Monday, November 29, 2010

Op-Ed for student newspaper: Part 1

To protest Duke's recently proposed anti-vandwelling law, I decided to publish a two-part series in Duke's student-run newspaper, The Chronicle. If you're more than familiar with my story, I wouldn't bother reading Part I, which is HERE, since it's mostly a summary of my two years in the van. (Despite all the press coverage, hardly anyone on campus knows that someone's living in his van--hence the need for a summary).

Part II, which prints tomorrow, will focus more on the corporate nature of institutions of higher learning, and how the "university experience" teaches students to be profligates and debtors.

There hasn't been much of an aftermath to the article, and things have gone without note except for a fairly humorous typo on the part of the paper's editors. They accidentally named me "Ken Vandwelling," which is a catchy nickname, but one I don't want to stick.



Thursday, November 25, 2010

Black Friday



Long Island, New York. The date was November 28, 2008. It was almost 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday—the day when people across the country venture out to mega-retail stores in the early hours of the morning to save money on the most coveted gifts of the upcoming holiday season. A throng of 2,000 ravenous shoppers stood outside Wal-Mart in the dark of the early morning hours, screeching, chanting: “Push the doors in! Push the doors in!” This Black Friday started off like any other.

The crowd had become creature of its own, pulsing and throbbing and rocking with anticipation. All eyes were directed toward the entrance—the crowd lured to it like a horde of marauders eager to plunder a defenseless country village.

Time, for them, ticked too slowly. The doors would open at 5 o'clock, but shoppers couldn’t wait any longer. The crowd turned itself into a thousand-man battering ram, pressing itself against the automatic glass doors, which—once enough pressure was applied—burst off their hinges, permitting the crowd to funnel itself down the main corridor.

It was a stampede. And the shoppers had lost—long ago—all recognizable signs of their humanity. These weren’t men and women anymore; they were savages. Conscienceless, unfeeling, psychopathic, plastic-hungry, mass-manipulated savages.

A group of Wal-Mart employees inside had gathered in front of the doors to slow them down. Among them was Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year old maintenance worker from Queens. The crowd, upon entering—crazed and gleeful—unleashed maniacal battlefront cries. Some of the workers formed a barricade and stood fast as the mob swarmed in. Other workers—once they realized there was no hope at stopping them—took refuge atop pop machines.

On sale that day was a Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV ($798), a Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum ($28) and Wrangler Tough Jeans ($8).

Damour was knocked over. The soles of hundreds of feet marathoned across his body; life escaping his body with each footfall. Three others went down with injuries that day, including a woman who was eight-months pregnant. Damour died soon after, and it was announced on the speakers that the store would close.

Shoppers were said to exclaim, “I’ve been here since Friday morning!” before they continued on shopping.

***

I remember reading this in the news and feeling appalled. Though I can’t say I remember feeling surprised.

Just two months before—with the collapse of several banks—our economy was on the brink of disaster; many wondered how long and how bad this latest depression was going to be. It was baffling—I remember thinking—that people are running over people to get the latest reconfiguration of cheap plastic when in, supposedly, the “worst depression since the 1930’s.”

Black Friday. It just sounds evil, doesn’t it? For me, Black Friday is a day of mourning. It’s a day of loathing and embarrassment and pity. Black Friday is my day to go to Wal-Mart.

I go, not to buy, but to view this American spectacle like any great cultural event. Black Friday, to me, is like gladiators cleaving off limbs in the Coliseum; like a stoning in a marketplace; like witches burning alive for uncommitted crimes. Someday I hope that future generations will look upon Black Friday as we look with disgust at the marvels of our forebears’ moral depravity.

Last year, I spent my Thanksgiving break with my friend Chris in Charlotte. We woke up at 4:00 a.m., and drove the van to the nearest Wal-Mart.

I wanted to experience this cultural event for the first time; to take in all the ugly sights, smells and sounds. I wanted to be swept into the store by an unyielding wave of consumers; to see a pair of soccer moms claw at each other for the latest big-bosomed, wide-hipped doll; to rip an action figure from the hands of a toddler—for the sheer fun of it—and be martyred by a sweaty swarm of goateed dads.

But really, I wanted to sabotage Black Friday. I came in thinking I might be able to cause some sort of mass disruption. I pictured myself getting on the overhead speaker and making up fake deals. I’d send shoppers down the bouncy ball aisle before trapping them inside with strategically placed shopping carts on each end.

