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In Praise of Academic Abandon

By Craig K. Comstock

Like everyone else, students crave clear signs of their worth, signs which are both self-reassuring and impressive to others. In college, such signs primarily take the form of grades, Averages are calculated and records kept. For eager parents, over-worked teachers, curious friends, even for the student himself, these grades are the measure of his success--and in senior year, the record is sent off to fellowship committees and prospective employers. According to its authoritative testimony, parents praise or scold, committees grant or withhold, so that even if grades served only as a report to others, the record would have to be taken seriously. Of course, it means more, for most students depend upon grades as the tangible evidence of their own achievement.

The grade system, however, has one flaw: it either warps (and sometimes ruins) the learning process, or, in the case of brilliant and unorthodox students, often fails to give a relevant report of their educations. In the first and more common case, the pressure of grades provides the dominant motive for studying, and influences strongly both the selection of material and the style of handling it. Worried about next week's hour exam and next month's final, the student often learns simply what he fears will be asked--and, what is a more subtle distortion, he learns to manipulate the "subject matter" in a way fitting for the impending exam. Solemnly fulfilling a lecture schedule and a reading list, the student aims his efforts at an hour of frenzied scribbling (or, in the case of finals, three hours).

Perhaps this explains why, at a college so proud of its academic tradition, we hear so little talk about courses, except, that is, about exams, "curves," and grades. Harvard, we are told, is a "free marketplace of ideas," an "intellectual community," a "clash of lively minds." But the actual lack of academic talk mocks these noble metaphors of commerce, fellowship and sport. Courses, by and large, are pursued in a social vacuum. It means nothing that students gather in a lecture hall, for they could as well remain in their rooms and watch the show on television. And in the House dining halls--where, we like to pretend, so many ideas are traded over the ice-cream--most academic talk concerns not the subject being studied, but, again, the grading system.

Within this peculiar structure of courses, certain students fail to fulfill their own or others' expectations. Some lack the talent or, more likely at Harvard, the background. (Some are lazy.) But another group also fails -- a group which is unmistakably bright, full of curiosity and ambition. In their courses, they "under-achieve," for they seem to lack an interest in (and a respect for) the work. They opt for or fall into careers of academic abandon, and, at their best, make brilliant use of Harvard College. As a group they are widely misunderstood, and often confused with cases of "academic suicide"--a phrase describing students who have rebelled against the system with no idea of what they wanted, and who, consequently, have simply frittered away their college years in aimless (in)activity.

In contrast, what I call academic abandon is a sign of discretion, of the fruitful use of rebellion. The term is ambiguous, and is meant to suggest both a gay freedom within academic work and, at times, a partial abandonment of such work for other styles of learning. As a career, academic abandon calls for persistent and ruthless self-criticism and for judgment about what is worthwhile doing. It is a style difficult to maintain, but easy to fall into.

Its recruits are hard-working students who may have sensed scholarly fakery in what they are told to read and listen to, who have found motives for learning more profound than being able to "cream" an exam, who enjoy following their own lines of thought and study, who have faith (sometimes exaggerated) in their powers of self-education; who, in short, believe that they will learn best what they want to learn. In its first sense (a gay freedom within academics), abandon means staying away from vapid lectures, auditing widely, and mostly, haunting the libraries and bookstores, reading broadly and selectively, making up personal bibliographies. In its second sense (pursuing extracurricular activities), academic abandon suggests the development of rigorous, but non-academic styles of education. In every college activity there are loafers, second-raters, but also the young men who make things happen, who direct plays, edit newspapers, write verse, organize campaigns. Managed properly, academic abandon is a rich life, offering the best of many worlds, nourishing curiosity, suggesting diverse ways of learning, and allowing the student to play a wide variety of roles.

Ambivalance Toward Grades

It has dangers, too. Most of them hinge on the ambivalent attitude toward grades which stalks nearly every case of academic abandon. Almost everyone appears to accept grades: the official culture of the College--except for a web of highly placed conspirators -- sanctions the grade system, basing upon it the continuation of financial aid (less so now than before), acceptance into an honors program (which includes the luxury of individual tutorial), and recommendations for future applications. So, in defying the grade system, the student mingles fear in his future, guilt arising from his defiance of authority, doubts about the relative worth of what he has chosen to study and do, and the suspicion that, in rejecting the slavish aspects of the course system, he also undervalues its utility.

If dumb acceptance of the course system is a sort of dull marriage, then academic abandon (to use an overworked but apt image) can be a series of love affairs: liaisons with historical and literary figures, with movements past and present, with the seashore, with "great ideas," with cities (like Durrell), with mathematics and music.... At times, this process is seemingly unproductive, and prominent among the metaphors of academic abandon is "gestation"--an unseen but strongly felt growth. Like rebellion against the grade system, such metaphors can serve either as excuses for not working or, in the ideal case of academic abandon, as a defense of unorthodox achievements. Unorthodox, not primarily in protest against the system, but in search for more congenial methods of learning, methods which are self-sustaining, which depend on interest rather than grades.

In such a career, there co-exist two standards of achievement: (1) a striving to surpass the best work done in a field, and (2) a working measure, seeking patiently to surpass oneself. The first suggests a goal (ill-defined, but alluring), the second a method of operation. The fairly common case where ambition is unbounded, but also unsure of how to proceed (lacking the second standard of achievement), produces a sense of frustration, which can become an excuse either for not trying at all or for finally accepting the mechanical comforts of the course system.

Even though Harvard has long used (even exhausted) the image of the "frontier" in intellectual life, many students appear to miss the simple point that settling one frontier always opens another. As a result, they focus too much on the goal (settlement), and not enough on the process (exploring, mastering, moving on). Opting for academic abandon, in contrast, signifies a restless concern with process.

And it signifies, too, an impatience with using the future as an excuse for dull ritual or as a grim projection of personal disappointments. As an excuse, the future is often invoked to sanction a witless routine leading to rewards, honors, appointments--the joke being that "status" as a goal, like grades, is a confusion of sign for substance.

Future As Apocalypse

As a projection, the future is now often seen in apocalyptic terms. Fate poses as "the bomb," and the cult of the mushroom cloud is, in many cases, a grand projection of private fears having nothing to do with atomic war. In contemplation of world ruin, a would-be tragic hero finds grisly self-fulfillment. Part of the same syndrome is fearful talk about historical inevitability, about the decline of the West. In each case, ample evidence suggests a realistic fear, but among those with apocalyptic strivings, the process is often reversed: the fear finds the evidence. (Similar, too, is our censorship of the American dream, our loss of self-confidence. Once the dream knew, was sure of itself; now we convene committees on the "national purpose" to gather the words which once expressed--and are meant now to inspire--a vision. Here, again, is a case of idolatry--of placing faith in symbols rather than substance.)

And so, too, are the standard reactions to a career of academic abandon--the reaction of an upholder of the course system who urges adjustment to it, and that of a fellow student who, dutiful himself, finds a vicarious thrill in the freedom of his friend and urges him on in his "defiance." Academic abandon, therefore, is subject to these contradictory pressures, both of them irrelevant to its spirit, both seeing only the fact of rejection--the one disapproving, the other sanctioning. Neither, however, understands the positive impulse of academic abandon, for to one the phenomenon is simply a malfunctioning of the system; while to the other it appears as a challenge to a system which fails to satisfy him, but which he dares not leave.

In its intellectual strivings, academic abandon does what the course system sets out to do, and in this respect, the two ideals meet. Insofar as a course is not simply a set of requirements, but a jumping-off point, it fulfills its aim. When this ideal is lost, however, academic abandon arises, and from its style of self-evaluation, the college has lessons to learn.

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