Writing a B.A. is an endless battle of wills

By Patrick Hogan

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion…”

At the risk of coming off a little too much like one of “those kids” from Sosc class, I thought this colorful bit of ranting from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy would provide an appropriate starting point for today’s piece. I didn’t fully appreciate what everyone’s favorite venereally afflicted German was gushing about until last week, when I flew home to work on my senior B.A. thesis while the rest of U of Civilization was off in tropical locales experimenting with new and tremendously alcoholic ways to promote brain damage. It was just me and my freakishly deformed giant of a paper staring me right in the eyes; we were like titans waging an academic Armageddon whose far-from-determined outcome would decide whether I graduate or linger on in the dusty dungeons of Cobb.

This battle of wills ended almost as soon as it began with me bursting into tears.

Whining about B.A. papers is nothing new. In fact, for those of you who aren’t fourth-years, I’d recommend you start picking up obscure hobbies or reading interesting books. Otherwise, by the time fourth year rolls around, you and your friends won’t have anything to talk about other than your B.A.s, having exhausted pretty much all avenues of conversation except those intersecting at mutual commiseration. Yet, despite its lack of novelty, I am convinced that all this railing against the academic fates is quite justified. What I stumbled upon quite by accident, what had reduced me in an instant to such a pitiable state, was the realization that I, and probably most of us seniors writing B.A. theses here at the U of C, are really the butts of an enormously cruel and elaborate prank perpetrated upon us by a higher educational authority. The more I reflected upon all I had learned here at Chicago, the more I began to understand how completely right Nietzsche was about poor old Hamlet. All the beleaguered seniors out there, myself included, who have “gained knowledge” and “peered into the essence of things” in class after class are now unable to write a senior paper, our minds and souls broken and tossed to shards upon the ruinous rocks of the B.A.

This, my friends, is the dark truth behind a full and complete liberal education: It puts you through four years of “preparation” before confronting you with an impossible task. How can anybody be expected to churn out a senior paper? The B.A. represents the punch line to a long and terrible joke. The U of C in fact stymies action and promotes apathy. Nothing kills action or more completely turns individuals into Nietzsche’s paralyzed Dionysians like a thorough and complete liberal education—the more one learns, the more one strives to dive deeper into the comfort of inaction and denial. Ignorance is not just bliss; it’s also the ultimate source of motivation (as demonstrated by our leaders in recent years: the less you know, the more you feel justified in going to war). I surely could have produced a 40-pager in a week a few years ago. But that was back before I fully understood the monumental challenges associated with climate change, and before I’d taken that anthropology class in which we learned society will inevitably collapse anyway, and before I discovered that there are people who actually believe what Anne Coulter has to say.

How can I possibly be expected to go the extra academic mile in the next few weeks when I’m learning a little more evereyday how complex and terrifying the world is? For confirmation of the dark mysteries of reality, I needed to look no further than our own quads after spring break, where littering the ground and dangling limply from the trees were the massacred remains of stuffed bunnies, adorable faux fur critters impaled on carrots and bereft of their gummy worm bowels. (You can’t make this up; if you missed it, pictures of this bunny butchery are available upon request.) Does this rabbit Guernica offer further proof of the horrors of reality, excusing further retreat into inaction? Or is it perhaps just the bizarre manifestation of some other suffering senior soul working out his or her B.A. frustration?

Being well educated still trumps the alternative, I suppose. Unfortunately, the U of C’s brand of education is the kind of heady draft that illuminates and inspires before plunging one deep into a long dark hangover of the soul. Regardless of all the indoctrination that goes on in Rockefeller during Orientation Week, I think it’s pretty clear what’s up. Forget the Aims of Education. What lies in store at the end of the Core can be better described as the Maims of Education: a mind so ravaged and blasted by the vastness, and downright bitchiness of it all that to demand it produce a scholarly and coherent behemoth of a paper goes beyond sick-minded humor and into the realm of cruel and unusual punishment.