But none of this happened. While there were no stampedes, the amount of people there was staggering. The crowd made me feel small and insignificant, and stopping Black Friday, I quickly determined, would be like trying to stop some unstoppable natural process—like the wind or the rain or the ocean tides.

I slowly wove my way around an obstacle course of mid-aisle displays on wooden pallets, old ladies on electric carts, and herds of astoundingly large, cinnamon bun-shaped asses. Finally, I made it to the electronic section in the back of the store. There, the crowd was tightly circled around the cell phone counter, wearing expressions that suggested a mix of impatience and anticipation—discharging the sort of sweaty, farty vibe that brought to mind a rabble of colonists eager to raise a flaming effigy of some reviled monarch.

But for all the hustle and bustle, there was a strange orderliness to it all. Everyone looked a little bored and tired and fairly docile, but these moods, I could tell, were ready to rupture. Perhaps one more elbow to the ribs or shopping cart to the shin and these dead, zombie-like faces would come to life, and the crowd would descend into riotous anarchy.

The aisles were clogged; I could barely move. Shopping carts were brimming, spilling-over, overflowing with junk. They looked like overloaded Okie jalopies ready to topple over under the sheer weight of their contents.




Three-wheeled scooters, boxes of Legos, basketballs, George Foreman grill, stacks of DVDs, Mr. Coffee machines, Fur-real pets, radio-controlled trucks, and Zizo 62-inch LCD TVs.

One cart was crammed with multi-colored towels. One lady was guarding three carts in front of the registers. I spotted a child hidden amidst stuffed-animals in another cart. One man held a vacuum over his head like a soldier carrying his rifle in deep waters. There was a steady, indiscernible babble from the shoppers, but occasionally I could make out a line.

“This is too much. I didn’t get the pajamas.”

“You gotta be shittin me. I need Triple-A’s!”

“Sir, what about the Wii console?”

“Everybody’s in such a big hurry,” a man said in a southern drawl.

“Have you got everything you need so far?”

Isn’t it ironic how Black Friday comes after Thanksgiving—the day when we’re supposed to be thankful for the stuff we have? Then again, Thanksgiving, itself, seems like a ritual gone awry. I love the idea of a holiday that makes us reflect on what we have—but is that really what we do on Thanksgiving?

This is how my Thanksgiving typically transpires. My mom and aunt slave away in the kitchen, preparing food for hours while my father, brother and I watch football. I’ll deliberately starve myself until mealtime so I can preserve valuable stomach space. When it comes time to eat, I’ll wolfishly devour helping after helping of turkey, ham, potatoes, corn, stuffing, followed by pumpkin and chocolate pie until I’m surfeited. Rarely will dinner last more than 20-25 minutes.

By meal’s end, I experience a sort of paralysis. Suddenly the prospect of getting up and out of my chair seems daunting. My eyelids turn heavy, my belly has Homer-Simpsoned, and my belt buckle has suggestively come undone. I’m exhausted and lethargic, and because it seems unnatural—at this point—to do something productive, I’ll spend the rest of my evening sprawled in sweatpants, napping, watching movies, or playing video games.

Never during Thanksgiving do I take a moment to reflect on what it is I have and ought to be thankful for. I think about these things on a long hike, during in moments of strain and struggle. I think about what I love when I do without, not when I revel in hedonistic pleasure fests.

While not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in such fashion, or participates in Black Friday shopping sprees, we’d be kidding ourselves to insist that this is not the norm for most Americans.

I can’t help but think: What the hell is going on? It’s like our culture has turned into some weird bizzaro, upside-down, opposite-land where our holidays bring out the worst in us; where people spend $75 on a new pair of jeans with holes in it; where a country’s health is measured by its GDP—and not by its citizens' actual health.

Thanksgiving is less a break from our standard way of living, and more an exaggerated version of it. We’ve become humans on holiday. And something is tragically amiss. Thanksgiving, to me, is a sad reminder of times past when we hunted and grew our own food; when food wasn’t shipped from the ends of the earth before being thoughtlessly inhaled. Believe me, I like the internet and laptops and cheap bananas from Ecuador, but they come with costs that aren't explained on the price tag. With frivolities gained, essentials are lost. Lost is our intimacy with the land, which is, I believe, essential for our physical and emotional wellbeing.

