Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #32 – Taking Up Space

August 12th, 2019

I looked out at a sea of college students that filled the small auditorium. The professor, a friend, asked me to teach his “Introduction to Hinduism” class. Standing at the podium before them, I started with a joke to introduce myself and to warm the crowd. With a straight face I tell them:

 

“I haven’t been back in a university in almost forty years, when I was studying aeronautics.”

 

I paused for a minute to watch the puzzled audience try to digest the incongruence between what I had just said and who was standing in front of them in robes and a shaved head. I then quickly added: “I was taking up space.”

 

Get it? Taking up space… aeronautics. I heard a few chuckles, then a few more. Most got it.

 

The truth of the matter is that I studied philosophy in school, but what I said was basically true. I wasn’t a serious student, and I don’t remember even one thing I learned in class that has been useful in my life. I am not saying that because I became a Hare Krishna monk. It was the late Sixties. From all practical standpoints, most students were, in fact, just taking up space.

 

Of course, for many career choices a college degree is an essential prerequisite, and there are competent teachers in some fields of study that can share pearls of wisdom. Yes, there are also good reasons to attend college, and some elite schools work you hard, but even for most career directed majors what is too often important is not what he or she actually learned in school, but rather the graduation diploma needed as a prerequisite for a job or further education. I don’t suppose the whole college experience today is much different than it was fifty years ago, except for one big difference. This may come as a shock to you, but I paid $800 per semester for room, board, and tuition at a good school! When I graduated, I left debt free and was able to join the Hare Krishna movement — or do anything else — without being bound by debt to some useless job.

 

Now here’s a brief list of reasons why college, when not approached very thoughtfully, can be a big mistake.

 

The Financial Challenge

 

The cost of college today is exorbitant.[1] Most students have to take out huge loans to pay for their college education. Most are under the misconception that the responsibility for one’s loan begins after graduation. Not true. With many, or even most loans, you start accruing compounded interest the minute you start school. By the time you finish school and are obligated to start paying the loan back, you will be paying back only the interest you have accrued without having touched the initial principle, and this will go on for years. What’s even worse is that six out of ten students don’t even complete their degree in four years. They, or their poor parents, have basically just thrown their money to the wind.

 

To maintain a healthy life, according to the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, one must immediately get rid of three things: unwanted guests, disease, and debt. Modern psychological studies have significantly linked debt to depression, anxiety, stress, anger, fear, shame, low self-esteem, impaired cognitive ability, and mental illness. So, unless one pursues a syllabus aimed at a specific occupational goal that leads to sufficient economic remuneration, there is a chance that you will be borrowing money only to debilitate your general well-being, including enslaving yourself to a meaningless job to pay it back.

 

The Intellectual Challenge

 

Even if one does pursue a college major that trains one for a good job, is that the purpose of university — simply to get a job? Traditionally the university had a very solemn duty. It was invested with the responsibility to train the intellectual and leadership class of society to maintain and hone the foundational principles behind the various institutions and traditions within their society. How sad is it that today the university, at least in the United States, has increasingly become a social club or trade school, and a poor one at that?

 

A university is meant for intellectual rigor. Worse than becoming job training centers, too many disciplines in the universities have degraded into intellectual orthodoxies[2] where the gift of reason is not used to educate or find truth, but to confirm existing beliefs and indoctrinate students into many disciplines that, frankly, often pawn absurd ideas.[3]

 

The Education Challenge

 

Besides the lack of intellectual rigor, it seems that college is even failing to give the most basic lessons of the humanities that were once the hallmark of education. Here’s the insight of controversial Camille Paglia, an alum of my alma mater, on the deteriorating state of classic education:

 

“What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history — of any kind! No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of the destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on — and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization. They now have been taught to look around them to see defects in America — which is the freest country in the history of the world — and to feel that somehow America is the source of all evil in the universe, and it’s because they’ve never been exposed to the actual evil of the history of humanity. They know nothing!”[4]

 

 

The Character Challenge

 

More than anything else, the single aspect of one’s life that determines one’s success is the strength of one’s character. I can’t afford to waste precious words here arguing the obvious, which is that modern education is not geared to elevate one’s character. A few notable quotes should suffice.

 

“We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions.” — David Brooks, New York Times columnist

 

“To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” — Theodore Roosevelt, American adventurer and president

 

I will leave this section with some words on the spiritual vacuum of modern education from the very learned Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura. He went for higher education in Calcutta, the seat of the British Raj and its best schools, over 150 years ago, but his insight into the spiritual vacuum of modern education is still relevant today.

 

“The result of modern education is that one becomes no better than an ass as one only becomes more enamored with the flickering nature of this world.” (Vidyāra Vilāse v. 3)

 

 

Buyers Beware Notice

 

My perspective in life is spiritual, and my Monday musings follow suit. Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us that it is difficult to separate one’s spiritual life from the way one lives in the world. I would not be faithful to my mission in writing without an occasional social comment. Too many young people who don’t belong are entering college and going into substantial debt without even getting a good education or a remunerative career. How much better it would be if they could be guided immediately to a suitable career rather than four costly years simply taking up space. [5]

 


[1] This article may be more relevant for people in the United States where colleges cost on the average at least $50,000 and are often outfitted like country clubs.

[2] https://heterodoxacademy.org

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVk9a5Jcd1k

[4] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/paglia-dumbing-down-america-began-public-schools

[5] Some people ask me how I come up with a topic every week. It’s not easy. The above article was based on a YouTube video that someone sent me that I thought made a powerful point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dETn6JVO-p4

 

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