On Education and Living in the Snow Globe

What does it mean to be educated? A year ago, I believed that the most educated members of society resided within a 10 mile radius of Great St Mary's church – part of the terms of residence for the University of Cambridge, ranked second by the QS world university rankings. Today, I believe otherwise. I am grateful for my Cambridge education not for what it taught me about Renaissance literature, but because it revealed to me the person that I want to be.

Though afforded with the opportunity to attend any Canadian post-secondary institution of my choosing with full funding, I chose Cambridge on account of my childhood dream of living in England. Romanticizing the landscape, I pictured myself bounding through A. A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, accompanied by Enid Blyton's Famous Five, and protected by the Knights of the Round Table in my quest for the Holy Grail (without the coconuts).

I was not disappointed. Cambridge was everything I had dreamed: the sleepy river dotted with little punts progressing steadily towards Grantchester, past the King's College cows and the willow trees, beneath which students lounge lazily. It's all too perfect – like a snow globe you keep on your desk and shake to give the illusion of winter:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.
— Emerson, On Experience.

Still, I enjoyed the relative peace and tranquility of winter in Cambridge. Relative to my upbringing, the sumptuous lifestyle afforded me time and energy to pursue other interests: I enrolled in yoga and hip-hop classes, engaged in sparkling repartee with my fellow graduates, attended weekly theatre productions, and travelled to London, Edinburgh, Wales, and Barcelona. Ironically, I read more twentieth-century poetry than sixteenth-century criticism, devouring two anthologies of Rumi, as well as the works of Auden, Armitage, Heaney, and Eliot. I filled five journals, and in them noted ideas for future reading, conversations I'd had with friends, observations and angst about everything in between. To my horror, I found people more interesting than books, and thus began to question the purpose and meaning of my academic life, doubtful of its superiority and whether I wanted to continue with it at all.

I recall the previous Christmas, when my mother accused me of being selfish and uncharitable for not partaking in the family festivities; consumed by my goal of being admitted to Cambridge and thinking of nothing and nobody else (my phrasing). At the time, I was baffled, for what could be nobler than getting into Cambridge in order to unravel the mysteries of the universe? Like Marlowe's Faustus or Shelley's Frankenstein, my hymn was to intellectual beauty, to the mind and the magnificent products of its workings:

So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow.
— Marlowe, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

Where else but at Cambridge could I prove my intellectual worth? As Emerson writes, "of British universities, Cambridge has the most illustrious names on its list". This is where Milton and Byron wrote, Russell and Wittgenstein thought, and Hawking gave A Brief History of Time. The whole list of achievements drags you down like a ball and chain; and what had I achieved, besides a few terrible free verse poems and the discovery that people are more interesting than books?

It was nauseating. I was happier on a train to London than in the University Library – which reminded me of an insane asylum containing a hospital cafeteria that my supervisor joshingly called the "immortal luxury of the UL". These feelings, I later ascertained, were in accordance with Victor Frankenstein's advice to Walton, regarding the monster he had created but was unable to control: "seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition". Indeed, for a nineteen-year old, Mary Shelley was remarkably perceptive; we recognize our humanity in the monster who embodies our deepest fears and motivations:

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always to be observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.
— Shelley, Frankenstein.

My mother was right: the university to which I had applied was weakening my affections and destroying my taste for simple pleasures. I did not take the time to smell the roses because I did not know that the roses were there.

The other day, a friend of mine made a similar observation, lamenting that an academic interest in embodiment (the study of corporeal existence) had, ironically, led to a desire to relinquish academic study in order to live inside her own body. What does it mean to be human, she asked. Doesn't it mean to live in the physical world that surrounds us; to walk in the forest and explore; to bake things; to make something real with our hands?

As I record this conversation, I cannot help but think of Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath rivals Mary Shelley's in its stark portrayal of humanity. Steinbeck, who never completed his degree at Stanford, places experience above academic study; he reverses the roles of teacher and student by placing words of wisdom in the labourer's mouth. Casy, the preacher, is analogous to the disenchanted academic who realizes the difference between knowledge and wisdom:

An’ you ain’t gonna preach?”

”I ain’t gonna preach.”

”An’ you ain’t gonna baptize?”

”I ain’t gonna baptize. I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ‘em nothin’. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ‘em talk, gonna hear ‘em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ‘em an’ learn. Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, and all that’s what I didn’ understan’. All them things is the good things.
— Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

To borrow a line from Donne, "no man is an island entire of itself", and concomitantly no man can live and flourish in a snow globe: the fantasy keeps him apart from his fellow men, and from himself. Living in the snow globe of Cambridge didn't give me an education, it taught me what it means to be educated, which is to recognize the difference between knowledge and wisdom; to promote open-mindedness; and to strive for goodness by cultivating receptivity to all types of people.

Thus a good education teaches us to appreciate that which we already have; to taste the simple pleasures of good food and company; to be present to our physical reality, exploring its many forests, building things, and getting our hands dirty. An educated person is not someone who attended one of the top 200 schools listed on the QS university world rankings, but someone who is cognizant of the truth in all things, including that which is outside of academia.