Great books, Science Rulez is over, and finals time
Science Rulez is over for the semester. I’d like to thank everyone who’s read my column and say that it’s been really fun writing this semester!
Two days ago, I read an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times. The piece tells of the meeting between scholar Isaiah Berlin and poet Anna Akhmatova in 1945. They met at a gathering at Akhmatova’s apartment, and talked all night about poetry, literature, and experience. Their connection, Brooks writes, was intense and passionate, but purely intellectual, the sort dreamed by the type of people who live the whole “Great Books/Big Ideas” lifestyle.
How many universities, Brooks goes on to ask, still emphasize this sort of lifestyle?
Columbia, to me, seemed like an obvious “big idea” standout. Our emphasis on the Core, our rich history of intellectual experimentation—from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Jack Kerouac—and even our campus architecture seems to suggest that this is where intellectual passions fly and ‘big ideas’ can take shape.
However, I didn’t find that here at first.
Insects and psychology
American psychologist James Hillman once wrote, that “the terrible thing about insects” is how their endless swarms flatten our image of ourselves as precious and meaningful, reducing our individual consciousness to a “merely numerical or statistical level.”
When I first arrived at Columbia, I felt dwarfed by the history of our campus, the quality of the students around me and the sheer magnitude of other souls in this city—so dwarfed, in fact, that my feelings of insignificance became a major roadblock to my sense of wellbeing.
“Significance”, I feel, is implicit within Brooks’ piece—his life of “big ideas” is one held by “big figures”. In his piece, he focuses not on the many academics and artists across living passionately today, but on notable past figures engaged in an Ayn Randian sort of romance.
As a freshman, I was complicit in Brooks’ version of “big figures/big ideas”. Its a common tendency, I think—we come from high schools where our skills truly make us stand out, where ego-fueled methods of defining our passions are the only ones we practice.
Hillman goes on in his reflections on insects—and here’s where I think it gets interesting. Hillman writes: “Bugs have something to teach, though. They bring the community consciousness of a swarm and hive, a Gemeinschaftsgefühl, a cosmic sympathy, deeper than a social contract.”
We too, it seems, are motivated by helping and connecting with others. I’ve written before about the neural mechanisms of empathy, and the intrinsic motivation (and productivity-gain) associated with being altruistic. The message that modern psychology is continually suggesting is a very basic, Platonic message—we exist for others, and thus, the most productive lifestyle is that of the kallipolis: cohesion with each other.
It’s taken me a long while to begin to internalize any of this, and really only after I started becoming more involved in campus organizations, meeting many amazing people, and feeling part of groups did I again begin to feel a sort of intellectual passion and love of “big ideas”—but a passion fueled by participation in the community around me.
So, as a conclusion to my column for the semester, I’d like to offer some deeply felt sentiments. Adjusting to college and city life is extremely challenging. Your friends who will surround you now will be different from your high school friends—they will regard you differently, and you will fit in differently. Perhaps the greatest challenge of your life (certainly for mine, so far) will be to grow and accept these changes, to rebuild a self-image and a drive not associated with being a superstar but with being a quietly helpful teammate, a true friend, and a passionate scholar.
Even now, it’s easy to look out onto Low steps and feel tiny in the flow of the seemingly thousands of students walking, sitting, and relaxing. But just like Hillman’s insects, sometimes just being part of that flow is enough, and having that awareness and “cosmic sympathy” of your contribution to others is the most motivating and ‘big idea’ thing out there.
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