So much of happiness hinges on our ability to find newness in the world. This summer, I traveled to four different cities, visited the Grand Canyon for the first time and nearly doubled my library by purchasing 47 books.
For me, travel and education have always been inseparable from their ability to break up the monotony of life.
"Becoming educated” has never been a goal marked by graduation dates, certificates or grades. It has always been the primary mode of engagement with the world, as one fine-tunes oneself into becoming the finest receptacle for the world’s output, acutely sensitive to different sensations, information and experiences.
While we may find that we won’t always be students and while the politics of higher level education may sicken or dishearten us, I hope that we will always put ourselves in the best position to learn.
So often we associate learning with all the things we like least about life.
Children who are physical learners are told relentlessly by adults to control themselves and are encouraged in every sphere of their lives to follow rules and mimic proper behavior.
Young adults no longer enter college enthused by the prospect of learning new ideas but mentally fettered by the demands of job security and interest loan rates.
When asked about their lives at college, students rarely seem interested in discussing what they’re learning. The conversations I overhear seem focused on quickening the learning experience as much as possible through endless partying and drinking, as if to forget that learning is meaningful. Otherwise, students are waiting for college to “just be over.”
Perhaps that’s because we’ve been learning on someone else’s schedule, so much so that learning outside the classroom feels like a chore or an impossible task.
The terms of our own education have always been dictated to us, either through legislation, tuition fees or a school bell.
What’s ironic is that for most of the year, I’ve deliberated the merits of graduate school and this short essay is the product of an intellectual and personal crisis with my own education several semesters in the making.
I’m not sure if most undergraduates considering grad school are like me, but if they are, I imagine that most are terrified of the trajectory their intellectual lives will take without the crutch of institutionalized education. If they are like me, they have a hard time coming to terms with the sense that they might actually need to be in school — that they are actually not very independent thinkers and that their minds desperately rely on constant feedback and interaction with others to grow.
As a student of the humanities, part of the appeal of grad school rests in the fact that it is an intellectual safety net. I’ve always been nervous about the kind of downward spiral my mind would fall into without the aid of teachers whose opinions I admire or classmates who readily provide positive reinforcement.
I’m afraid that I cannot kindle the fire of my own curiosity, and I’m afraid that I’ve always needed to be in school to think critically.
This summer, however, I could feel my fears subsiding with every book I opened and every new place I visited. I found that there wasn’t anything holding me back except my own sense of limitation. With enough time, patience and consideration, I could learn almost anything I wanted to. The ideas and experiences I prized most were not locked away waiting to be decoded by seasoned academics.
Because learning has always been crucial to my appreciation of life, this was a minor epiphany that became liberating. New ideas I read about never fail to stimulate me and they inform my understanding of old events, so even thoughts and ideas that become stale through the passing of time can become revitalized by new information.
If you can manage to keep yourself in a position to learn, you equip yourself with the tools you’ll need to keep your life satisfying and meaningful.
I remain indecisive and insecure about grad school, like I am in most areas of my life. But with the new semester upon us, I hope that we can savor every opportunity to learn and I hope that we'll be able to feel like our education is within our control. I hope that we can be kinder and more patient with ourselves when an idea or emotion seems challenging.
I hope we can all manage to build a little space for ourselves, for our minds to wander a little on our own terms.
Jean Sénac, a poet I discovered while browsing Skylight Books in Los Angeles, talks about a lover who “restored to each syllable its innocent grin.”
I hope the ideas we encounter this semester can do that for us — restore to each moment a little more play and wonder, a little bit of sweetness to make things feel just a little lighter and all experiences a little newer.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @ce_truong.