26 07 2010

“Learning is perhaps the only pleasure that might replace increasing consumption as our chosen mode of enriching experience. Someday, the joy of recognizing a pattern in a leaf or the geological strata in a cliff face might replace the satisfactions of new carpeting or more horsepower in an engine, and the chance to learn in the workplace might seem more valuable than increased purchasing power or a move up the organizational chart. Increasing knowledge of the ethology of wolves might someday replace the power savored in destroying them.”

– Mary Catherine Bateson, quoted in Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith.

image from Wikipedia

I love learning, was filled with an insatiable curiosity from the moment (according to my mum) I opened my eyes. In my home country, people would never ask me a question like, “Why did you choose to go to Harvard?” – our attitude in Singapore is that you don’t choose Harvard – Harvard chooses you. If you get into Harvard, you’d better jolly well go. Not that I didn’t fret over it though – I was a little insecure and intimidated, wasn’t sure whether I’d thrive in a cutthroat environment, etc, etc, but really those were fears that were quickly overruled, and very soon the little envelope was mailed back and I started to prepare myself for the adventure that would be attending the Big H. Sure, I do still kind of suffer from the occasional useless counterfactual, but five years later, I have a fistful of regrets but a large sloshing bucket of gratitude.

I guess I’m revisiting my decision because the question resurfaced again this past month, when I was traveling in the Midwest, while staying with some family friends in Indiana.

When I first got to Harvard, I realized immediately it wasn’t the place I had thought it would be – in both good and bad ways. But because it was freshman year, I guess, and because I was suffering from a good dose of culture shock, at first it seemed primarily bad. To me the name of Harvard always called to mind the Ideal University – that is, the best university in this world and age, and therefore desirable in and of itself. It didn’t matter what its underlying principles were; or even who its faculty were. The very fact that it was the best meant it was some kind of platonic University, where all truth and knowledge of the ancients and the accumulated wisdom of the world today resided.

So, I used to be the girl with the 10 year plan. I was insatiably ambitious. When I was 7 or 8, I asked my elders and teachers what the best university in the world was (at the time, they answered “Oxford or Cambridge”), and decided then and there that I would work my ass off to get there. I don’t think I was primarily motivated by arrogance; when I was 7 I had barely any notion of ranking. In fact I was bizarrely innocent of the fact that my good grades meant that I was ranked highly against my peers – I had not made the connection between doing well and “winning” in some sort of race against everyone else. I guess my parents had taught me well not to compare myself with others. Of course, the moment the school rankings were published at the bottom of our report cards my innocence was completely and ruthlessly shredded to bits.  But my point is, I didn’t aspire to go to the best university because I thought I was the best – I aspired to go to the best university because it was the best.

Of course, I was disappointed. You see, I had always imagined universities to be beautiful floating islands with ivory towers and turrets in the clouds, where knowledge was pure abstraction, freed from the dross of the quotidian. I thought of professors as rootless sages, repositories of knowledge, without interfering backgrounds or personal tics that may bias them towards one field or opinion rather than the other. I don’t know where I got that idea – perhaps I thought my small country was provincial, and that in the big countries history was taught differently, or that with a full breadth of literature (or at least the Western canon) at my feet, I would have a better grasp of human nature than from 6 literature texts for the ‘A’ levels. I was actually stunned when I realized that in the department I was interested in, the best professors were Americanists, that they all approached their fields from personal interests (I was bewildered why black professors were teaching African American studies rather than being part of the history or literature departments) rather than from some Archimedean fulcrum from which they could leverage the world. I didn’t understand why Asian American writing had to be taught by Asians, why the Shakespeare professors were white, or why I had an American Literature requirement to fulfill. I was pretty devastated, actually.

Until I realized that there was no such university as the one I had been pursuing – that there is no objective standpoint to all knowledge, at least not one which any one human being can teach. And that there IS no objective standpoint that one can arrive at, either, no matter how good a student. And that the question, “Why did you choose Harvard?” is a totally valid one. I chose Harvard because I wanted to learn, and to learn from the best. I chose English because it was my comparative advantage, and also my passion. I chose to stick it out because too many people had invested in me, from the scholarship boards to my parents to my schools to my peers to my country, for me to just quit when the going got tough. I wasn’t just representing myself here – there was all this honor at stake.

