The common myth goes that you reach a great divide in life, see the promised land, and unlike Moses, plow right on to a new life. But, in the words of a renowned social anthropologist from Great Britain: codswallop!
For me, the process was not very decisive. I made many false starts, deadends, hairpin turns, and a few desperate escapes. Moreover, I pursued several vastly unsuited areas: pre-med, political science, and comparative religion.
After getting shot at, pursued, and hunted for several weeks, I accepted counseling from a former teacher and his friend at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. Soon I was a Met college student.
In those days, Met College was night school for the university. The course offerings were broad, a bit quirky, and challenging. It became a comfortable home for me. Some of my first semesters at Met were spent in the English courses taught by professor Elizabeth Barker. I’m not sure how these classes ever wound up in the English curriculum; they were world literature classes centered on themes like ” the city’s history in literature.” For me, they were like reading a good trilogy; I signed up for one after the other until there were no more. And then I yearned for more.
So why didn’t I wind up as an English major? I think it has a lot to do with professor Barker’s teaching style. The classes were huge, a hundred students probably. Barker relied on a charismatic teaching style that urged you to investigate the characters in her assigned readings. Every week there were tons of Xeroxed copies of assignments. Depending upon the course, it could be Gilgamesh, a series of creation myths, Hemingway, or Steinbeck. One course stuck solely to “Classics” – Greek and Latin authors, Arabic, Jewish, Chinese, and more. She understood that most of her students would never read these texts in the original, so she determined to expose us to them in the best translations she could find. Barker’s goal never seemed to be enchanting us with English but allowing us to mine through the history of human thought from the ancients up to the early twentieth century. I saved most of those Xerox for decades, mining them when needed; and slowly replacing them with more permanent versions.
The world of literature I was introduced to was luxuriant in variety. But Barker was not interested in just introduction; she wanted us to experience, critique, and examine. In the end, some of us came away changed.
Here’s a word from chemistry: edulcorate. It can be a process of purifying through washing. Through edulcoration, impurities can be removed. By the time I was into my sophomore year and completed professor Barker’s cycle of courses, I had the opportunity to explore the readings offered and examine myself by reflection. I reflected on myself and began to evaluate who I was and what I wanted to shed. Unfortunately, I was not immediately ready to decide who I wanted to become.
A process of change had begun for me that I’ve determined to be the true meaning of education. So many see education as the getting of knowledge, which is at a base level. But insight offers a pathway to self-knowledge, which is much better than knowledge by itself.
Note that I haven’t equated this with wisdom; I’m still trying to figure out that piece of the puzzle.