The degradation of our morals, I think, is linked to the degradation of our environment. And because the consumer-capitalist machine can only be fueled by mountaintop rocks and exotic oils, the machine—by its very nature—precludes those of us entrapped within the system from achieving a sense of homeostasis with our surroundings, and balance within ourselves. The machine hums nicely so long as we’re removed from the land, and ignorant of the machine's incalculable footprint.

But we’re never fully ignorant. Even if we aren't aware of our discordant relationship with nature, we—without knowing the source of the problem—become intimately acquainted with the relationship's many ugly side effects. We become plagued with a cornucopia of physical and psychological maladies—diabetes, obesity, heart disease, addictions of a thousand sorts, eating disorders, ADD, OCD. The ubiquity of these afflictions would make even the most doltish caveman scratch his extended brow in befuddlement at out backward ways.

Our whole economy is dependent on our “lose and use” culture. We buy shit, throw it away, and buy some more. It’s the American way. This culture, this lifestyle, to me, lacks even the faintest trace of common sense. But I understand why it advances on its destructive course unperturbed.

Without profligacy and waste there wouldn't enough jobs to go around. But jobs! “Jobs!” screeches the angry American. “I want jobs!” ::grunt, grunt, fart::

We’ve become dependent on the machine. Supposedly it’s up to our politicians to create jobs, half of which are—few care to notice—either detrimental to the environment or the human soul. This dependency, of course, is not a personal choice, but a product of the system in which we’ve grown up and been educated. Because we’ve been fashioned into codependent specialists—great at one thing and useless at everything else—to envision another way is almost impossible.

To take a job is to—more often than not—become a nut or a bolt that helps turn a gear in the mighty consumer-capitalist machine—each part crucial for the machine to function, yet useless on its own. We tend to think times are good when the unemployment rate is down, as if it’s a good thing that the majority of our population is pushing carts, flipping burgers, bagging groceries, or performing some other menial, card-punching, soul-sucking task.

No longer is this "work," but soulless, unfulfilling labor. And no longer are these "people," but automatons who must check their humanity at the automatic doors. They’re no longer Jdimytai Damour’s, but meaningless maintenance workers in the way of our $20 sale. When their only public function is to provide luxuries and pamper the next class up, these people come to be considered expendable, and they, themselves, can't help but feel expendable and alienated. They do not play a real or valuable or pivotal role in society, nor does their job provide them with a purpose in life outside of feeding their immediate families. All they get from their labor is a check every two weeks to buy meaningless crap of their own, purchased to justify their hard labor, and to instill a false sense of freedom.

I spent a good hour walking through Wal-Mart taking in the sights. On my way out, someone on the speakers announced “We have four 32-inch Sony’s for $478.” Two women began shouting at one another over a TV in one of their carts. My great plans of civil disobedience had been scuttled. Now I could only watch on in helpless horror.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

DMT Scholarship Update

Wow. Firstly, I must thank everyone who’s donated to the DMT Scholarship Foundation. It only took a couple weeks to reach our $1,000 goal. I can’t express how heartwarming it is to learn that there are other people willing to support this scholarship, the values it represents, and our future “Dare Mighty Things Scholars.”

As a reward to readers/donors, this blog will feature stories and pictures of the adventures we helped fund and the lives we helped change. So hopefully we can get something from the act of giving.


I recently posted the scholarship on Fastweb—(one of the larger scholarship databases)—and the response has been incredible and uplifting. It’s only been on the site for three days and I already have ten applications. It’s an amazing feeling to read about other peoples’ dreams—dreams that are full of heart and soul; dreams that are bold and daring and ambitious; dreams that are their own and no one else’s. Goodness, thank god, people dream still!

I intend to make this an annual award, so I will keep the donation button on the blog. So—if we’re so lucky to get new donations—they’ll go towards next year’s award, or maybe even a second place prize for this year’s.

Thanks again everyone!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Financial crisis



I’m running out of money.

I’d like to put the blame on the high cost of education, a tough economy, or some other debilitating side effect caused by our flawed economic superstructure. But I can’t truthfully blame anything or anybody but myself.

I currently have $1,473.79 in the bank. Next semester, I will have to make my final tuition payment ($1,089). So when I graduate in May—if all goes according to plan—it looks like I'll have about $384.79 left (if my part-time job wages continue to cover all my living costs).

Let me try to explain how I got in this situation.

There have been two phases to my debt-free college-degree experiment. The first phase was in the spring semester of ’09—my first semester—when I arrived at Duke with just $4,000. In this phase I was poor.

