Below are four paper topics, three of which are actual topics for papers I am writing in the next two weeks. One of them is a fake. Can you guess which? Is it —
1) A comparison of the early rock ‘n’ roll song “Tutti Frutti” as performed by Pat Boone and Little Richard;
2) A study of modes of vision in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensationalist novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” in relation to Pre-Raphaelite painting;
3) An examination of American domesticity in Solomon D. Butcher’s photographs of Nebraska homesteaders in the 1880s;
4) A new reading of the Yom Kippur War through recently declassified documents and its practical applications to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict today.
Here’s what some folks said when given the test:
Father’s Answer: As long as your grades are good, I don’t care what you’re writing about.
Profoundly Old-Fashioned Grandmother: No use filling your head with ideas. It don’t mean a lick to the man you’re going to marry —
Little Richard: 4
Jaded College Student: Who cares?
Little Richard is right. It’s 4. The only paper that I feel could possibly benefit society and justify my time here at Yale is the one I am not writing. Sounds cynical, I know, but if you were about to embark on two weeks of writing papers as obscure as these — your sixth semester doing so — you’d be cynical too. That is, unless you could take these obscure topics seriously. I am finding it increasingly difficult.
Some people can. They’re called “professors.” They spend their lives studying literature, art and eighteenth century Flemish weaving techniques. They say things like, “Literature is the means by which society creates itself and affirms it values. Through novels we can understand ourselves.” As a freshman I was transfixed by the truth they seemed to convey — that studying the liberal arts was a useful endeavor, one that would enrich my life no matter what — now I am not so sure I buy it.
Well, buy it or not, I have bought it in a very real sense. And to me it seems a little extravagant to blow thirty-five thou on a deeper understanding of Pre-Raphaelite painting as it relates to Victorian novels. This is not to say I am ungrateful — I know I have been given an opportunity that most people in this world cannot afford. And I enjoy knowing stuff I didn’t know before and thinking critically and stuff. I just worry about how practical my liberal arts education will be anywhere else. The rest of America seems to value success and “know-how” over Marxist feminist deconstructionist theory. Where I come from, you can ride down the block in an Escalade blaring, “I’m a rich asshole” from a loudspeaker, but quote a little Oscar Wilde at a cocktail party and you may as well have SARS.
Sure, this kind of knowledge can have practical applications — if you understand literature, you can perhaps write better books and make more money. Also, thinking about silly stuff can be practice for thinking about more important stuff. (You may remember this as the “it teaches you how to think” justification that all math teachers use to defend their jobs.) And it can earn you a Yale diploma, which is why most of us are here in the first place.
Still, all this thinking about knowledge has got me thinking. About knowledge. Specifically, the knowledge you don’t learn in a classroom, the kind you can’t put down in a 7-12 page paper. Below is a Whitman’s sampler of little things I’ve learned while here at Yale, things that may seem obvious to you, but do please read them —
1) Fun is more fun than work, that’s why they call fun “fun” and work “work.” Not once while writing a paper did I ever think I would rather be writing the paper than seeing a movie, watching TV, or ringing doorbells and then running away. All of these fun things are more fun than work. (For more insight see maxim #212: “Work that is deeply enriching, like community service, is still work, it’s just deeply enriching.”)
2) Cars can be kinda annoying, and walking is not that bad.
3) Be tolerant of viewpoints other than your own. Then, with compassion and tolerance, try your darndest to change those viewpoints. No one likes to “agree to disagree.”
4) If you don’t know what you’re talking about — maybe you haven’t done the reading — don’t say too much because you’ll give yourself away. Also, don’t sound too ambiguous because then you could be talking about anything. Getting the balance right is a subtle art.
5) No matter what decision you make, it’s not going to please everyone. Between Wilco and Nappy Roots, I only like Nappy Roots. But hey, you win some you lose some.
6) People know who you are even when they pretend they don’t. Once I was talking to this girl who had called me by my name only a few days before, only now she pretended not to know me. The phrase, “I think we may have met before, but –” is indispensable. It should be added to the Pledge of Allegiance right after “under God.”
7) There are two types of dancers at parties, those who dance with personas, and those who do not.
8) You can be dead wrong about someone you think you know. Freshmen, did you know your roommate was gay and a quarter Cherokee? Just look out for Sophomore year.
9) When you’re drunk, and you write a brutally honest e-mail to a friend/lover/stranger, save it in “Drafts” and go to sleep. You can send it in the morning.
10) Wear sunscreen, to thine own self be true, and San Dimas High School Football Rules!
And in case you were wondering, that “Jaded College Student” is me.
Eric Eagan disavows all knowledge.