Note: These are a few things that I wrote here and there right after June 2014 convocation. There is a thin thread that holds these together, I think – but the post as a whole is not necessarily coherent. Lastly, I see that there are some issues that I have resolved after writing these – it’s funny how quickly I change. I am definitely much happier today.
And I thought that my worst days of angst were over, left behind with super baggy pants, American Idiot and cringe-worthy love letters for my junior high muse.. But little did I expect to reach the pinnacle of my angst after my long awaited crossing of the stage to shake hands with the top dawgs of the university and be officially acknowledged as “Dongwoo Kim, Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science.”
It was neat for a bit, when I basked in the immediate glory of finishing my last paper and not having to live in perpetual stress. Granted, I had always been a man of angst, but I had concrete challenges to look forward to during the last five years, which eased my forever-anxious heart. There were projects, internships and papers to read and write—things that made me feel as if I were achieving something, moving forward towards, well, something.
This summer has definitely been different, as I, burnt out to the core after five years of studies, had decided to take a year off—a decision that was sufficiently justified by my immediate academic fatigue, chance failure to secure enough funding for my graduate program, and a vague desire to, tsk tsk, “discover myself.” For the first while, I was pretty happy with myself and took advantage of all the free time by deliberately sleeping in and binging on Netflix crap for a concerning number of hours. Happiness was so real that I tweeted about it at least twice in the same month.
Alas, only if this happiness lasted forever. Within two weeks or so, angst started to loom silently, and eventually came to a situation in which I could no longer pretend that it is not there. Surrounded by friends who made it to elite graduate schools or scored sweet, sweet jobs with universe-saving organizations, I soon started regretting my choice to take a year off. I should have applied to more schools and funding! I should have put in more work on that application! DAMN IT. Slapped by the realities of adulthood, right in the face. Liam Gallagher lied and I can’t be whatever I want to be or live forever.
Epiphany doesn’t take place in that split of a second as we are led to believe. We tiptoe through our days with a subtle, yet clear awareness of the emotions and fears that constantly build up, waiting to turn into terrifying realizations about our tragically failed lives. We turn our heads away from these, hoping that they will magically be gone one day—but we get cornered and cornered, until—checkmate—there is nowhere else to turn and then we finally and begrudgingly acknowledge this raw, raw reality.
As such, this angst has always been there—when I stepped into my first university course, when I settled on my major, when I finished my first major term paper, always. I had just pulled over a blanket over my head to pretend that I could avoid these forever during the last five years—that things would magically be perfect at the end, as long as I worked hard on what was given to me.
I stepped forward on the generously lit stage before hundreds of people like a moth drawn to fire. I felt bliss and joy for seconds while I shook hands with important people, but these high emotions dissipated quickly as I descended towards the end of the stage—to the darkness. Then, as the photographer half-assedly clicked on his camera, in midst of these flashes—god I can’t keep my eyes open—I realized that I was forcibly and hopelessly stripped of that magic blanket, obligated to deal with these fears and terrifying realizations that I had been striving to avoid. I saw that everything I had tried to avoid, everything that I had wishfully hoped to see resolved on their own—was there, more untangled than ever in midst of the intermittent camera flashes.
I think people who have had more exposure to literature in their lives suffer greater depths of sadness and anxiety. Their imaginations unbound, they have higher expectations about their lives; they dream of lives filled with romances, grand parties and majestic adventures—in short, lives worthy of a great novel. Perhaps these grand lives come true for a select few, but most of us live through quiet desperation, tortured by a reality that does not meet the expectation. Isn’t reading supposed to guide us to happiness?
It’s never enough.
I had always thought that working hard and being a good person would lead to happiness. I was so wrong. Throughout University, though not as much as others, I pushed myself to take challenging courses, work part-time jobs and stay involved in different extra-curricular activities. Overworking myself did lead me to many great people I now call friends, as well as various opportunities and rewards.
Although I am critical about it now, I am definitely grateful for these experiences and I am not sure if I’d like it any other way—in fact, I am not sure what I could have done differently. But most definitely, overworking was my M.O. for avoiding, distracting myself from angst.
Socrates’ “know thyself” sounded wise and profound, but it also seemed as if it had lost its potency in its abuse. This phrase, however, gained newfound significance in this state of naked confusion. I mean, we grew up with the entire world yelling into our ears—these different, but sure ways to be happy and fulfilled, widely accepted by the society. Essentially, we are constantly told to change ourselves to fit into that mould of success and happiness—that there is a concrete way, a step-by-step manual to snatch that life we desire.
We can’t force ourselves into a mould of happiness created by others. I mean, we won’t ever “know” who we are completely—but if we try, if we think on it really hard, then we will probably have an idea, at least. And everything is moving so quickly—and increasingly so. Fearful and anxious, we just start running, not towards, but from something, to fit ourselves into expectations of happiness thrust upon us. If we were ever close to “knowing” ourselves, maybe we wouldn’t be so violently swayed by expectations of others.
One of my favourite things to ramble about is post-secondary education; more specifically, the value of liberal arts education (no, a business degree doesn’t make you better than arts students, sorry). Of course, everyone is different and has different needs; also, everyone gets different things out of different experiences. In my case, I am specifically interested in education for personal growth (which I do not think is necessarily exclusive from employability). I see education as a means of broadening my horizons, a tool that allows me to get as much as possible from my life experiences and be a more thoughtful, better (tsk) member of my community. Hence, I regard liberal arts as the best form of education for my own purposes (I will rant about liberal arts and employability one other day).
