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What Is Possible

Humanities

By Sue Meng

I came across something the other day that struck me: an essay by Joyce, on the subject of epiphanies. He defined them as moments when the “soul of the commonest object seems to us radiant.” And so I began to wonder when it last was that anything had shone at Harvard, radiantly.

Sometimes in the sanctity of a brief moment, an idea—germinating, grasping—hatches, and we seem to see the world several shades more brightly than before. It is these moments that we so seldom stumble upon, in the routine busyness of our lives. How little time we have to think, when there is so much—and always more—we have to do.

In all the debate over the Core recently, much has been touted about the importance of a liberal arts education, and it occurs to me that what is lost in the breadth that such an education demands is a depth that makes it radiant. We read to finish, not mull over, debate, question, create. In our training to maximize efficiency, we somehow lose time and space in which to be profound.

Dean Lewis’ “Slow Down” letter singles out a culture of overcommitment as the cause of an increasingly more frantic pace of life. Of course—8 a.m. poster runs and four-hour rehearsals leave less time for much else. But it seems our conversations about restructuring the Core, rethinking our extracurriculars and rescheduling our courseloads, all meander around one question that is rarely addressed: what is the nature of our learning?

First, an example. I was sitting in section a few weeks ago, reviewing for a midterm, jotting down with the rest of my class the terms we would be expected to know. Be sure to talk about X and Y, cautioned the TF: we’ll take points off if you forget to mention W and Z. And so when the midterm came along I dutifully spit out W-Z, having still very little idea what any of them mean. The only word that adequately characterizes this endless pursuit—making sure we have done the reading or shown up for lecture, or at the very least have found a study group that did—is “pettiness.” Professors leave little room for rumination—regurgitation becomes the order of the day. There is a kind of smallness to the way we learn that stifles inspiration. Of course, not all classes are guilty of such limited imaginings, nor should they sacrifice details for larger ideas. But what does get lost in the kind of narrow thinking we are encouraged to do is space for the risky leaps that generate true learning—expansive, flexible and free.

Education should be above all an act of excavation, finding in the depths of things new ideas, using the art we study to create our own. I was shopping a creative writing course this year in which the professor reminded us that creative writing would take a different kind of time and mental space—less structured, more open-ended. But why is it that the kind of learning done in a creative writing course should be different from the kind done in a tutorial or a Core class?

The answer, I think, is that it shouldn’t. By being risk averse in how we learn, the rewards of risk-taking are often sacrificed for the rewards of playing it safe: narrow details take the place of a broader imagination. The kind of learning we do here should encourage depth, creativity and leaps of faith—risk-taking, as someone once said, is free. The cure for risk-aversion may require slowing down, but more importantly, it requires a joint effort on the parts of professors and students alike to change the culture of how we learn, leaving more room to take risks without being penalized for them, to probe and engage deeply with questions we are exposed to, to see radiance in the daily habits of learning. Risk-aversion may breed apathy, but surely a risk-taking education inspires nothing more or less than moments of epiphany.

There is a poem by Adrienne Rich ’51 that I love, an excerpt from which seems an appropriate way of ending this column: “If the mind were clear/and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/this particular state and say/This is how I would live if I could choose/This is what is possible.” And so, perhaps taking leaps is a better prescription than slowing down, finding out not just what is, but what is possible.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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