Education, part two, on the topic of motivation, meaning, and escaping the mental prison-maze.
When I was seventeen, I cried myself to sleep in the dorm at Lewis & Clark College. I wanted to be a writer. I’d had a taste of other jobs since the age of eleven, and the prospect of any other type of employment made me despair. Earlier that evening I had spent a few hours closeted with Kate Wilhelm going over a fantasy novella I’d written, and she pointed out all the mistakes in it that would keep it from being published: too many adverbs, shallow characterization, and faults in point of view. I objected that I had observed a consistent third-person point of view. She showed me where I was wrong. My face went hot, and my stomach dropped. “How come my creative writing teacher didn’t tell me this?”
“Most likely because she didn’t know,” Kate said.
Later as I ruminated in the dark, I understood both intellectually and emotionally that I had a long, long way to go if I wanted to have even a shot at being a writer, that winning the Oregon Young Writers Contest didn’t mean I’d arrived anywhere. I’d just won the opportunity, along with a dozen other students, to confront my deficiencies. I finally consoled myself that this was still further than the vast majority of hopeful high school writers, and that if becoming a proficient writer really came as easily to me as I’d hoped, it would show up my aspiration as cheap.
But man did it hurt. It was good for me, right? One of those formative experiences that breaks the shell of a young solipsist so he can grow.
Yeah, but eff that. Why didn’t my teacher know? I mean, point of view is not rocket science. How many people who love movies and even arrogate themselves the role of critic don’t know about prelap or montage or composition… or point of view?
I was taught trigonometry in high school, but somehow I missed the fact that sine, cosine, and tangent are functions, not variables. My most valuable class in all of high school was probably elective computer programming. But we never connected trigonometry with computer graphics. We didn’t, for instance, program an analog clock simulation, or even try to draw a circle.
Why not? (Because the teacher didn’t know, maybe.)
No one taught us how to draw in high school. The basics of perspective and the visual horizon are not that tough, certainly not tougher than a physics vector problem. I remember thinking that to program a wire-frame 3D program like Battle Zone must involve godlike genius. No one taught me otherwise.
I took four years of high school Spanish, and the only reason I actually learned to speak Spanish was that I hung out with the foreign-exchange students and endured their ridicule, and I took an independent study to painstakingly translate a novel. Why didn’t we have an immersion class? (Because the teacher didn’t know enough Spanish?) My daughter learned more Spanish in a year in high school than I did in three because of an immersion program.
Even in college, I learned more grammar serving as an English tutor than I did in my classes.
Many of us are taught to be consumers, not producers; politicians rather than philosophers. How are your kids being taught? What messages are they internalizing from what they are not taught?
Habitual consumers will have a very hard time trying to escape the personal hell of the prison-maze of their mind. And those who do set out to be artists and engineers against their training will face unnecessary isolation and frustration, and then ego inflation if they succeed.
“We go to college to learn how to think, not what to think.” Really? I learned how to think by clinging desperately to what made me happy, against a tide of conditioning in how to be a consumer.
And I lashed out at the wrong people for the wrong reason. The year after my instruction by Kate Wilhelm, my high school English teacher critiqued a story of mine once, and I told him that I didn’t think he was qualified to offer a critique. He was visibly hurt and angry. I’d gained a bit of reputation for knowing what I was talking about by that point, and maybe this contributed to his decision to leave teaching and take up writing the next year, at a time he had a young child to support.
And I was wrong. He was eminently qualified to critique my work, as is everyone who reads English fluently. If a person thinks they’ve found something broken in a work of fiction — or spots something off in a painting or musical composition — they’re most likely correct. They probably don’t know how to fix it, even if they are masters of their craft, because that’s the artist’s job, to find a solution that communicates their vision when their craft fails.
But it was a big problem that he couldn’t answer me and put me in my place because he was cheated by his education.