November 16, 2010

Re-defining the life of the mind

Students buried in books often forget discovery and exploration are essential to intellectualism

We slither back and forth on the floor to the beat of African drums. First we shimmy on our stomachs, then on our backs. We come to our feet with a quick hop, our heads still facing the floor and our arms swaying freely. This is elementary modern dance, and it’s yet another part of the journey to fulfill my Core requirements. To an outsider, a bunch of college students rolling around on the floor is a bizarre image. The truth is, we all look pretty distinguished in a classroom analyzing Nietzsche or doing a calculus proof, but outside of the classroom everyone in my weekly dance class looks downright infantile.

When I’m not in dance, I look as adult and studious as the rest of us, absorbing information while hovering over a book or computer screen. While this type of academic study can be enriching, we shouldn’t forget how to crawl, to explore freely and easily in the way that comes so naturally to children. Too often in our attempt to become competent intellectuals, we get so caught up in learning the jargon of our subject area and quoting the likes of Plato that we lose touch with our authentic selves—from our natural exploratory body movements to our sense of voice. We forget that exploration is what true intellectual inquiry is all about.

From elementary school onward, we learn that education is about reading, writing, and calculating proficiently. Before I entered kindergarten, I remember hearing the terms “homework” and “seat work” and cringing (It’s the visceral reaction I’ve always had to phrases containing the word “work.”) Back then, I couldn’t help but picture a bunch of drones in neatly lined up desks copying line by line from the dictionary. It turns out education is nothing like that, but sometimes it really looks like it. As a child, going to school seemed like a rite of passage—I could finally be like my big brother and learn about all the things that adults talk about. I’ve done just that—we’ve all done it. But there’s just one catch—I was learning about the world long before I entered school, and back then I was discovering things in the same manner as the great minds of our time.

We read about the theory of evolution in virtually every biology textbook, but we forget that Darwin made his historic discovery on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. And it was Steve Jobs’ college passion for and explorations of calligraphy that led him, in the early days of Apple, to design personal computers with beautiful aesthetics (everyone with bad handwriting owes Jobs a big thank you for the better quality of life). Even here at the University of Chicago, a group of U of C sociologists in the 1930s did some groundbreaking research on sexuality and urban culture just by exploring the city they lived in and the people in it.

Intellectual discoveries are usually the result of passionate and very personal struggles. That is why it is so vexing to be told that we don’t do anything practical here, that we are too intellectual to do active good. Intellectualism at its best is active and it does a lot of good. It allows us to see our world more completely and with more precision; it allows us to appreciate things we otherwise would not know existed, even when we are on a Galapagos getaway. In that sense, our work as intellectuals is never done; our minds, our ideas, and our worldview can and should be developing as we weave through our daily lives, not just when we are in desks facing forward.

If we want to perfect our skills and do our best as students, then we have to remind ourselves that inspiration comes in unexpected ways. The hardest part of my dance class is getting a bunch of University of Chicago students to relax. I can’t tell you how much time we’ve spent learning how to fall to the ground, learning that when we don’t think about it, our bodies catch us naturally as we fall. None of us are going to stop reading or planning for our futures (How could we? Time schedules are up!), but as we file more and more information into our ever-expanding brain circuitry, let us not forget the days when we discovered the world on our hands and knees. If we can combine the expansive resources of college and our ability to extract information from the experts with childlike curiosity and our own personal voice, we are primed to be a generation of great intellectuals and citizens.

Chelsey Rice-Davis is a second-year in the College majoring in Sociology.