Saturday, September 6, 2008

PH.D. in Yo.U

If you are looking for Yale posts, I suggest you read the intro to this post which is here and here. 

Thank you for your insightful thoughts and questions regarding my most recent education post.  My favorite nervous prefrosh E wrote: “Before you scared the bejeezus out of me concerning Yale. Now you scared the bejeezus out of me in general. Where can I get a REAL education?"  


This question and others like it from fellow knowledge-lovers who are frustrated with what one reader described as “recycled thought, recycled theses, and recycled teaching,” deserve a very thoughtful answer, and I spent much of this week turning over possibilities in my mind.          

But an answer came to me, as most exciting answers so often do, as a complete surprise and while I was focused on something else entirely- namely finishing a 50 page chapter summary for my editor.


Let me just say that writing is a bitch. You stare at a blank page completely convinced you have absolutely nothing to say, or even if you do kinda have a vague idea of what you’d like to say, crafting those blobs of thought into a cohesive narrative seems about as likely as your being able to sculpt a life sized replica of the David out of peanut butter before lunchtime.           

So in the face of no ideas, no outlines, and no hope, you just have to forge ahead anyway by convincing yourself that something good will happen eventually. Believing in yourself is a clichéd mantra, but a popular one because it is such an essential prerequisite for having the balls and audacity to turn passion into product.


And therein lies one of my main problems with the ‘idea’ of higher education. We seem to think that we need to do well on the SATs, we need to get good grades, we need to graduate from college in order to be PREPARED. But the truth is, you’re already prepared. You were born with a unique set of abilities and interests and with a completely revolutionary perspective. You, as you are right now, are capable of unrecycled revolutionary thoughts simply because you are the only you there ever has been or will be.

But traditional education thrives on enforcing the belief that you are not enough. How can you expect to accomplish anything if you don’t know algebra? If you don’t read Dostoyevsky? If you can’t speak 2 languages? If you don’t have a college degree? Until you do all of those things, you are still only in the prerequisite part of your life, acquiring the skill points necessary to qualify you as a person who is worthy of doing something real.

Frankly, that's bull...           

I’m not saying that learning isn’t the brightest pigment in your creative palate- learning is profoundly powerful. But even if you spend 50 years amassing millions of shades of information colors, compared to Wikipedia you will still only be a Crayola 10 pack.  And you’ll be so self conscious about what you still don’t have, you’ll never take the plunge and just start scribbling with what you’ve got.                        


Ask any four year old fingerpainter about their “creative process” and they will look at you cockeyed. They’re just painting. They have not yet been told how ignorant they are in the face of college-education requirements, so they’re free to follow their own truths.           

“But oh how woefully uneducated they are! Heathens! What they really need is to sit still, listen and repeat!”

We listen and repeat and listen and repeat in different subjects and formats for the better part of 17 years. We fill in bubbles with number two pencils and try to prove we aren’t idiots. But no matter how many bubbles we get ‘right’ we feel like failures in the face of the impossible expectation of being human Wikipedias. We’ll never be ready. But guess what?


You have always been ready.


And any educational system or institution which focuses on how much you don’t know, instead of nurturing what you intuitively know, is a sham. Haven’t your best teachers been the ones who encourage and engage you with knowledge which, for whatever reason, enriches you? Feels relevant for you? It's not about the subject, it's about how you feel about the subject. And you won't always be able to rationalize why you are drawn to what you are drawn to- your creative unconscious is a vast and thrillingly complicated place and you need to trust in hunches and passions- you'll end up doing something exciting everyday instead of trying to force yourself to be interested in something that seems 'important' but doesn't have meaning for you. 

You are the only expert in yourself. Start listening. 

And this isn’t self indulgent self-help baby stuff. You are an extremely difficult subject- infinitely harder than college classes. Going to Yale was technically tough, but strategically it couldn't have been simpler: just take the tests, do the reading, follow the rules.

