Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Call to Arms

Graduate education is a form of spiritual warfare, an immense and immensely violent striving for recognition from one’s superiors, distinctions from one’s peers, and foundationally and ultimately formal qualification. It instills in the student a take no prisoners mentality because of the unremitting totality of the enterprise. To succeed is to lay hold of a great and elusive prize that is a permanent tangible reminder of the student’s value; to fail is to have inadequacy as a permanent brand on one’s self-image. The academy’s expectations pale in comparison to the professor’s expectations, and these in turn melt away beneath the weight of the expectations that students impute to both. It all amounts to a goal which is so apparently unattainable that it cries out to be sought with militaristic determination, in the unrepentant, unyielding haze of bloodlust.

The real of trick of the enemy, however, is to convince students that they are one another’s enemies on the academic battlefield. Thus, the student seeks to whet the scholarly appetite at the throat of his or her peers, and disputation is the native language learned in academic infancy. Curiosity is thinly veiled reconnaissance in which the competition is sized up, their shortcomings noted in a tactical ledger for future reference. Debate is a form of guerilla warfare where the student attacks mercilessly at the first sign of weakness and retreats again at the first glimmer of strength. These “mock” battles are rehearsed in private and acted out on grander and grander scales before professors as if by players on a stage. At the end, all eyes turn longingly to the judgment seat for some indication of who might have emerged victorious from the day’s fray.

But professors and the institutions they represent are neither a theater audience nor great adjudicators. They are lone watchmen standing before the gateway to student aspirations. What they lack in force of numbers they make up for in cunning, allowing or encouraging the deceit that students are at war among themselves. They placidly watch as students beat each other into weariness and then beg to have the prize handed to them, all the while delighting in the secret irony that the truly gifted students would realize that they have the collective power to storm the gate and take their prize by force.

A more reflective, more self-aware student body would spend less time emulating a knightly tournament and more time laying siege to academia, the stone keep with its rich storehouse of prestige and vocational security. Clarity of vision, mutual forbearance, and the combined force of a phalanx of intellects fresher and more virile than those who would oppose them, these would characterize the struggle for the unattainable goal. Then when the fortress had been razed and its keepers inevitably brushed aside, the new academy, perhaps even a stronger academy, could be constructed inviting a new, perhaps stronger, generation of students to storm its walls and take what is theirs by right of force and determination.

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