The second phase began in the fall of ’09 when I came back from my well-paying Park Service job as a backcountry ranger in Alaska with well over 10K in the bank. In this phase I was radically frugal—and I’ve been in this phase ever since.

Despite having money—after my summer at the Park Service—I chose to carry over many aspects of my initial frugal phase. I stayed in my van; I rarely, if ever, ate out; and I still shopped at places like The Salvation Army.

Yet, I did use my money a bit more freely. I bought a new and expensive pair of hiking boots. I started buying my groceries at Whole Foods rather than Kroger. I stopped meticulously keeping track of my every penny. I felt more at ease taking long gas-guzzling trips to David’s and the Appalachian Trail. And instead of working 20 hours at my part-time job, I only worked 12.

This past summer I chose not to work so I could focus on my studies and on my book proposal. It was a bold move, I realized. After all, I could have gone back to Alaska and brought back another 10K+.

Still, I thought I’d be alright. Besides, I had plenty of money left over from my '09 summer job.

But because of some bad spending habits and some unforeseen expenses, I’m down to close-to-nothing again. For one, I strayed from making my meals from cheap bulk items (beans, rice, oatmeal), instead treating myself to cheeses, yogurts, and expensive vegetables like avocados.

I even—I'm ashamed to admit—paid for a haircut. At first, I thought I'd save money and give myself one. I locked myself in a bathroom and tried to give my hair a light trim since it was starting to get into my eyes. Before I even started, I realized how dumb an idea this was. I knew that cutting hair would probably fall into the category of things that I will forever be terrible at. When it comes to pointless aesthetic touch-ups—like making beds, sweeping floors, or polishing cars—I know I’ll somehow—by virtue of my carelessness—end up making whatever I’m doing look worse than it originally was.



After a few snips, I realized I did irreparable damage to my hair. I accidently removed all of my bangs, but still had long hair on the top, sides, and back of my head, exposing my high hairline and accentuating my long, flowing locks—sort of like Chucky.



Embarrassed, I wore a hat for the next few days and when I couldn’t deal with it any longer, I took my travesty to the barbershop and very guiltily spent $20 on a non-necessity.

And my van—because of several back and forth trips from David’s to Duke this past summer (2 hours each way)—needed a series of repairs.

I got new tires ($330), new front brakes ($350), and a ball joint issue resolved ($350). In a matter of weeks, I’d lost over $1,000 on my van alone. That’s when I took a close look at my bank account, shrieked, and decided I needed to go back to my old frugal ways.

Between my financial crisis and my recent parking lot drama, I felt, for a moment, like my little world was crashing down. Nothing seemed certain or secure. My van was breaking down, I was getting kicked out of my neighborhood, and my shower slippers were falling apart. I felt like the protagonist in Barton Fink whose crumbling hotel room corresponded with his own psychological degradation.



Since then, I’ve upped my working hours from 7 to 13 at my part-time job tutoring kids.



I signed up for two MRI studies, bringing in a clean $75 cash for just a couple hours of work.



And I stopped shopping at Whole Foods—where I’d buy local, organic stuff—and now shop at the cheaper, though less ethically-sound, Kroger supermarket.

And I’ve begun scavenging for food wherever and whenever I can get it. It’s amazing how much money there is at Duke. I went to a film that a student group was showing just so I could eat at their lavish (and free) reception. Here, they’re serving tea smoked red fish mousse crostini with Terrace Hub Sauce, brown butter pear bars, pecan tarts, and butter squash goat cheese croquettes.



To go on an aside… I can’t help but feel embarrassed for the waiters and waitresses who proudly, beamingly, read off the specials, pronouncing each extra adjective on a dish with rhetorical flourish, as if it was them who'd gathered all the ingredients and prepared the meal. Frankly, I’ve found that the more adjectives there are on an entrĂ©e, the nastier it tastes and the costlier it is. When I'm in a situation where I must order such a meal, I obstinately reduce whatever it is I'm ordering to a word. "I want fish," I say with a neanerthalithic grunt. Anyway, despite the long titles, I got all this food for free.

Here I found a goldmine—a platter of vegetables that someone just left on a table in a classroom. I’ve also found a half a package of Oreos, and a half eaten pizza in the library, among many other neglected dishes.



Now that I’ve taken these necessary measures, I’ve achieved some semblance of financial stability. While I will be running on empty soon enough, I should—according to my math—easily be able to make my last tuition payment next semester.