What makes writing or painting or inventing so hard is that there is no syllabus for the intricate caverns of your own brain. There’s no expert, no textbook, no study-guide for the midterm. All there is is you, and when you’ve spent 17 years focusing on how much you don’t know, it’s hard to have faith in what you do. It’s hard to have faith in a process which you can’t read about in a book because nobody has ever done it before. It’s completely uncharted territory, and the only way you’re going to figure out how to do it is to do it.

So now you know why I started out talking about self confidence. I was an A student all my life who went to a top college, but having the confidence to follow rules is completely the opposite of believing in your own unique vision.

The ingenious idiocy of persisting in exploring your ideas instead of memorizing others' is not taught in schools because it undermines their authority- the notion that a child could produce something marvelous by following through on their inspiration might make SAT prep courses completely obscolete.

And I'm not saying it's all a waste of time, but remember that tasks which are safe and predictable will never be anything but safe and predictable, while the completely terrifyingly unknowable challenges have the potential to change the world.

So although I don't think I'm going to change the world with my little teen memoir, I do feel like I've learned an enormous amount about myself and my creative process by forcing myself to write even when I don't have a good idea, even when I feel untalented, even when it seems like it'll never sound right, and even when I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, because showing up and having faith in the face of self-doubt is the only prerequisite for creating something new and worthwhile.


There are a billion things you don't know, but you'll only discover something truly unique if you trust in yourself. And the best way, the only way to start, is to just decide you're going to do it without questioning yourself about how unprepared you seem. Everyone feels unprepared. If they don't, then they aren't taking any risks. And risks are the only way that crazy amazing ideas become crazy amazing realities. 

So to answer the original question, "REAL education" is not something you can purchase or download or memorize, it is an active personal journey. It can be supplemented and illuminated by school, but the only way you're going to have the balls to think you can write a sonata or cure a disease or find a unifying theory of the universe is to challenge yourself as often as you can.

Give yourself every opportunity to surprise yourself.

Because everything else you can just find on Wikipedia.

thoughts questions comments?

much love,

(formerly-Hurricane-now-tropical-storm) Hannah


  1. On “recycled thought, recycled theses, and recycled teaching”:

    The dean of a major research university goes to a meeting with the heads of his various science departments and says, "Guys, I love your research. You've discovered some great things that have the potential to really improve the human condition. You've brought funding and renown to the university. You've done really everything I could ask for.

    "But, guys, your budgets are getting a little ridiculous! Every time I turn around you need funding for some turbo-charged microscopic something-or-other.

    "Why can't you be more like the math department? All they ever ask for is pencils and paper and a wastebasket.

    "Or better yet, why can't you be more like the philosophy department? They don't even have a wastebasket!"

  2. Notes written while thinking that it would be more productive to *try* to sculpt the peanut-butter David than to keep studying medical textbooks for the rest of the day:

    I usually agree whole-heartedly with the ideas expressed in this (incredibly eloquent, insightful, and hilarious) blog. Today I still agree, but with some qualifications.

    First of all, in many fields, we were not born prepared. I, for one, would not want to come within a city block of an untrained surgeon who claims he was born ready to operate. In many cases, higher education is necessary, even if the format in which it is traditionally delivered is not. As a fellow Yale alum, I will be the first to admit that many of the lectures I sat through were completely and utterly worthless. The thing is, you can't always predict which ones will have value.

    I once had seminar with a professor who led class discussions the way a drunk tries to get off a merry-go-round. (Indeed, the professor had about as much place at the front of a classroom as the lush on the kiddie carnival ride.) His pursuit of knowledge made blind, acorn-hunting pigs look like bazooka-bearing rednecks taking aim over a barrel of fish. And yet, in the middle of another mind-numbingly awful class that had me seriously contemplating ripping off my own ears, hurling them in his general direction, and then hurtling out the second-story window, if only to provide everyone else in the room with a few minutes of relief -- he said something that gave me an idea. A novel, interesting, honest-to-God idea.