Starting my last first day of undergraduate degree, I was sentimentally thinking about my 4.5 years at the University. While I genuinely think that my undergraduate program went as well as it could have, as a forever-greedy human being, I thought about some of the things that I wish I had done to better further the goals of my liberal education stated above. Hence, I am writing this post as a sentimental retrospection of my undergraduate program in my last first week of undergrad and potentially as a advice for any junior undergraduates who share my goals (unlikely audience for my blog, I assume). Most importantly, this is a critique of our University curriculum and my painting of the ideal liberal arts education.
Pre-Requisites: Get them done out of the way ASAP
Finish all the pre-requisites. As I was taking my introductory English literature course in the fifth year of my undergraduate program, I really, really wished that I had taken this course within the first two years of the program. I mean, this English course was great and fun, but I could not help but to remind myself that I was missing out on all the fun that I could have in an advanced level course, for an introductory writing course. I knew how to write. I knew how to write 25-page papers. I could have taken, say, a seminar on Chinese politics or a French language class, instead of the intro English course.
The point that I am making here is that a student would get so much more out of an introductory level course in their first/second years. My English course was taught by an excellent instructor–she was phenomenal. But as a fifth-year student, I really struggled with my fifth year blasé (and wee bit of shame).
Also, these pre-requisites, altogether, serve to provide a strong foundation for advanced studies in liberal art education. In my university (as in many others, I assume), students in BA programs must take courses in a diverse range of disciplines–social sciences, humanities, languages, sciences, etc. I know that many students dislike these pre-requisites (“I can’t do French. I really can’t”). But here’s something that I learned from my BA: we don’t remember specific passages of John Donne poetry, the date of the Battle of Waterloo, or Brazil’s GDP, but we retain the ability to draw on from a wide range of sources, filter the good from garbage, and communicate our findings with coherence and style. And, these pre-requisites provide us the experience and ability to do that. For instance, my Economics courses have given me the ability to get more from my advanced seminars in Political Science or History; my French and Spanish courses have improved my writing skills by making me think more critically about linguistics; and Art History gave me a unique perspective in thinking about architecture and political theory.
So, in my first two years, I would take these pre-requisites and focus especially on writing (perhaps take Writing Studies?), as it becomes important later in the degree.
I think that it’s ridiculous that we (arts students) “don’t have time” for pleasure reading. University is a unique time in our lives in which our minds are quickly growing, exposed to a multitude of possibilities. It’s a time we can choose to be whoever we want to be and books play such an important role in this developmental stage. I often feel inadequate when friends ask me, “oh, have you read [insert the name of a classic here]?” and I shake my head. Not to subscribe to a culture of literary snobbism, but there are some books that I would like to know well enough as to understand the references, etc. Sure, you could say that I am a lazy bum and that I could find time to do this in my free time–NOT. I have not met any full-time undergraduate student who does pleasure reading during school terms.
So, here’s my proposal. Third year, after having finished all the pre-requisites and knowing what’s up in the world of learning, take a year to do reading–just reading alone. Come up with a reading list–100 novels, plays, non-fiction, everything. Then, meet up with three professors in different disciplines–in my case, History, Political Science, and English. Register myself in respective 400-level reading courses, offered by each department. Meet with each professor to discuss the books that I’m reading. At the end of the academic year, produce a 15-pager, bringing together what I have learned from these readings (not to be graded…). Maybe do a study abroad program, in Cortona, Italy, or Nice, France–but just read, without the pressure of having to produce a tangible final product at the end of the term.
Of course, this is something that could be done at our own expense, outside university. But do we ever have time to do it? After graduation, student loans have to be paid and them Starbucks coffee will not be brewed on their own (jokes). University is pretty much the only time in our lives in which we can do that, without risking too much of our post-grad lives.
One more thing: I would somehow add a discussion component. I don’t know how, but that would be ideal. My best course at the University was a historiography seminar in which I had four super-engaged peers–and learned so much from these discussions.
Being more courageous
There were so many things that I wanted to do during my undergrad, but they never came to fruition, or came too late because of my lack of courage. I wanted to do study abroad in Europe, do student politics, join debate, etc–but I was always unsure about myself as to try them out. I did some things that I was hesitant in doing–like running for the student government elections in my third year. I did win a seat, but it didn’t work out at the end, if success in politics is to get things accomplished and move up the ladder. Running for elections (albeit a smaller-scale one, relatively) was such an uncomfortable experience for me and I have so much respect for people who put their names out there and go through all the travail. But as much as it was uncomfortable–I gained so much. I met so many interesting people and learned a lot about myself and others, which eventually led to more exciting events afterwards.
I will end up not doing study abroad in Europe or joining debate at this point in time, for other reasons than fear. Looking back, I really wish that I had been a bit more courageous and willing to be a bit uncomfortable, and done things that I had not done when I could have. As a cliched saying goes, “you only regret things that you didn’t do.” Word, word, word.
What does liberal arts education have to do with this? Liberal arts is essentially a study of the self, and a bit broadly, of humanity. Books can be read, of course; essays can be written. But I realized near the end of my program that our lessons from classroom only come to life when we let ourselves out there, on unfamiliar ground, experiencing the unknown and uncomfortable–experiencing “humanity” with our all. That is when we truly experience the value of liberal arts education.
Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. I ran out of writing fuel… for now.