How do I feel about my situation? There is, admittedly, a small part of me that thinks—“Gee, in a few months, I’m going to be completely broke, practically homeless, and will have no possessions of significant value. I’ll have no health insurance, a worthless degree, and probably won’t have a job.”

But that’s just a small part of me. I knew, all along, I was putting myself in a financially vulnerable situation. Hell, if there’s one Master’s Degree that will most certainly not better your chances at getting a job, it’s Liberal Studies—the program I’ve enrolled in. I knew this.

But financial security is not and never has been my goal. The ONLY thing that is important to me is that I graduate debt-free. I don't care if I have to sell the van and sleep in stairwells. I don't care if I have a dollar left in my bank account in May. All I care about is achieving my goal.

I believe that to pursue and achieve a goal, you sometimes need to view the world with a sort of tunnel vision. You need to blur all the temptations, detours, and sidetracks on your peripheries in order to keep sharp focus on your goal. All I see ahead of me right now, wavy and mirage-like on the horizon, is my goal of graduating debt-free. Once I do that, then I’ll worry about eking out a living.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why go to college?

Dear Ken,

Kudos to you for taking such a daring adventure. I love the book Walden and you are a modern example of it.

I am 18 years old and in my first year of university. Two months in, and I'm not enjoying it too much.

I cherish simplicity and live as humbly as possible. I hardly spend money except on food and shelter. I even dumpster dive. I know you are the same.

And truth be told, I'd love to live in a van.

That said, why am I, and why are you, in university? I can't find a good answer to this and I'm considering dropping out. I feel like I chose to go to university just cause I get good grades and everyone else was doing it. Also, my family really expected me to go. But the thing is, it's just a piece of paper, a diploma. If I drop out, I can learn all the material on my own, without the stress and money involved. I can work, but my lifestyle wouldn't require much working; just a little bit to cover my minimal expenses. I can spend my days with loved ones and learning. I can take a greater role in the community with volunteering and activism.

Perhaps you can help me by offering the reasons why you've chosen to get a degree and take on the stress and financial burdens. I'm not saying/accusing that you don't have valid motives. I suspect you have very valid motives, and I would love to hear them. It would greatly help me as I weigh my options.

Huge respect,
Nick from Canada




Nick,

Your email made my day. Slapped a smile right on my goddamned face—not just because I’ve learned of yet another kindred spirit who shares this world with me, but also because it’s people like you who, every now and then, renew my faith in humanity.

I normally don’t send emails in the form of an essay, but the subject calls for it. So please excuse me for my formal tone, and for—what will probably be—an unreasonably long and largely uninteresting history of my education.

***

When Thoreau was 31, Harvard—his alma mater—sent him an alumni questionnaire. One of the questions on it (quite innocently) asked what his profession was. Thoreau—in a tone that some might call “brash”—wrote,

I am a Schoolmaster, a private Tutor, a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter, (I mean a House Painter) a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-laborer, a Pencil-maker, a Glass-paper-maker, a Writer, and sometimes, a Poetaster.

If his intro didn’t communicate it, he emboldened his condescension in his letter’s conclusion:

P. S. — I beg that the class will not consider me an object of charity, and if any of them are in want of any pecuniary assistance and will make their case known to me, I will engage to give them some advice of more worth than money.

Thoreau hated Harvard and he didn’t hide it. He famously said that Harvard “[teaches] all the branches and none of the roots.”

My undergraduate education at the University at Buffalo didn’t leave nearly so sour a taste in my mouth. In fact, I was quite indifferent about school, perhaps because I hadn’t reached the level of intellect necessary to bring something into question the way only the perspicacious can.

Like you, Nick, I enrolled in college hardly of my own volition. But, unlike you, it took me a long while before I even thought about why I was there or why I was spending so much money to be there.

It’s tough to explain just why I decided to enroll in undergraduate college, perhaps because there never really was a “decision.” I never weighed pros and cons; I never considered other options. In fact, the only options I thought about had to do with which school was going to get my money. And I point all this out—not because I think I’m an interesting minority—but because I think the way I thought is the way the great majority of young people think about their education at first. And when young people—caught in a vulnerable stage of development—are expected to make a five-digit decision that could affect them for the rest of their lives, they often (and understandably) make decisions that they'll later regret.

My high school classmates and I—like most eighteen-year-olds of our generation—thought less like individuals, and more like a school of fish: While we had the physical capacity to go off on our own, to do our own thing, and to make our own life decisions, there was some overpowering, irresistible force sweeping us all into the halls of an academy like debris into a dustpan.

