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DON’T YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN COUNT ME OUT (IN)

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By John Keating

Art by Will Harrison

Please don’t go to college.

You can get a high-paying job or become an entrepreneur without spending all that time and money, without getting into crushing debt just to sit in a room with a gray-haired burnout and watch PowerPoints, and the internet makes classes pointless—all the information you need is at your fingertips—and in the postmodern world predetermined curricula enforced by “experts” who get their paychecks from the Approved Official Story is dying out like the ring-tailed lemur. It deserves to die, because look at Harvard—all it produces is banking bros. You already know how to make up your mind about an issue, and if you don’t know, Noam Chomsky is bound to have a quote somewhere that’ll explain it. Or you can just see what a Rethuglican/Libtard thinks, and think the opposite.

I guess it was about the middle of that paragraph that the irony oozed out like jam from a Hostess Yodel. In fact it’s all lies, also all true. So with love, or road atlases.

(Everything I write here is self-serving; I am a faculty member in a humanities field at a Houston institution of higher education, and my job depends on y’all enrolling and paying tuition and getting those degrees and certificates. I am part of the Problem—one of those gatekeepers who’s decided you have to pass my Core courses before you can study what you really care about, and who insists that the functionally useless “liberal arts” be allowed to piggyback on the practical money-making majors like business and pharmacy and hotel & restaurant management. Because, like apple-cider vinegar, it’s good for you if you just believe.)

And then, if you want to give it a try: we’re all guilty of permitting, if not participating in, a decades-long assault on education—part of an open conspiracy to kill every vestige of post-WWII enlightened liberal society—that has slashed funding and destroyed the tax base, has turned the Social Contract’s belief in the value of learning into an ideological witch-hunt and forced the public colleges and universities to transform themselves into glorified vocational schools with some odd vestiges of the collegiate past like English Lit and Survey of Western Philosophy hanging on by their bloody fingernails. And we, the humanities teachers, are the unwitting bait dangling in front of College’s real purpose: to hook and drag the smartasses who might possibly Critically Think about what’s being done to them into soul-crushing, protest-nullifying, inescapable debt.

So why would I sit here and tell you that yes, college is worth it? Aside from saving my own fucking job so I can pay off my own loans, I mean. Well, I have a good reason—because the above rant despite being all true also is a lie.

In 2001 Michael Moore made an excellent observation: the American people are not stupid; they are geniuses. In his essay “Idiot Nation,”[1] Moore discusses spending a long period listening to sports talk radio, and realizing that the callers were using research and rhetorical skills that would make any Comp II professor faint with pleasure. The problem, as he states it, is not that people are idiots, but that they don’t care about the things that really matter; that if they cared as much about and spent as much time thinking about and discussing meaningful issues as they do about the NFL draft, our country would be completely different.

I’ve spent years now immersed in the thoughts and convictions of more people than I can count, involving a huge range of topics, reading them and discussing them and dissecting them, trying to understand them and help the students who express them to more effectively communicate and support them, and I assure you that people on all sides and edges and planes of the political and social spectra, of all ages and genders and home values and devotions to body modification and degrees of psychological stability, all are equally invested (or not) and thoughtful (or not), and all share an equal ability to have brilliant insights and base their ideas on generosity and thoughtful consideration and altruism—but also to blindly swallow and puke out clichés and take their superficial understanding of important issues as complex freethinking, to see cherry-picking quotes and browsing hashtags as research, and to “tolerate” the holding of opposing ideas rather than to try consider them as possibly legitimate. I mean, if I tell you that I love Marmite, isn’t it possible that I have reasons, and I’m not just devoid of taste, even though you find the stuff nauseating? The straw men are built and burnt, and our national supply of ignorant smugness increases daily, distributed equally throughout the population and turning us into Angry Twitter.

There is a solution. It’s called College—or, better, the Great and Powerful ACADEMIA.

Academia is the only place—the ONLY place—in your entire life where you will be required to spend long sustained periods in close contact with ideas and opinions and people with whom you vehemently disagree with or do not understand—ideas and people who might anger, frustrate, and even disgust you—and be required not just to tolerate them but to confront them as valid and supportable unless proven otherwise; to understand them—what they are and why the people who hold them do so; to be required to explain and refute them with argument and evidence; and be taught to develop and support your own ideas with research, logic, and valid argument that can be held up for refutation by others.

And: until and unless you do those things, you have no clue at all what you think or why, and you have no real business calling anyone else a knee-jerk reactionary no matter what sides of a thought you find yourself on.

Here’s a secret tip: ENGLISH COMPOSITION IS NOT ABOUT COMPOSITION. AMERICAN HISTORY IS NOT ABOUT HISTORY. PHILOSOPHY IS NOT ABOUT PHILOSOPHY. They are all about the same three things:
1.     learning to think;
2.     learning to communicate;
3.     learning to listen.

And in this place and time, Academia is the only environment—the ONLY environment—where these skills are being enforced in their most useful form over the long term and not involving family members and a roasted turkey.

Of course you might not do any of this. You might end up taking multiple-choice tests on Philosophy, and turning in papers that never get grades or comments, and getting stifled by lazy professorial basketcases who get off on power. It might not happen for you, especially if you don’t take the initiative and make it happen, every single day, in and out of class. (Here’s another secret tip: when you look at Rate My Professor, choose the hard teachers. Also, community colleges are cheaper and some of the best teachers are there. I guess that’s two tips.)

I changed my mind. Please do go to college. Life in all its facets is a game of odds. You can never know what you don’t know until you know it. You can never understand something you find incomprehensible until someone who is not your mother makes you take it apart and look at it clearly, and calls bullshit on your pre-existing assumptions and your conviction that beliefs are facts. If there is any real hope for mitigating everything we all want to change in this society and this world—for turning the apparent idiocy into brilliance and the passion for nonsense into a passion for meaning—education is where it will begin. And Academia is the great temple of education, with its grand soiled doors and mouldering libraries and hope, always hope.

[1] Actually a chapter of his book Stupid White Men

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