How To Save Your Midterms: Look Back At Aristotle
It's a little more than a month in the new school year and many of us are finding ourselves embattled smack in the middle of midterm season...again. It's a strenuous climb over an explosive land mine rife with fatigue headaches and procrastination-induced panic attacks that will ultimately, hopefully, lead to a summit of good scores.
This got me thinking about Greco-Roman approaches to the liberal arts and sciences.
Hey. Before you turn away from your screens and frantically go about booking appointments with your optometrist to check on your eyesight because you doubt you read that right, I swear this connection is less weird than it may seem at first, even if you don't study squat about classics.
I have always been fascinated by Greco-Roman culture. The idea that it laid down a body of knowledge and ways of thinking for pretty much the rest of subsequent history to trod on is an amazing feat in itself. The fact that these civilizations have had a deeply lasting impact is self-evident and doesn't need to be argued. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I want to examine how exactly they succeeded in accumulating all of these game changing ideas, concepts and philosophies that still permeates the world today and most importantly, how that might help us ailing students today.
Let's take a look at the ancient Greek thinkers and ask ourselves some questions.
1. Why did Aristotle write his Poetics, Rhetoric, Politics and a whole bunch of other works when it clearly didn't make him rich at all ?
2. Why did Eratosthenes bother to compute the circumference of the Earth, a waste of energy that would in all practicality served no purpose in actually improving the lives of the ancient Greeks ?
3. Why did Plato spent a whole lot of time pondering the Theory of Forms to explain reality when in the end, doing so didn't bring any improvement whatsoever in his own life ?
Obviously, these are some humorously ignorant questions. They sound like some things only a complete jackass could have come up with, and would be met with the immediate incendiary reaction:
HOW DARE YOU EVEN REMOTELY CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY THAT THE RESPECTABLE ARISTOTLE WAS MOTIVATED BY SOMETHING AS SHALLOW AND AWFULLY MATERIALISTIC AS MONETARY GAIN ????????
Yet, that is exactly what we're doing to our midterms. As all those Facebook exam memes testify, we students only dutifully learn information because we want to get high marks on the test. This follows the assumption that somehow, someday, all these stellar grades will lead to a high flying existence that is a perfect culmination of an amalgam of "dream job", "dream family", "dream paycheque" and "dream whatever-the-hell-you-call-it". In the meantime, everything is boring, everything is hellish drudgery, everything is mind-numbing cramming. The mere thought of learning and of deeply exploring a subject simply for its own sake has become practically non existent on school campuses, a type of borderline heresy reserved for hardcore nerds and fringe psycho-weirdos. Welcome to higher education in the 21st century.
Education wasn't always meant to be a logical and necessary precursor for the job market. Throughout history, until roughly a century ago, kids who were rich enough to access higher education did not do so to prepare for a rewarding career. Core subjects were Latin, Greek, Classics, philosophy, languages, literature, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. They learned little that would actually have had much practical use in their career; those skills were picked up "hands-on", on the job, as they were going along. Rather, the point of all their learning was to cultivate a personal background. In doing so, they would explore many interesting insights, create fascinating conclusions, transform themselves and change their worldview. Knowledge was assimilated for its own sake, slowly, in the fashion of the Greek thinkers of long ago.
Then the world changed and we have what we have today: educating ourselves so we can learn the proper skills to not flunk the job market (and life in general).
Now, this spark of learning is virtually lost on all schoolwork-related matters. You pick a major / concentration / program based on your future career choice. You read your textbooks, write those papers, study your notes and do your homework because that's what you're supposed to do. And for the overachievers among us, you do it all because that's what it takes to make good grades. You might not even like the material or give a single crap about a class, but you do it anyway. As one too many Facebook memes have taught us, our reality nowadays is "study-study-study-study-study-take exam-FORGET IT ALL". Eventually, our train of thought goes, I'm going to get that job I want, I'm going to make that money I want, I'm going to start a family and settle down into adulthood. Because that's what you're supposed to do. That's what society tells you to do. We're supposed to find the parameters we like within that framework and live (all that "finding yourself" stuff of your teens and 20s where you slug it out and figure it out). There isn't really any intrinsic drive pushing us to do it in the first place anymore. No wonder so many among us feel stuck in a state of perpetual complaint against our workload, dissatisfied and ultimately end up having an embarrassing existential crisis about whether or not we have made the right life choices after all.
We lost the ability to be inspired and act on that inspiration.
Hope is not lost however. Many of us have hidden stashes of hobbies or secrets that we enjoy for no other reason than because we like it and find it interesting. It may be a notebook of drawings, a series of incomplete fragments of stories, bribes of personal musical compositions, the unfinished code of a computer program, a stack of photography negatives, a collection of biological specimens, an independent research project or a pile of books on favourite subjects. It could be literally anything: just something you have stumbled upon and were interested in at the moment. This is the kind of thing you would never procrastinate on and never complain bitterly about, the sort of adventure you would still be willing to undertake even if you reaped in no financial rewards, no external recognition, no good grades and no prestige. It is exactly what the ancient Greeks thinkers did: they simply studied intensely whatever they thought was cool.
I think it is high time to bring this kind of fascination back to our schoolwork and our lives in general. The obvious solution would be to pick classes we really like. We have this option in higher education, so we should take full advantage of it. Let's not fall into the trap of picking something "practical" that we don't actually give a crap about and where we hate every single class of it because there is no point in suffering this fate.
So don't knock down a million differential calculus problems because the midterm is ominously looming tomorrow: do it because derivatives are just plain sick amazing. Don't read an intimidating stack of articles on post-structuralist interpretations of pre-Victorian literature because you imperatively need to bring up that horrid mark your last essay completely bombed: do it because Foucault is awesome. Don't learn all the taxonomical levels of living organisms because there is a national lab emergency and you need to cough them up for that darn lab that is happening in an hour: do it because you want to classify the beautiful butterflies you have collected from your day out on the grass field. Learn because you love to, not because you have to. Heck, the hegemony of the cram-school philosophy is so ingrained in our student culture that even these statements come off as exceedingly geeky, the sort of stuff you would only expect to hear from the resident library slightly unhinged lone wolf camper. But in these times of widespread student grumbling, heroic levels of sleep deprivation and stress wrecked souls, a healthy dose of nerdiness - that is, learning because you absolutely have to because the subject is too damn interesting - may do us good and save us a lot of heartbreak in the short and the long term. And who knows, maybe let us have a shot at a life we actually enjoy and genuinely want to live.