The American Scholar

William Goodman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Tonight the sky hangs violet and orange around the streetlights, and the wind charges thick and cold, bowling through sweater wool. It could be the first hint of winter, blustering through summer reveries and stamping out autumn vigor. But it isn't. It's the beginning of May in Providence, Rhode Island. You know what they say: if you don't like the weather here, stick around 'cause it'll be different tomorrow. As this May chill sets in, we put graduation out of our minds, but it slips closer and closer, stalking behind a ridge just out of sight, waiting to surprise attack us in the middle of the night or during a peaceful meal or while we're on the couch watching T.V. And when it hits we'll march on by, marking the passage of another class through these ivied buildings and hallowed iron gates; the passage of another class of tuitions paid in full. Never mind that the class of 2005's university investments, taken together, could finance a moderately sized revolution, or the Yankees' payroll, this is about true scholarship and learning and growing up, right? Graduation. Gradum inferre, to advance. Advancement means leaving one state and arriving at another, and I suppose that in the four university years, the eighteen to twenty-two years, it makes sense that advancement should take place. Besides, it is hemmed in our caps and gowns, patted on our backs, imprinted on the heavy parchment of our diplomas. It costed a pretty penny, and we had damn well better own it. So we talk about how far we've come, how much we've grown up, and what a great ride it's been.

I guess that's what we do with experience. We take it apart, string it together again, trim it, annex it, color it in, print it out, show it around, and voilà! we have MEANING! We all play architects for our own sand castles of meaning — and sand castles they are indeed. Hardly perfect and hardly permanent. We may build meaning in order to live, to give life a moral narrative, but sometimes the narrative just doesn't fit together right. It's like watching a movie and unexpectedly catching a glimpse of a cameraman's shadow. In that moment, the castle crumbles; it's a fake, it's a lie, it's entirely unbelievable.

The Decemberists sing,

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners,
Even though my work is unparalleled,
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go.

What I'm trying to put into these words is the life and time I've spent as an American Scholar. This is my song of scholarly experience, accumulated and broken up again, remembered as truth and rendered as story. I can't say that this is how it happened (how could this be exactly the way it happened?) but I can tell how I know it now.

******

We hurry into the car, Dave driving, Pat shotgun, Simon, Greg, and me in the back. By the time we pull up to the house, we are giggling and bouncing in our seats. They won't know what hit 'em. We scramble around the outside of the house and boost Simon up to the fire escape, which he grabs onto and climbs, entering the house through an open second floor window. They left the window open! Simon runs downstairs and lets us all in the front door. We spread out and hit every room. Living room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, halls, everything. A serious blackout. The final touch, a smiley face drawn in shaving cream on the foyer wall, and we are gone, back in the car speeding home.

The blackout is a favorite prank of ours. You break into a friend's house at night when he is gone, and you remove every light bulb in every room, leaving the place entirely dark for his return. Total blackout. It's perfect — no serious damage, not too vicious, but a real bitch to come home to, stumbling and crashing into furniture, clawing around for light switches that won't help you a bit.

A few hours later, our victim calls. He must have immediately recognized our handiwork, and after sharing a laugh, he scolds us: "Don't you assholes have anything better to do?"

Anything better to do? What else is there to do? "Life is our dictionary," Emerson said, "Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of today . . . . Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made." See! we should be out reading the dictionary of life, not sitting inside with the shoddy copy! We already spent way too much on the damn copy! We are the scholars of the world, the ivy-wreathed ones at that, so there's no reason why we future world leaders shouldn't be out stealing the light bulbs of Providence.

******

The two of us sit in the common room, me sprawled on the couch with the T.V. remote in hand, him on a folding chair, knees together, a smooth silver Mac laptop balanced in his lap, keys clicking-clicking.

"Ted wants to know if you're goin out tonight," he tells me, his eyes never leaving the computer screen, his keys never breaking the click-click rhythm.

"Tell him I donno know. Maybe. You hungry?"

"Nah. Well, kind of. What are you gonna eat?"

"Pizza prolly."

"Nah. I had pizza last night."

"Me too. I was with you. Dumbass. Check the Cardinals score."

"One sec. Ted says there's a party on Euclid."

"Man, I can't go there again. See if Morales is going."

