On Academic Navel-Gazing
When I was a senior in college, I received an assignment from one of my professors to write an open-ended essay on the topic of “Who Am I?” I don’t know why the professor did it. The “Who Am I?” nonsense had nothing to do with the subject of the class. But he was a young fella and liked to do things unconventionally; perhaps this was his way of thinking outside the box. Whatever the reason, the assignment irritated me a great deal.
In the course of my academic career up to that point, there had been a number of occasions when I had to write a wistful essay (or alternatively, a humorous one) on the subject of Who I Am. I had always hated that topic for the self-congratulatory fakery it invites. And on that particular occasion, in my senior year, I decided to write the professor a letter protesting the topic, and submit it in lieu of the required essay.
This weekend, while clearing out some old papers, I came across a draft of that letter. Here is what I wrote (first couple of paragraphs omitted):
“There comes a time in the life of every ambitious person when he or she must meet a responsibility that is unsavory. A lawyer must defend the interests of a lowlife. A doctor must save the life of a violent criminal. A corporate executive must screw an old lady out of her retirement money. It is an unfortunate, but also an immutable social axiom that occasionally doing things that are contrary to our principles is the price of getting ahead in life.
College students know this better than anyone. We are taught, by well-meaning and certainly very competent faculty, how to think for ourselves, how to practice intelligent, reasoned skepticism. At the same time, we also find ourselves under tremendous pressure to say things we do not mean, such as praise a mediocre book (because the professor wrote it or embraces its ideology), drown heartfelt and intelligent discourse in a sea of verbose disclaimers so as to get past the Cerberus that is political correctness, or write an essay on a topic that is offensive – not necessarily to one’s race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, but to one’s intellingence and sense of good taste. Thus, we find ourselves torn by these two forces, pulling us in opposite directions, and almost without exception, the latter force wins. The more money we borrow to pay for our fine education, the less we can afford to stake our financial future on a principle.
Nonetheless, there are moments when I feel I must take the risk of provoking terrible professorial anger so that I not lose what is left of my soul. I have already done this here, at ______ University when a French professor assigned the class to write an essay about Princess Diana, who was then still living. Unable to bring myself to manufacture any appearance of empathy or admiration for that vacuous nincompoop, I threw the dice and wrote what I really thought about the People’s Princess. Although the professor could not point out a single grammatical or even stylistic error in my essay, she still gave me a C. Now is the second time when I must accept the very real possibility of an embarrassingly low grade as the cost of not doing something that I consider beyond the pale. For what it is worth, I hope you will see in my other papers that I have mastered the course material and will not bury me for refusing to write an answer to a question that has nothing to do with the topic of this course.
“Who Are You?” People love asking this question (always believing themselves to be very original and deep), and answering it in great detail and with an astounding degree of flourish. I came to this country as a child, and, after living here for eight years, I consider myself to be quite assimilated. This particular brand of narcissism, however, is one aspect of the American culture that I refuse to embrace; it is here that I and my adopted country really part ways.
For one, to the extent that this is a real question, it is an unanswerable one. It is like asking “What is existence?” Well, certainly, an encyclopedia will give one a straight answer, that existence is a concept related to experienced reality. Then again, if you ask me who I am, I can give you an encyclopedic straight answer, “My name is so-and-so, I am twenty-two years-old, I live at such-and-such, I study political science.” However, you are not looking for a straight answer, you are expecting a “creative” one.
Since it is not a real question, it is a test of cleverness. I am supposed to write something imaginative and witty, that will not give you the slightest idea of anything about me, except that I am an acceptably good bullshit artist. Cleverness is an unsophisticated and vulgar substitute for knowledge and thoughtful analysis, and it pains me to see an institution of higher learning emphasize cleverness (under the guise of “fostering creativity”) to such a great degree.
Alas, this is only the surface of the problem. There have been many occasions even in my so far short academic career when I was called upon to be clever; and although I always winced at it, and saw it as evidence of laziness on the part of the professor, I managed to produce what was required. The question “Who Are You?”, however, stands apart because it is both shockingly intrusive and an exercise in narcissism, as I already mentioned above. Let me see: I am probably expected to engage in some sort of introspection and expound on my flaws, fears and dreams. Forgive me, Professor, but as much as you are a great scholar and a swell guy, you and I simply do not enjoy the kind of relationship where I would be comfortable disclosing such deeply personal information; and I am not yet cynical enough to just fake it, nor self-enamored enough to bask in the opportunity to implicitly congratulate myself for being deep, unique and special (which is why so many people enjoy answering this question.)
I have already briefly touched upon the issue of narcissism and want to discuss it in a little more detail. Contrary to popular opinion, narcissism, as a philosophical concept, does not simply mean “excessive self-love” or “egotism”. Rather, what narcissism is – and it should be obvious to anyone familiar with the myth of Narcissus – is endless self-contemplation, to the point of being completely aloof to the world outside of oneself. We all have a natural tendency to only talk and think about ourselves and to see all things through the lens of our needs, desires and biases. It is an important intellectual milestone and a classical objective of higher education, to be able to think empirically, to step outside of oneself and to contemplate something besides Me. Alas, the modern American philosophy of education runs in the completely opposite direction: to wit, it emphasizes the never-ending contemplation of oneself and setting subjective goals, such as “Do Your Best”. We are so horrified by the prospect of someone, somewhere, having low self-esteem, that we train students to obsessively focus on themselves: to talk about themselves, to analyze themselves, to flagellate and aggrandize themselves in front of others. It is not surprising, therefore, that the main argument that adherents of creationism put forth in support of teaching it is along the lines of “creationism just makes more sense to me”. Scientists the nation over may tear their hair out in frustration, but having scientific fact become a matter of popular consensus and legislative vote is a natural consequence of an education philosophy that treats Me as the alpha and omega of all knowledge, the filter through which all of life’s great questions must pass.
I refuse to do it. I find such chicken-soup-for-the-soul exercises trite, anti-intellectual, indiscreet and in poor taste. It is, as I have noted, a thing very popular in this culture, but I find it obscene. I believe I have given you, Professor, more than enough information on which to base a grade which will accurately reflect my mastery of the course material. Anything above and beyond that is my secret. So sorry.
Very truly yours, etc.”