03 February 2011

The Problem with Interesting People

Do you know what your problem is?

You are always there. You’re like a noisy neighbor in an apartment building: banging around, doing what you do, and being an enormous distraction. It is getting to the point where I can hardly focus on the academic and professional progress expected of me.

That is your problem; you and all the other interesting people.

It’s a problem with higher education in general, I think. A college or university is meant to be a gathering of great (or, at least, well-trained) minds. And the undergraduate 'college experience' is supposed to be a time away from familiar surroundings when you encounter new people, new ideas, and new experiences. Graduate school, though, is less oriented toward expanding one’s horizons. Grad students are intellectual apprentices, meant to foster their own special expertise. And the variety of experiences and people – so valued in undergraduate education – are a constant source of frustration and delay when you are a graduate student.

Last semester alone, while completing my master’s thesis, I took an educational psychology course on teaching undergraduates and a journalism course in magazine writing. Neither course was in my department (tsk, tsk, tsk…); and both of them were filled with people whose interests covered developmental psychology, agricultural journalism, art education, and cultural trends. Then there was my opportunity to guest lecture on John Dewey’s Experience and Education and the impressive set of challenging questions and insightful feedback received from the students. This was further compounded by the people and ideas I encounter through my half-time assistantship as a graduate researcher. And, when you add in the things I see, learn, and hear from my wife, my son, and all the other fascinating people in my life… it's too much!

How on earth is person supposed to ignore all this background noise, all the curious chatter bleeding through the walls, and focus on the task of becoming a specialist?

While you chew on that, let me throw another question at you. Why should I have to? I just finished reading Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters about the clash between science and spiritualism in the late nineteenth century. The book’s central character, William James, was a trained physician, pioneer of American psychology, Harvard professor, accomplished philosopher, educational theorist, and dedicated psychical researcher. He had the gumption to listen to fascinating voices – some living and some, perhaps, not – and pursue a life of the mind that exemplified variety. I am no William James, but why shouldn’t I do the same? Why can’t I make an effort to be part historian, part philosopher, part educator, and part writer? Why should I seek to be exceptional at one of these things, when all I really want is to be better at all of them?

There are those who would encourage me to keep these questions to myself, lest I (further) damage my chances of being taken seriously as a graduate student. But I am genuinely curious. Would the progress and wellbeing of western civilization be horribly damaged if there were a little more space, somewhere between admission and a dissertation defense, for would-be intellectuals to wander around the entire campus? Furthermore, by discouraging breadth of curiosity among future faculty, what sort of education and college experience are we constructing for future undergraduates?

Seriously. I’m asking.

In the mean time, I could bust out some quotes from the godfathers of modern higher education, like Wilhelm von Humboldt, and invoke an appropriately intellectual sentiment: The ultimate task of our existence… can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us. But I am in a bit of a mood and am inclined to take my lead from Gary Coleman, the building super from Broadway’s Avenue Q. I am thinking, specifically, about a scene in which Coleman is fielding complaints about tenants – Kate Monster and Princeton – who are loudly establishing a particular sort of link…

[Coleman, on the phone]
You hear what? Hell no I won’t tell them to quiet down!

[Kate Monster, through the wall]
Are we being too loud?

Not at all, kids! You keep doin’ what you’re doin’.

Most of you have proven to be irascible pains in the behind and I wish you would knock it off with all the insights, probing questions, and generally interesting behavior. But don’t let me stop you from having fun.


  1. I just read (most of) Robert Richardson's biography of James, which won the Bancroft and was a follow-up to his superb biography of Emerson. He handles the spiritualism question with great tact, coming to much the same conclusion that you do.

  2. Thanks for the note, Cam.

    James is certainly an interesting character. However one feels about spiritualism (or science for that matter), it's a shame that so many people devote themselves to keeping strict and impermeable boundaries between various realms of ideas and inquiry.