Know Thy Shelf
Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Students are overeducated. For the amount of input we cram into our heads every day, we produce very little output. Much of our cerebral energy and struggle seems to fall out of the back of our heads once a new exam pops up or we take off on fall break. It’s foolish and wasteful. It’s like dumping water all over the place in the hopes of hitting some grass. Our contemplation, analysis, exposure and culture run off in excess. What good does knowledge do when it’s lying around in puddles?
One of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde, was the epitome of the overeducated youth. His parents were Class A intellectuals in Dublin and he studied classics at Trinity College and Oxford. Once he had established himself in European society as a purebred dandy, he made a living traveling around America lecturing about beauty and pleasure. He was mostly popular for his ridiculously long hair and strange wardrobe choices.
His only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” is about a handsome youth, Dorian, whose new portrait has a shocking mystical property: the painting shows signs of wear and tear instead of his own body. After realizing his youth and beauty will never fade, Dorian indulges in every 19th-century man’s dream: pretentious social circles, opium-induced hallucinations, beautiful women with low self-esteem, lush rugs and exotic perfumes.
Dorian’s luxurious lifestyle, however, takes a toll on his portrait. Even though Wilde’s writing is lovingly laden with beautiful diction and flowery syntax, Dorian’s character sours. He takes the philosophy of pleasure and beauty to the extreme of hedonism, and the effects are fatal.
But Dorian’s fictional philosophy was not too far from Wilde’s every day reality. He lived to talk about art and beauty and pleasure. Dorian could be the incarnation of Wilde’s self-doubt and self-criticism. Perhaps Wilde had existential crises while traveling from lecture hall to lecture hall, wondering what was the point of it all. And at the end of “Dorian Gray,” that finishing point looks pretty empty and bleak.
Students could very well find themselves in the same predicament: totally overwhelmed with heady philosophy, complex mathematics, outmoded languages and nowhere to put them. Admittedly, the exercise of intellectual engagement and interdisciplinary analysis are essential to our development as thinkers. But that’s just it – we’re just thinkers. Too often our parents, now stuck at their 9-to-5 jobs, or, more likely, 5-to-9 jobs, say wistfully, “You have the world at your fingertips.” And it’s true. We have the world at our fingertips, but right now we’re just using the world for finger-stretching exercises.
The solution? Take a page out of Wilde’s book. Write. I’m not talking about an academic paper – those are restrained by discipline or audience. American writer William Zinsser said, “Writing is thinking on paper.” Write about everything: the doubts, thrills, indulgences, surprises, fears, failures, random tidbits, connections and absurdities we learn about every day. I suspect Wilde wrote “Dorian Gray” in part to sort out the deluge of aesthetic and moral analysis he had clanking around in his mind.
We write to make sense of things, to see if what is jumbling about in our heads is actually important, or if it falls flat once applied to paper. As we continue to culture and develop ourselves, it is essential that we test out our philosophies, question our instincts and demonstrate our logic.
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The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.