There were people in my church who warned me against going to university to study literature because I would “lose my faith”. I was so annoyed I didn’t even answer them, I just smiled and nodded. But in my heart the remark stung, and I vowed to myself, if literature makes me lose my faith, then it wasn’t a faith worth having. Because, ironically, literature has, on more than one occasion, saved my faith. And because being put through the gigantic ego-wringer that is Harvard has been more purging, more cleansing of my soul than any other institution could possibly have been. The most important thing I learned in Harvard, in fact, was that I could hold a deep-seated, decades-old belief with all the intense fury I could muster, and still be wrong. I still remember, when I was faced with fulfilling my Science B (biology/chemistry) requirement, tiptoeing rather shamefacedly into the “Human Evolution” class for the introductory lecture, wondering if my church auntie was right. She wasn’t. I didn’t end up taking that class because I was too chicken, but I ended up taking Steven Pinker’s Human Mind class, which had a lecture on evolution. It was one of the most enlightening moments of my young life. I felt like the scales were falling off my eyes.

All my life when I picked up the children’s encyclopedias that lie around the house, and stared at the ethereal pictures of the planets in them, I was struck by their beauty and wonder. And then I would look at the dates scientists had labeled on them – however many billions of years, and I would be repulsed by what I thought was a lie, constructed by (what must have been) the infernal conspiracy of world scientists which I had learned about in church, to deny God’s creation. (Yes, I was surrounded by young earth creationist propaganda in my childhood). It bewildered me how the noble white-coated scientists of my imagination, whose science and technology had put a man on the moon, could simultaneously concoct such lies to fool small children, when they daily gazed through telescopes to see such heavenly beauty. It did not make sense to me, and now I see why.

I used to camp with my friends on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin, and, away from the light pollution of the mainland, we would gaze at the stars. What we saw was probably a pale imitation of the skyscape that our earliest ancestors gazed at – the skyscape that inspired myth, mathematics, astronomy, exploration, philosophy –  but still, no matter how diminished, there is still something awe-inspiring about seeing light that has traveled so far, light that is so old. Those massive balls of fire are lightyears away – I’d think to myself – billions of billions of lightyears away….They are signals sent from the dark of the deep past, beyond history, beyond mythology, into the retina of the now, from stars that may have long burned out, but which retain, for this split second, in my perception, their luminescent fury. And it just would not latch into place with my idea of a God who is just and constant and beautiful and, above all, True, to mislead his people each and every night with paper-thin lies, lies that those stars were not in fact more ancient than the earth, more ancient than human memory. It was hypocrisy to call God true and then accuse him of purposely setting the earth up to look old when it was in fact new. It seemed like a nonsensical concept to me, and for the longest time it gnawed in the corner of my brain, a thing I refused to think about, as I repeatedly pushed it out of my mind.

But now that I’ve looked it full in the face, I see that it is not so terrible – that in fact a God who used evolution to make us is an even more logical, beautiful, consistent and terrifying God than the one the pages of creationist magazines contained. I guess the moment of truth came to me when I had finished Jerry A Coyne’s amazingly respectful, mild-mannered “Why Evolution is True”, and I walked into the Northwest Labs building for the first time and saw, hanging above me, a gigantic, mysterious skeleton. It could have been a dinosaur, or some sea-monster of Nessie proportions. But then I saw below its ribcage two tiny, unconnected bones, precariously held in place by wire, that (I imagined) must have floated in the midst of fatty flesh and blubber when this creature still roamed the seas and I thought to myself, it must be a whale. Because Coyne had explained in his book the mysterious case of the whale – descendants of land mammals who returned to the water, thus leaving vestigial, unconnected pelvis and hindlimb bones beneath its spine. “Those bones serve no function at all, ” I thought. “It must be the skeleton of a whale.”

Two weeks later, the curators of that space finally put up a plague for the skeleton, and sure enough, it was.

And in that moment, my heart leaped and something latched into place.

For the Splendor of Creation – Gustav Holst’s The Planets

adapted for Harvard Commencement

For the splendor of creation that draws us to inquire,

For the mysteries of knowledge to which our hearts aspire,

For the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear,

For the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,

For the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd:

For the joy and pain of learning, we give you thanks, O God.

For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest,

For the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best,

For our rivals and companions, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise,

For the human web upholding this noble enterprise,

For the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod:

For this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.

The Church of England’s posthumous apology to Darwin:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well


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