The first day of school
Emily McConville | Thursday, August 25, 2016
I spent the past two semesters abroad. Which was great; I’ll tell you way too much about it sometime. I did worry, though, about returning to classes at Notre Dame. Would I find them more difficult now? Would I like them? And the eternal question — is taking history and Italian and journalism instead of something sensible like political science or business worth it?
So with those first-day jitters I walked into a creative nonfiction class on Tuesday, where I was handed “On Keeping a Notebook,” by Joan Didion. Joan Didion’s great — she has a beautifully-written way of getting me to agree with her. In this particular essay she reveals the fundamental “truth” that we are primarily concerned only with ourselves; we remember certain things based on what they meant to our personal lives; and, even factual truths are flexible based on how we perceive them. While I’m reading, at least, I’m convinced that I have a little glimpse into reality. I begin to flip through my own memories, questioning their basis.
Then I walk into a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I’m told I’m about to read the greatest reflection on salvation ever written in the West. The professor backs up, introduces himself, goes over participation and grading policy, then all of a sudden his voice is at a crescendo and he’s insisting that the greatest impediment to Dante’s Paradise is selfishness, the inability to do unto others; our very salvation depends on rejecting self-absorption. Oh, and Dante, according to Dante, actually did descend into the deepest circles of hell and then ascend to witness highest redemption, and we’re supposed to accept the truth of the fiction in order to put ourselves on the path to God. I, maybe too easily swayed, catch another, entirely contradictory, glimpse of reality.
Then I hurry to political philosophy, where I’m told Herodotus is considered the first modern historian, except for the gods-intervening-in-human-affairs thing, and also the full-transcript-of-speeches-supposedly-given-hundreds-of-years-ago-for-which-we-have-no-other-source thing. That’s okay. The man says a lot about how nations work; we’ll be pull out some important political-philosophical truths. Whether self-interest is paramount remains to be seen.
Then I go to history class, where we talk about our senior thesis ideas and tell stories about our summers. We laugh a lot, and I wonder why we remember things the way we do and how much we’re exaggerating for effect. I think about my senior thesis and how it arose not out of a burning need to unpack the journalistic context of this one Italian writer, but a desire to accomplish a big and serious piece of writing and to keep grad school options open. Looking out for number one.
And now the meta-question: Does pondering the nature of truth and self-interest do anything for my life or for the world around me? Does it make any sense to let a theory of humanity grow in my head and then dismantle it half an hour later? I remember all the times I’ve asked myself both how and why I do something, dismantled theories from classes past reappearing in, say, the practical question of how I approach a difficult journalistic interview, driving me to be more cerebral but also more thoughtful, more compassionate. I let the pondering happen.
Contact Emily McConville at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.