Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Speech: "About how it's good to know things"

[My professor friend asked me to give a speech at an induction ceremony, with the very vague topic of "Yay liberal arts! Yay knowing things!" And here's what I wrote! I'm speaking it tomorrow, wish me luck!]

Not quite four years ago, I arrived at Stony Brook as a freshman. I thought I would learn everything. Four years is a lot of time, right? I would pick up four or five languages, satisfy my curiosity about geology and botany, take all the classes in the linguistics department and still have time for computer science, art history, philosophy, writing, psychology, multivariable calculus...

Seven semesters have sprinted by, with me chasing after them, perpetually surprised at how fast they run. And now the eighth semester is slipping out of my grasp, and I still haven't learned half the things I hoped to.

In retrospect, it was absurd to imagine that I would leave my undergraduate education no longer hungry to know more and more and more. For this seems to be the nature of learning--that the more I know, the more I want to know. The more answers I hear, the more questions become possible, in a cycle that evokes Meno's paradox. How can I seek something of which I am wholly ignorant? If I don't know the shape of the things that are unknown, how can I look for them? and if I don't even have the vocabulary to formulate a question, how can I ask it?

But these are the things a liberal arts education provides: words like paradigm and instrumentalization, shapes like top-down and bottom-up; the ability to ask questions, peers who are also seeking wisdom.

We speak of the pursuit of knowledge, as though understanding were a deer stalked in the woods by a solitary hunter who carries the scientific method like a lethal weapon. But maybe learning is more like constructing a house, or a temple. We work together to build a framework of ideas to dwell in. When confusion rains down, these walls of knowledge will keep out the storm.

Or maybe learning is like tying knots, or like weaving. After all, text and textile come from the same root. What can I possibly have in common with Achilles, the brutal warrior? And yet when I read the Iliad, I can see myself in him. We are connected. Literature weaves us together.

Or maybe learning is more like farming. We aren't just hunter-gatherers, roaming the wilderness to collect disparate bits of data to add to a collection which, we hope, will sustain us through a winter of meaninglessness. Rather, we are planting ideas and watering them. We are weeding out false dichotomies and over-generalizations. Sometimes we cross-pollinate (psychology with literature, or computer science with linguistics).

When spring comes, the flowers are glorious. Then summer arrives, and we find ripening in our fields a harvest of connections and causalities, proofs and poems, paintings and paradigms, criticism and creativity. The whole university turns out to reap.

The fruit of learning is good to eat and pleasing to the eye. Knowing history makes the future less daunting, the present more intelligible. Knowing pragmatics brings order from the chaos of an argument. Knowing Shakespeare's sonnets makes falling in love less terrifying. Ideas that seemed at first hopelessly abstract, upon approach become surprisingly relevant; they bring comfort in confusion, they equip us to face the unforeseen.

This knowledge is a good fruit. But we don't climb the tree of knowledge hoping to fill an empty stomach. Hungry for understanding, we don't expect that understanding, once plucked, will eliminate our hunger. We expect only that there will be pleasure in eating the fruit of knowledge.

The pursuit of knowledge is not a quest for satiation. Rather, it is a quest to touch things that were once unattainable, to connect bits of data like broken twigs and build a tree that, astonishingly, blossoms, grows leaves, bears fruit. The pursuit of knowledge is a quest for greater understanding and for a greater hunger for understanding.

College has given me knowledge of many things--which is to say, college has connected me to many things. When I arrived at Stony Brook, I was interested in everything but each subject seemed to stand apart from the others, like a mountain peak separated from other mountains by an ocean. I thought I needed a boat to get from one idea-island to the next.

But now I see that all those peaks grow from the same mountain range, and that ocean is just fog that clears up when the sun comes out. Everything is connected. I know a few things, and if I just follow those things I do know, they will take me to all the others.

[I essentially wrote this speech all in one piece without an outline, and yet it came out pretty coherent and orderly. I don't think I would have been able to do that if I hadn't been keeping this blog for the past three and a half years. Yay for writing regularly! Looking forward to having time to blog properly soon...]

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