    Now, I am sure he did not do this on purpose. In fact, I am so sure that him talking and me epiphany-ing was completely coincidental--and, moreover, that had he known he was on the verge of sparking original thought he would have gone careening figuratively and perhaps even literally in the opposite direction--that my offer to go all van Gogh stands, should said professor ever manage to extricate what passes for a head from his hypertrophied hind regions long enough to see the light of day.

    Nonetheless, I also know that it was the result of my sitting in that godforsaken room and listening to the ramblings of that godawful waste of perfectly good protoplasm that sparked my brainstorm. I cannot say conclusively whether I would have had the same idea had I not been there. Regardless, that idea was at the heart of my senior thesis and continues to define the direction of my research today.

    This is why I tend to envision the process of higher education as analogous to diamond formation. If you pile up enough shit and keep it under pressure for long enough, then eventually, maybe, MAYBE, a diamond will form.

    I am sure that at this point Hannah would distinguish the creative endeavor from scientific endeavor, allowing that perhaps higher education plays a greater role in the latter. But I argue that creativity plays a vital role in *every* field of human endeavor. Great scientific achievement requires taking a step back to imagine how something might work. You can’t satisfy yourself to just keep tinkering with the existing models. Sometimes you have to throw out the whole damn thing and start from scratch. You see the problem, and then you create the answer.

    The tricky part is, to reach the point where you can work outside the box you first have to understand the box. And that requires formal schooling. Creative process and technical prowess are gained by parallel routes. Innovation arises from the synthesis of the two. We need informed creativity. We need someone to stand on the shoulders of giants and look a little bit farther, dream a little bit bigger.

    Higher education does not often foster creativity. More often, it represses it. And this is why Hannah is absolutely right to say that real education is an active personal journey. You have to engage with everything. There’s only one place where people should accept things as Gospel, and even then I’m not so sure. You have to engage because in challenging new ideas you are also challenging yourself. As Hannah wrote, challenging yourself is the only way to grow.

    Very few of us are born ready to do anything. Hell, it takes us a year to learn how to walk. Ever wonder why there aren’t many young published authors? Maybe some of them aren’t listening to themselves, aren’t challenging themselves, are too busy following the rules to truly create. But I think most young people just can’t write worth a damn. (That’s why it’s so rare to find someone like Hannah. For all her modesty, I‘m not so sure she won’t change the world.) It’s been said that your first million words are practice; even the greatest literary lights of the last century got better with age. Life is long. There is plenty of time to work at multiple crafts.

    School is not just a supplement, but nor is it the one tried-and-true route to changing the world. William Osler, one of the most famous early physicians, wrote: “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.” Books are important, but you can’t forget why you went to the library in the first place. As Hannah says, you also have to “scribble with what you’ve got.”

    The solution? Scribble *in* the books. Write all over them. Fill every last margin. Just because the author already wrote a book doesn’t mean he’s right and you’re wrong. He probably doesn’t know any more than you do. Challenge what you read, flat-out disagree, and get vindictive. It’s okay if your thoughts are half-finished and you never come back to them. The implicit lesson of formal education seems to be that because you have to write in the margin, your ideas are marginal. But Fermat was a pretty smart guy, and almost all of his theorems were written in the margin. Andrew Wiles won the Wolf Prize (the Nobel of math) for proving just one of them.

    I concede that self-confidence is undeniably important, and that there is no substitute for practice and experience. In the words of James Joyce (not a bad writer himself): “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” This is what Hannah sees every time she stares at a blank page: infinite possibility. The uncreated conscience of our race. I concede that the human mind is not an encyclopedic repository of trivia, and we should not try to make it so. As Hannah points out, that’s why we have Wikipedia.

    But this doesn’t excuse blanket ignorance. Know what the sons-o’-bitches on the other side are saying. Prove them wrong. And then show them a better way.

    Facts may be presented in a classroom, but true understanding takes place on your own time. To paraphrase Hannah, real education is the result of challenging yourself everywhere you go. I argue that school is an important vehicle in the process of real education, but real education can be acquired anywhere. As with any vehicle, much more depends on where you’re going than where you are.

    And with that, back to the books. I have some more charting to do.

