Young people live in a cloud of stimulation laced with data. Facebook, Twitter, the web generally, cell phones, iPods – let’s call them collectively “the Buzz”. The Buzz has many virtues, but one unfortunate consequence (noted often) is that many Buzzers do not have the time, and sometimes not even the capacity, to think long or hard about anything that is not connected immediately to the Buzz. I say this with great sympathy for them. They are young, and especially vulnerable to flash and change, and they shouldn’t yet know any better (unlike their older counterparts).
So it should come as no surprise that when these young people come to campus, there is a problem. For college for several centuries has been an island of intellectual repose, a way station between life at home and life on your own, a book-ended retreat into texts, ideas, and reflection. Or that’s been the legend, anyway. But now even that legend is gone. Students never leave the mainland; the Buzz keeps them firmly tethered to the same world they have been in, and the world they will continue to be in. But they enter an institution that has long seen itself as an island. College faculty insist that students take their special subjects seriously, and sometimes for the sake of disinterested inquiry, all while the students are consumed with the effort of maintaining their Buzzing connections and now extending them into new territories.
So, given their perspective, it is natural for the Buzzers to request the faculty to explain to them at some point why they should be interested in what is being taught, and how it will inform their lives. Students are young, and they are fairly tolerant of a wide range of possible explanations, but they want at least some sort of explanation that connects with their lifestyle, immersed as it is in the Buzzing cloud.
But this is precisely where the great disconnect between faculty and students is located. The world as the Buzzer finds it has “ME” squarely in the middle of it, with various links reaching outward in all directions to friends, places, favored media, celebrities, social issues, goals, and fears. But the world as a faculty member finds it has “MY SPECIALTY” in the middle, with various ties of relevance to other ideas, disciplines, theories, and information. The two sets of maps are plainly incommensurable. To repair the difference, students need to adopt a fresh, disinterested approach, or else faculty need to creatively imagine how the stuff they find so fascinating will fit into the buzzing world of their students.
What’s to be done? Well, I’m a faculty member, and a senior one at that, so it is no surprise that I think it is the students who need to give way. When I see my colleagues’ attempts to “buzzify” college material – attempts to integrate social media and apps into the coursework, with the hope that Shakespeare will be more interesting if you can friend him on Facebook – I can’t help but feel that an important battle has been lost, and flash has won out over substance. Any meaningful thing, I say, can be learned only in thoughtful, reflective retreat into one’s self: distraction is the enemy of the deep. And I know it from personal experience, that the Buzz consists entirely in distraction.
I seem to remember some pithy quote along the lines of “Traveling helps you to see the familiar once again as strange.” Anyhow, that was certainly the effect of our trip to Belgium, Greece, and England – by the time we came home, it seemed as exotic as anything else we had seen.
Our main reason to go to Greece was that the kids have a deep fascination for Greek mythology – so we thought it would be a great time to seize their interest and explore as many ruins as we could, which turned out to be about two per day on average. The main reason for England was Jeannine’s love of London, plus a home exchange deal. And the main reason for Belgium was that flying in and out of it yielded the cheapest deals – though once the crafty Belgians have you there, you’ll be leaking money like a nonregulated bank.
We came to Greece armed with an archaeological guidebook, which helped us to know more about what we were seeing, but later in the trip we found an even more useful travel book: Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day tells you just what to do and watch for in 5th century b.c. Athens, and so helps bring to life the ruins of the Agora, the Parthenon, and some further-flung sites we also visited like Delphi and Eleusis. For me, the most interesting ruins were at the Agora – downtown ancient Athens, basically – because it was easiest to imagine what it would have been in Socrates’s day. We stood where he was sentenced to death, and where he would have been lampooned by Aristophanes. Modern-day Athens is narrow, twisted, dynamic, mysterious, and exhausting but fun. And the ruins in Greece are everywhere; imagine the frustration of Greek gardeners as they turn up tiles and cornerstones with every swing of the spade.
We were surprised by the number of stray dogs and cats throughout Greece. That might sound sad, but by all appearances these loose animals are fat and happy. They feast all night on Greek food, and stretch out luxuriously during the day in the middle of walkways.
We stayed in a little town west of London, which meant we spent a lot of time navigating our way through transit systems. We find this to be fun. But apart from the insides of railway stations, we also managed to see some key sights – the Tower, the Globe, Big Ben, Parliament, St. Paul’s, British Library, etc. etc. We also took day trips to some of the smaller towns nearer to where we were staying, like Winchester, Guildford, and Oxford. One critical event along the way was my son’s loss of his iPod, which sent him into a kind of cybernetic detox, but through the magic of technology and exceptional human kindness, we were able to get a message to the person who found it and arrange for its return. Of course we liked some of the big, touristy things (like touring the dark and dungeony “Clink”, the namesake of all prisons to follow), but we mostly enjoyed walking through the neighborhoods and markets, looking at the wonderful old buildings, and taking frequent breaks at pubs. We were very excited to tour the British museum and see the so-called Elgin marbles, which are statues that were taken from the Parthenon and brought to England. There’s an ongoing contest over who gets to keep them, and the issue has grown more complicated the more I think about it. (Our family is currently of mixed opinion on the issue; courts of Europe await our decision.) We spent the last couple of nights in London, and it was nice to have more time to explore and to see the city at night.
Then it was off to the train again, under the channel, through France, through Brussels, and finally to Ghent, where I participated in a Spinoza workshop, and my wife and the kids toured the city by boat and by cobblestone. We left the next day for home, but were delayed overnight in Chicago, which did not disappoint us a bit. We managed to get downtown for a couple of hours and feel the energy of my favorite city.
We were away just long enough (3 weeks), and what we saw was just exotic enough, to make it seem strange to finally come home. Perhaps a zen master can clean his mind just by willing it, but for the rest of us we seem to require a lot of motion, a lot of distraction, and a fair bit of disruption, to cleanse our eyes and see things again freshly.