"Cardinals up 2-1. Bottom of the third. Morales's away message says he's working out."

"How bout Chinese? Is Shanghai open tonight? I think they might be closed on Mondays."

"Umm . . . website says they're open. I could go for one of these dinner specials. $6.99 for the General Tso's meal."

This is daily life, and daily life is centered around, depends entirely on, cannot function for godssake without, the computer. The computer is our workstation: we type papers, do research, make presentations, fill out online quizzes, and find jobs. The computer is our playground: we entertain ourselves with music, movies, sports, pictures, sex, and endless games of solitaire. The computer is our plaza: we gather to talk, buy, sell, people watch, and window-shop. And hopefully it's a Mac computer, because they are sleeker, cooler, and more of a go-screw-yourself to big Microsoft-loving corporations (oh, and they're usually more expensive). At all the wireless-enabled cafes and coffeehouses, each pair of hands is tapping-tapping on the keyboard of a Mac laptop. You'd think there were signs on the doors: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Mac, NO SERVICE.

The Internet, when created by the Advanced Research Project Agency in 1969 (probably not by Al Gore — he was only 21 at the time), was intended to serve communication purposes. ARPANET, as it was originally called, linked the computers of military personnel, defense contractors, and universities conducting defense-related research, in order to share and access information from different locations. Bell was on to something with the telephone, and so was Morse with the telegraph, but neither stood an iceberg's chance in Hell against the Internet.

For college students, one Internet feature in particular drains as much time and energy as joining a sports team or picking up an extra class: Instant Messenger, or IM as it is fondly known. IM is a noun, a verb, and even an adjective. You can sign onto or use IM, you can IM someone or get IM'd, or you can be an IM person. Through the program, users participate in live chats, typing messages back and forth in private windows. In fact, with the right equipment, chatters can actually speak to and see each other by way of the IM connection. By now, the IM chat has become common currency among the computer-literate of all ages, and it has even developed its own language of abbreviated messages. There's the standard, "LOL," or "laughing out loud;" there's the more swanky, "IMHO," or "in my humble opinion;" and there's the downright coarse, "NFW," or "no fucking way." What a time saver! The IM chat, like the creators of the Internet hoped, allows computer owners in all parts of the world to communicate. It lets college kids stay in touch with people in California, Norway, or down the hall — who wants to have to put on pants and get out of bed to see what your friend next door is doing tonight?

Still, in the always-connected network of college computers, the chat is only one part of IM. As every real IMer knows, there's also the all-important "away message." When you are busy attending a lecture, studying at the library, hanging out at a party, or using the restroom, there is no reason to stop using IM. Users can post messages that stay up while they are gone, informing others of their whereabouts ("At Steve's house drinking!"), their current states of mind ("So drunk!"), their innermost desires ("Wish I were drinking!"), or even their deepest regrets ("Way too hungover. Why did I drink so much last night?").

And there it goes — whoosh! — a life spent in front of the computer screen, talking to other people in front of computer screens, the soul of humanity abbreviated with "NFW," rolled up, and saved in a forty-gigabyte hard drive (have you heard about the new eighty-gigabyte Powerbook G4?!). This is the life we tossed out our textbooks for? The life we celebrate while Whitman, Pope, Dickens, Didion, Fitzgerald, Johnson, Orwell, Baldwin, Yeats, Dillard, Donne, Salinger, Spinoza, Wilde, Eliot, Bellow, Marquez, and Hurston all gather dust under our beds and in our closets? WTF! ("What the fuck!")

Still, the messed up part is this: imagine your computer crashes. What do you do? Your whole life is back in the Stone Age. Even worse, imagine the world ends tomorrow. Everything is destroyed, and you are left to rebuild society (okay, you can have one other man or woman for propagation purposes). What could you do? Would you have the slightest idea of how to build a computer? Start with a radio, a piece of technology that has been used for over a hundred years — could you explain how it works? How about a telephone? A light bulb?

And there it goes — whoosh! — we graduate, the most advanced scholars in the history of mankind, the ivy-wreathed future world leaders, and yet most of us don't have a better understanding of the world than our ancestors who prayed to the fire-gods for a stroke of lightening. We have made ourselves believe in advancement in order to justify our lives. We are a part of progress, the ascending line of history. The son leapfrogs the father, the grandson leapfrogs the son, and so on and so on and so on. Only, I feel stuck in the mud in front of a computer screen.

