gaze. And I know my beauty will be Art. And I do have faith that Art is better than Nature. Making Art yields less consequence and detriment to my future than making Nature. I can also control Art with more facility than Nature. And my Art will not harm anyone.

Nature harms. Nature is the bitch that bites us. Nature is the killer. And though a killer like Nature can be beautiful, I believe it is the dog-bite kind of beauty you naturally hide from, or want to hide from. Here I am and there you are: I hide from Nature because I know it’s bad for me, Natural and its natural agents and its natural laws.

Nature, in my sense, is not the trees and the birds and the fish and the stone. Nature is the sights and sounds of the city, its quiet, gentle whispers and flagrant declarations—my next door neighbors humping, the imploring eyes of that widow across the street, the beautiful and coy stranger on the train. Nature approaches me in the form of low interest rates and zero percent financing for one year. Nature makes me swoon at a two for one deal. Or hungry at ninety nine cents for a burger. Or famished before two slices of pizza and a coke for two bucks. Or pensive at twenty percent off a purchase when opening a credit card account. Nature whispers God damning things into my ear. Nature is the signal that touches my eyes and draws me away from my Art.

Now I’ve gone and caught myself up in the contrasts of Art & Nature. Let me acknowledge now that Man is Nature. And the natural man is cruel and will enslave other natural men to feed his body and the body of his own kin. I am enslaved by natural men now. And in my bondage, I have created the notion that the artistic man is clever and will not be enslaved by the natural man.
An artistic man may never be tripped up by distraction or noise or lose focus under social misdirection, for he will assert himself, daily, in a manner that is appropriate to his Art and deferential to his Nature, all while evading the throes of social servitude. The artist will produce and that is all that matters in the ever consuming storm of nature. I know this even as I am chained to my desk, writing, studying. It is quite possible that I only believe this and do not know it in the scientific sense of knowledge. My only proof is myself, my terrible case.

I am enslaved by my fellow Natural Man. I entered this servitude of my own foolish volition with the vain hopes that I might one day find the means to rise above it…in short that I may one day become an Artistic Man. Now I must believe in this pursuit, in its object, in the artistic man’s ability to transcend the servitude of natural men—and if I ever lose faith in this belief, then I am just a natural man, chained to a desk by a student loan, instead of an apprentice loose upon the halls of an age-old tradition.

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