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HANGING TEN OUT FOR AFRICA: Aggies for Africa go barefoot on campus for a good cause. Click Arts&Life index for a link to story. / Photo by Christy Jensen

Today's word on journalism

Monday, October 8, 2007

Celebrating Columbus . . .

"1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them."

-- Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), author, from Breakfast of Champions

(NOTE: Strictly speaking, this Vonnegut quote doesn't have anything to do with journalism. I'll owe you one. On the other hand, Columbus didn't have anything to do with discovering America, either, strictly speaking.)


The world is waiting for us to change -- has college prepared us to do that?

By David Sweeney

May 3, 2007 | Here I am just three credits from graduation; you think I'd be planning for life on the other side, as I have done for eight laborious semesters. Instead, from the vantage of hindsight, I find myself sorting through four years of Aggie memories.

From the Borders café, by cosmic coincidence, I hear John Mayer's Waiting for the World to Change, the song referenced by Utah State English Professor Patricia Gantt at the Last Lecture in April. Contrary to the song title, Gantt told students, the world waits for them -- Carpe diem!

It's a shame the Last Lecture was one of the first special lectures I'd attended at Utah State University. I've found that the majority of lectures are scheduled around the lunch hour, the idea being that most students are free then.

I was not. For music students, the early afternoon is nearly always booked with rehearsals. I would frequently plan to attend a special event only to find, each time, that I couldn't go.

This is one of my biggest regrets. I have always felt that education should not be bound to a classroom, study guide or major. In fact, after two years in music, an anthropology elective was one of the best classes I took.

The class was "Ethnography of Childhood" with Professor David Lancy and, though HASS advising told me I needed the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences credit, it counted for nothing.

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much. Without conditions, I was free to learn on my own, which is exactly what Lancy was teaching us to do. Isn't that what college is for -- to teach you how to ride once the training wheels and guiding hand are gone?

Lancy's class changed the way I think. It taught me that what works for one person doesn't for another, and that's OK. For each belief or attitude or statement there are one hundred times again as many perspectives. Of everything I learned, this is the most valuable: as ethnocentric thinking pits culture against culture, so, too, does tunnel vision pigeonhole us students by major.

Herman Hesse puts it more succinctly in his novella Siddhartha:

"'When a person seeks,' Siddhartha said, 'it can easily happen that his eye sees only the thing he is seeking; he is incapable of allowing anything to enter into him, because he is always thinking only of what he is looking for, because he has a goal, because he is possessed by his goal.'"

College is designed to funnel us each toward a specialized end. As experts in a certain subject, we will each find our niche, the presumption being we will make more money than we would have without a diploma.

There's a danger here, though. Once we label ourselves, or identify or achieve a goal, we can become apathetic, know-it-alls or, worse still, apathetic know-it-alls.

If, upon hearing a perspective that differs from our own, we immediately disregard it as invalid, we've placed a detrimental filter around your sphere of knowledge. The same applies to all aspects of education. We can't disregard a class or subject as unimportant because it's foreign.

Nor can we disregard what we learn outside of the classroom. Eric Smigel, my music history professor, taught me to question everything. Though (most) professors are wise, he said, don't pretend they're infallible. Take advantage of their knowledge, but also take advantage of all of the resources around you, specifically other students. To that I would add: visit the counseling center when you need help. It's a nice respite from finals week, and it's free.

Some of my favorite moments have been talking with a counselor on the third floor of the Taggart Student Center, above the din of my crazy college life. In a few short weeks, I learned more about myself than I did in many classes. Similarly, I looked forward to my time at the Quad Side Café -- where, by my senior year, I was hanging around almost daily -- talking with other students from other majors about what they were studying.

I advise all students to study outside their majors, even outside their non-major electives, and to enjoy it. We all have to learn what is required for our major -- that is a given, if we are to graduate. No one can force us, however, to expand our own minds before, during or after we graduate. Take a chance on a class you know nothing about. Don't be afraid to disagree with professors, or even rock stars. I, too, think Mayer has it backward: the world is waiting for us to change.


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