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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