******

At eleven-thirty on the night of September 10th, 2001, I was reading Plato's The Apology for class. Socrates, the gadfly, was stinging the Athenian state from its slumber. Where is my gadfly, I wrote down, because I feel asleep, somnambulating, somniloquizing. The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I quoted, I die, and you live. Which is better God only knows. Here I was, the American Scholar, the 21st Century American Scholar, and I felt numb, just going through the motions. I had waited and waited for this life to begin; in my head I drew it up again and again, fresh and sparkling. But now it felt washed-out, a case of d&aeacute;jà vu, where every image and situation, however new, seems routine. Where were the earth-shattering, life-changing events?

"Have you seen the T.V.?" On the phone my mom spoke slowly and sounded out of breath.

"No, I just got out of the shower. Got class at ten-thirty. Why?"

"Just turn it on. There's been a terrorist attack in New York. I heard it on the radio. Oh my God. You won't believe what's going on."

I turned on the T.V. It was a movie, an action scene in an action movie, the same effects, the same fire and brimstone, the same panic, the same apocalyptic exploding images; they told us it was the greatest tragedy we'd ever seen, but it was too familiar. I tried hard to feel shocked and not excited. I ran down the hall and woke up Simon, who is from New Jersey but likes New York sports teams. We sat transfixed, hearts racing, in front of CNN.

"Are you going to class?"

"Are there classes?"

"Yeah, I heard some professors are still having class."

Still having class? How could there still be class? This should be the gadfly! Wake up now! Yell, fight, claw, cry! Jesus, just don't go to class. We didn't go. Instead, we sat motionless and speechless, watching the T.V. movie play out to its end.

That night President Bush sat in front of the nation with his fingers intertwined on the desk of the Oval Office, his hair neatly trimmed and parted, pale blue tie and lilywhite collar perfectly straight, shoulders high and broad.

Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.

This sounded right — our lives had changed forever, I kept hearing. But what exactly of mine was attacked, and what exactly was I supposed to change? I knew that this was scary stuff, but for some reason, acting scared felt like dressing up for Halloween, or worse, it felt like boldfaced lying.

Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me."

I thought this sounded right too. God should be in there somewhere. He only knows. It seemed right to start acting like God had a hand in things, if only to comfort other people, and I found that mentioning God or prayer, even in passing, held more weight and profound respect than usual. Maybe God would be different from then on, I thought, because suddenly, as I tried to catch up to what everyone else was saying and doing around me, praying didn't seem like such a bad idea. Maybe, as Dillard says, I was finally allowing myself to feel the hem of God's grand and subtle spirit. Or maybe I was succumbing to peer pressure.

Either way, a few days later I walked in on a service at Manning Chapel. The place was crowded, and I stood leaning against a corner in the back of the room, listening to the rise and fall of the sermon, hearing not the words but their echoing melody. I remember that the girl next to me had straight, ginger hair pushed behind her ears, flushed cheeks, and soft brown eyes that seemed to glow with the preacher's melody. When the service ended, I lost her in the crowd, and I went home, flipped on the T.V., and stretched out on my bed. I wondered what the girl's name was and quickly fell asleep.

******

Now it's time to advance. Gradum inferre. It's time to bundle up the past, swallow it down, and stick out my chest to what comes next. Perhaps in time, when enough experience has been sung, when my voice gets tired of singing, when I am finished disturbing the universe, all will weave together into an elegant pattern, showing me the meaning (MEANING!) of all of this. At the very least I'll have an elegant pattern. But for now, it only makes sense to pass through these hallowed iron gates and keep walking, taking with me these flashes of experience, both the lulls and the jolts of life, meaningless or not. To tell you the truth, that's a pretty liberating idea. Once the structure goes and the meaning crumbles, we are free to experience for experience's sake. We are no longer boxed in by the need to figure it all out. Tennyson tells me, "All experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever when I move." Maybe that's all we get: experience and movement, experience and movement, experience and movement, experience and movement . . . .

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Last modified 12 May 2005