The Postmodern Monastery

I had breakfast and said goodbye to the salutatorian of the last school I taught at.

She is packing and heading for Rice University in Houston.

What she described the university had to do in order to promote safety is shocking. They cannot go to different floors. Dining capacity is lowered. Most classes are online anyway, but orientation and the scheduling of classes have yet to be done.

Students who do test positive for the coronavirus are going to be confided to Sid Richardson, what the students are calling “Sick Richardson.”

They’ve been told to prepare a two week bag for the occasion. They are not allowed to do laundry, and the meals will be delivered in cardboard containers…

I did not ask about any amenities on campus like the recreational center, but one assumes that to be a distant wish.

And Rice has been in the news recently for making outdoor classrooms available via tents scattered across campus. Professors, whether due to the Houston hot spot, or the intense humidity and heat, have not taken that charge.

If you have had the standard college experience like I did, as expensive as that was, this can come as quite a shock. In human history, we felt that academics and scholarly work was largely done alone. “A scholar works sober, and alone,” John Adams chides to his son in the HBO miniseries.

But the reality is far more complicated. We do just as good work with other people (perhaps a little better), and as much as I hate to admit it, we need other people for ideas.

My former student seemed just as concerned about her roommate, whom she described as a far more conservative and safe individual. The plan is to never leave the room unless they have to…and who could blame her?

What kind of environment is this? With all this on my mind I considered the real possibility that, had I been in the situation of an entering college freshman, I would have taken a gap year. Better to have the ideal college experience than this anemic one.

But were the country to plan for that, who knows whether the state school I got accepted into would still be around.

It could have been different. Americans love summer. Rather than choose to trust our institutions and experts, we resorted to opening early. Now we feel sick.

I can see it now: dozens of vlogs from students cropping up, discussing their time on campus like the cruise lines in February, lamenting the confinement. What if one happens to be with an appalling roommate? Or worse. What if one comes to despise their roommate only because they were forced to be close before ever becoming acquaintances? It’s like learning to run before walking.

The college experience, like many pastimes, seems to be thought of as inevitable to the middle class lifestyle, so much so that students are willing to drive six hours away and use dorm wifi to take part in Zoom classes. They must feel as though the real part of college, the permanent memories of blacking out drunk or losing your virginity or trying ecstasy for the first time, or meeting like-minded people and sharing ideas, is just around the corner.

At some point, the mundane joys of the college experience will begin to seem awfully expensive (if it hasn’t already).

And we could see a class of highly introverted monks, so secluded from suffering or want, that they will perform the much needed graduate school labor that has funded academia for years. A kind of hermetically sealed existence that is incomprehensible to those outside it.

Which has largely occurred, as far as I can speak to my experience in graduate schools. Deep thinking was tantamount to applying a filter over any reading experience from a Marxist, postcolonial, or culture studies lens. The insulary professors would not be budged on what they took to be “matters of consequence.” As if the opinions of people alive in the room were of no bearing on the opinions of those dead. As if dying was a badge of honor in the literary world that one needed before being heard.

As far as I could tell when I left graduate school in 2018, the neoliberal pinching of university had left mercenaries of them all. I did not feel resentment but pity. Pity that those who ran the system and kept the florescent lights running had a grease sheen on their forehead. Anxiety that there would be no place left for me with an English degree in the world, but I was the only thing left between these professors and dire poverty. Guilt that I had little of the passion left for Derrida that they harbored. Shame that getting a PhD was more out of the question than ever.

With all that being said.

When I think about all the reasons for not going to school in 2020, I suppose the only one left is the one that ultimately matters the most. Monasteries did whatever they could to supply knowledge, and even if by today’s standards we would consider what they learned to be a single step above useless, it did not seem so to them. ‘As well kill a man as kill a good book,’ John Milton said. And after London burned down and Milton began to think that his gastrointestinal tract was the cause for his blindness, he still wrote a masterpiece.

Never disregard a passion for learning to circumvent all maladies. Whether it turns out to be colleges that people go to learn, or in the living room couch of a parent’s house, there is little rest for the scholar. It is a virus of the body after all.

And not the mind.

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