The social pressure to go to college was—I can’t emphasize this enough—incredible. Throughout my primary and secondary education, no one—and I mean no one—even passively mentioned an alternative to going to college. Sure, some kids were encouraged to enroll in trade schools; and others, to enlist in the military, but I honestly cannot think of anyone who tried to show us the countless options that we could pick from; and these options—by virtue of them being right in front of our noses—were invisible. No one talked about the merits of traveling, or the virtues of work; no one spoke about anything except going to college.

This—in hand with other forces—fostered an intensely competitive social atmosphere. One’s “success” and social status was in large part measured by how highly his prospective college was ranked. Those going to community colleges were considered inferior, and those heading off to top-tier private and state schools were envied.

By school and other forces beyond my ken, my classmates and I were molded into a certain sort of human being, who were then funneled into college—where most would experience further programming in slightly more exclusive pods.

From a very early age, I was programmed to think: “I need to go to the best college I can get into, no matter the cost.” And while it was ultimately my fault for applying to schools that would cost me so much, it’s evident to me—looking back—that it wasn’t just me who made “my” decision to go to school.

For the first couple years, I kind of just drifted through college. Despite my apathy, it didn’t once occur to me that I could leave school. I was mentally incapable of grasping the idea of self-ownership—that my life was my own; that I could do anything I wished with it; that I could—at any moment—cast off the chains that I’d unknowingly wrapped around myself.

My sophomore and junior years passed much the same way: I fulfilled my general education requirements, I sampled courses from different departments, and I mostly listened to lectures in large auditoriums, oftentimes with several hundred students. Occasionally, I’d enjoy a course or a lecture, but for the most part I continued to thoughtlessly drift with the current.

It wasn’t until late in my junior year that I actually began to enjoy college. In the English department, I read Shakespeare; in the history, I studied the Constitution and founding fathers. In my senior year, my classes got smaller. We had passionate discussions in seminars, I started to write for my school newspaper, I interned with a local progressive newspaper, and I developed relationships with a few of my professors. Every day I could feel myself growing: I was writing and speaking better; I was thinking with unprecedented clarity. My curiosity was piqued, my passions roused, and my brain hungered, insatiably, for knowledge. I loved school, so much that I’d stick around for a fifth year. Those last few years represented a period of intense personal growth; it was a renaissance of sorts. I learned that college was worth it after all.

And then I graduated.

I moved to Alaska to pay off my debts, oftentimes working alongside people who had never set foot in a college classroom. In Coldfoot, in the coworker housing unit I lived in—a refurbished forty-room trailer with paper-thin walls that once housed workers during the construction of the Alaska pipeline—I had, on one side of me, Mike—a half-Vietnamese/ half-American schizoid and alcoholic. Mike would kick open the hallway doors while sputtering fake bullets that sprayed from a pair of invisible machineguns that he carried on each arm. On my other wall was Morey—an 18-year-old pothead from Colorado—who I could hear at any hour snoring, blowing bubbles in his bong, or strumming tunes on his guitar. Caveman Dan, a lodge cleaner, saw action in Panama. Paul, a carpenter, brought with him an arsenal of automatic weapons. Chad, a tour guide, had a thirty-strong dog team. I hitched with truckers, rubbed elbows with hunters, and gave tours to upper-crust septuagenarians.

These were just a couple of the many personalities and groups I came to know intimately. Later, I lived in a predominantly black Mississippi ghetto, I delivered packages alongside a homophobic UPS truck driver, and I lived with Alaskan natives in a remote, one-road village at a Park Service ranger station in Bettles.

I moved around for years. I was in a state of constant interaction with a variety of classes and cultures. At first, I thought this was what a real education was—the education I was getting outside of classroom walls. I learned about alcoholism and drug addictions. I saw people living subsistence lifestyles and others wallowing in abject poverty. On the road, along rivers, and atop lonely mountains I was able to continue to "discover" myself.

But it wasn’t long before I started to miss college. More and more, I fantasized about locking myself behind the bars of a university again. That’s because the intellectual capacities that I’d worked so hard to develop were gradually fading: my writing was plateau-ing; I was speaking less articulately; and the thinking muscles I had to constantly flex in school atrophied from disuse.

I tried to compensate by writing daily introspective emails to my best friend, and by reading book after book after book. But nothing worked to retard my regression. I needed back the structure of school.

