There’s always something to howl about

Want to be a better, more-perfect version of yourself? Master something difficult this year.

You weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity.Mait Jüriado / / CC BY-NC-SA

I always love to read about the outrageously nefarious bad guys who are doing all the things we hate. Doesn’t matter who “we” are, since the bad guys afflicting every “we” are always blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil.

I guess it’s useful to exaggerate your opposition, but here’s the thing:

Everyone I remember from school was a fuck-up.

Start with a good solid two-thirds compliant drones, dutifully going through whatever motions seemed to be required. Maybe half of the rest were glib and lazy. Even the straight-A apple-polishers were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade from the glib-and-lazy grown-up teaching the class.

Am I misrepresenting the world of education? Is there anything you can think of that you did in school that you’re truly proud of now. Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life that you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?

Was there any class that you took — ever — where you had to bust ass every day or risk get hopelessly lost? And when you got to that class, was that the end of your forward progress in that discipline?

The kids from the hard side of the quad — the maths, the sciences — know what I’m talking about. The kids from the soft side of the quad — the arts, the social sciences — may be recalling a graceless exit from the maths and sciences.

But the truth is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents. Partly this is our fault: Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. But mostly it was the fault of our teachers — and their teachers.

Were they outrageously nefarious bad guys, hell-bent on depriving us of a decent education? Were they blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil, conspiring to enslave us in a state of perpetual, unsuspected ignorance?

No. They were just cash-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. For a second thing, teachers generally intend to do nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them. But for the first thing, they are themselves glib-and-lazy know-nothing fuck-ups skating through life on a frozen river of knowledge a mile wide and a micron thick.

Belay that testy comment, at least for a moment. I absolve myself of nothing in these charges. I know how ignorant I am. I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies. But the fault for that is no one’s but my own.

When our grandparents went to high school — if their families were prosperous enough for them to get that far in school — they were expected to conquer the maths through calculus. It was understood that they would master biology, chemistry and physics. Their curriculum demanded a thorough grounding in the arts, including the ability to play an instrument while sight-reading musical notation. To call themselves educated, to graduate, they had to attain fluency in a foreign language — very often classical Latin or Attic Greek.

To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today. All hail the math gods, but how many of them can play a Beethoven sonata on the piano or violin? How many of that cohort can translate from Seneca? How many people reading this are not quite sure who Seneca was?

But: I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself. To the contrary, I want to show how to feel better about yourself — how to have more self to feel better about.

Yes, you were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself — with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by — you cheated yourself of an education.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone, but the future is yours to make of it what you will.

’Tis the season for New Year’s Resolutions, and that’s a good thing. Join that book club. Remodel that kitchen. Lose that unwanted weight. But you can make this a landmark year of your life with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult this year.

There is no shame in knowing how to say, “¿Dónde está el baño?,” but you are fluent in a foreign language when you can read and admire its poetry, when you get the jokes, when you can twist that language into clever witticisms. That’s mastery.

We are victims of Art Appreciation and Film Studies classes, glib-and-lazy time-wasters in which we learned nothing but how to pretend to know something. But there is no class called Geometry Appreciation. In the maths, you can either do the work or you can’t. This year you can pick up where you left off in math and push yourself as far as you can go.

And tell the truth: Every time you see a musician performing — popular music or classical — don’t you wish you could do that, too? The good news is, you can. All it takes is commitment and effort — and time.

Mastering a demanding new skill will take a while. The desire for instant results is how all New Year’s Resolutions get abandoned. But to learn a serious discipline will require your time every day — an hour or more a day of serious, dedicated effort. I like the idea of working every day, since, if you take no breaks from the work, you won’t have to resist the temptation to extend a break by one day and then another and another.

But the benefits to be realized are huge — far beyond anything you might be expecting. In Art Appreciation class, everyone participates in the group discussions, there are no right or wrong answers and the class is graded on the curve. That is, everyone, including the teacher, is wasting time on a pantomime of education.

But mastery of a truly difficult discipline can only be done alone. Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But it is only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin. Only you working alone can solve that quadratic equation — and prove your work. Even if you’re playing in an ensemble, the music will jar unless you yourself are competent to play your part.

You’ll be better for having improved your mind. But your mind will be improved for having learned something you may have overlooked in school: Only an individual mind can learn and master any branch of human knowledge. You’ll be a better scientist, a better mathematician, a better musician, a better linguist. But you’ll be a better person, too — more independent, more competent, more whole.

How much progress can you make on any resolution in a single day? Almost none. How much progress can you make in a year’s worth of serious, daily effort? You’ll be amazed. It may take you more than a year to get the education your grandparents had by the age of eighteen. But, unlike them, you have instant access to all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips — most of it for free.

And once you’ve mastered something truly difficult, you can take a second look at those outrageously nefarious, blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil and see them for what they truly are: Glib-and-lazy fuck-ups doing the minimum necessary to get by.

In Latin we can say, “Educere est educare” — to bring up is to bring out — to cultivate your mind is to liberate it, to lead it forevermore away from the slavery of ignorance. No matter what your pedigree, unless you were very lucky you were cheated of an education when you were young. This is the year you can begin to amend that deficit.

You’ll be better for the effort, and wiser, and more confident. But you’ll be more independent, too, more indomitable. And you’ll be more admirable — to your spouse, to your children, to your family and friends — and to yourself.

You weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity. Not by outrageously nefarious bad guys, but by glib-and-lazy fuck-ups.

This year is your chance to break the chains of ignorance forever. And in the process, you just might find that you have also broken the imaginary chains that bind you to supposed masterminds of evil.

[I wrote this for a couple of years ago, but I want to mirror it here, as well. –GSS]


2 Comments so far

  1. jim whatley January 10th, 2014 5:23 pm

    As captain Picard said on Star Trek NG. “Make it so”

  2. Angelina January 13th, 2014 12:06 am

    hmmm…great post..revitalised