  3. I was looking at Student Review and found a link to your blog, saying you were a graduate from Yale, well done! I am interested in studying at Yale because it is a top institution in what I may want to study: Neuroscience.

    I am an international student from France and Czech Republic, living in Prague my eighth year. I am currently in Eleventh Grade and searching for colleges that have excellent neuroscience programs. I have not yet had Psychology, because some European universities do not consider Psychology a legitimate studied subject (unless in university) thus, not recognizing the High School diploma you work so hard for in your late teens. However, I take Economics instead as a Social Science.
    I am currently doing the full IB program including subjects: Biology, Chemistry, English, Math Studies, German and Economics.

    I am the leader of my flute section, I am the captain of the Cross-Country , I am in NHS and MUN.
    Also, I myself with the help of the founders of this organization, have started my own service project that consists of a charitable organization called "Read to Grow" that collects books in English and French to be sent to developing countries such as Ghambia or Ghana. I am looking for a hook that would allow admissions to remember me, do you think such an organization, started by me, when no one in school has done so, make part of a strong hook?
    To further discuss "Read to Grow" as being unique for me, should I use this in my essay..if so, what would be most significant to include?

    When you were in admissions, what kinds of tends of things tend to jump out at the dean of admissions, to remember you or be hooked to you, and make them want to accept you?
    Thank you in advance for your answer,
    Sarah J.

  4. Sarah,

    Community service and leadership are definitely good 'hooks,' as is the simple fact that you're an international student. The most memorable applications (aside from those of Spielberg children or princesses) are those which convey true passion. If this project was something you were really passionate about make sure that comes through in your description of how it came to be.

    Admissions people also love it when you talk about lessons that you learned- learning about humility through charity, learning about the power of art through performance, learning about the importance of teamwork in basketball, whatever it is make sure you expand your specific experience to a broader theme. It's cheesy but it totally works.

    However, that aside, I really encourage you to read my previous yale posts. You should spend your energy on doing things that are meaningful to you and not worry about making a school which happens to have a fancy name "want to accept you." They might not, and you know what? It'll be their loss. Accept yourself and fuck everybody else.


  5. That was very, very inspiring. VERY.

    I really wish there was a better way to become a biochemist than learning all the facts and spitting them back out on a piece of paper for my teacher to read.

    I've got the "mastermind" personality (INTJ).
    I always want to see the bigger picture. I love to learn tons of information and see how it all goes together. When I've got enough information stored up, I can pick up patterns and What COULD be is the stuff I like to dream about.

    My ideal learning experience would be me and a few other intelligent, inquisitive students sitting at a round table with an intelligent professor who is also very analytical. We'd learn stuff from our teacher and as we learned, we would get to delve into what the implications are in our minds now that we are armed with our new knowledge. (ex: I learn about an animal cell in Bio.

    Do you know of any schools like this???
    I sure don't. I don't even have any friends that aren't on internet forums that think like me.


    But you did inspire me. If only I could be taken seriously without a degree. I cannot be a waitress (or whatever) and be happy.

    I love your blog. ;)

  6. ps. The lamest classes in the world have to be Bio and Chem LABS. It's nice to learn how to take measurements and use lab equipment- but for FOUR YEARS???
    That's all you learn. The outcome of every single experiment is a foregone conclusion.

  7. Bethany,

    You should look into St. John's College, which has a campus in Annapolis and one in Santa Fe. I strongly considered it in making my own college decision. I think it's exactly what you imagine.

    Best of luck,

  8. Hi, I saw your post on students review and it took me here because I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about college admissions (particularly top colleges). I'm sorry if this isn't the right place to comment, I'm not really used to blogging

  9. Simple argument against you: many times, we have to do boring ass work that we don't enjoy in order to make something great.

    A notable example is scientific breakthroughs. Often, we hate learning about that lytic cycle or (for the 20th time?!) about B lymphocytes. But if we keep at it, with abundant Yale resources, then we can achieve something great.

    Just like your writing. You say that writing's a bitch. Well, learning at Yale's a bitch too, but in the end, you create something powerful.