My cultural experiences were invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, nor all the friendships I made over the years. But there came a point when I realized that I still had a lot to gain from school, but little else to gain—in terms of self-development—from the people around me. There are things in the outside world that you can’t get at a university, but there are things at a university that you can’t get from the outside world.

And to be the best man I could be; to give myself the tools to make a difference; to “save the world,” I needed to go back to school.

While Thoreau hated school, he’d eventually come to realize how Harvard had played an invaluable role in his development. Thoreau biographer, Robert Richardson, says:

When [Thoreau] returned from college, Harvard, with all its shortcomings, had taught him how to pass judgment on Harvard, and had in fact prepared him for a life of the mind. Acknowledgment would come later.

At Harvard, Professor Channing helped Thoreau fine-tune his writing. His studies in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and Spanish enabled him to glean wisdom from ancient texts that would later saturate his own.

But, unlike Thoreau, many of the other “greats” didn’t need school. Jack London spent less than a year at Berkeley. Hemmingway and Twain didn’t need a college education, and Steinbeck left Stanford without a degree, traveling and taking a series of odd jobs. Some of America’s greatest leaders—Washington, Franklin, Lincoln—though lifetime learners, never enrolled in college. The most impressive mind I’ve ever come across sits atop the body of a hunter from the rural village of Wiseman, Alaska (pop. 15)—a man who dropped out of college before his first semester ended. The list goes on and on.

Thoreau moved to Concord where he could be near Emerson and other transcendentalists who would provide him with a “graduate education” superior to what any school could possibly offer.

What I’m getting at is: there’s no formula to follow. Some people, like me, need school. Others surround themselves with books and brilliant people and they can “elevate their minds” without having to make hefty tuition payments.

If you know why you’re in school, I think you belong there. If you don’t, then leave and don’t come back until you do. Perhaps, after a while, you’ll learn, like I did, that college really is benefiting you; that there’s a “point” to school. There are merits to sticking it out, even if the benefits of school are not readily obvious to you. But I think this is, for many, a recipe for disaster.

Many students who “stick it out” end up handcuffing themselves to a life that they really never intended to live. They have trouble getting off the career track they put themselves on when they hardly knew themselves or what they really wanted to do with their lives. And the debts that they accrued make getting off that track so much harder.

A college education should provide students with minds that will function in the world at large, not just in the workplace. It should helps us figure out the big questions that will follow us everywhere: what’s worth fighting for; who’s been lying to us; what the point of it all is. A college education, more than anything, should make us citizens before it makes us careerists.

But school, sometimes, does the exact opposite. The university experience—the major we’re forced to declare, the internships we’re compelled to apply to, and the debts we accumulate—too often closes more doors than it opens. It, like high school, winnows us into a certain type of individual. College makes us into “experts”—experts who are great at one thing, but can’t do or think about much of anything else. College helps us become the orthopedic surgeon, the real estate lawyer, the 8th grade math teacher. Every May, a slew of professionals walk off commencement stages with brains brimming with knowledge, but souls severely lacking in empathy, imagination, and the ability to exercise introspection—characteristics crucial for any self-respecting citizen to function within a democracy.

Many of these people walking off stages are not terrible human beings, but they are morally vacuous; they do not care if their job hurts more people than it helps, so long as they earn a paycheck at the end of the week.

"If a man is a fool," says Desmond Bagley, "you don't train him out of being a fool by sending him to university. You merely turn him into a trained fool, ten times more dangerous"

***

To give advice about college, one is forced to ponder, not just the point of school, but the point of “it all.” And this is where I enter murky territory. While I’m in no position to tell someone what ought to be important to them, I suppose there’s no harm in sharing what’s important to me:

I want to the best man I can possibly be. And I’m willing to suffer through a period of misery, sacrifice and discomfort—which a college education often is—if it will equip me with the knowledge, tools, and wisdom that will, in the end, enable me to improve the lives of others. Of course, this goal has been created with self-interested aims, too, for helping people, affecting change, creating original works, and setting myself up to have a real and meaningful purpose will, I suspect, lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.

But college isn’t the only way to accomplish this. Before you’re forced to major and narrow your studies, it would be helpful to know just what you’re passionate about—and such insights rarely come from school alone. So perhaps you should take to the woods, to find the “roots” that Thoreau could not unearth within the confines of his classroom.

I hope that you do not think that you’re in a predicament—No, this is anything but. You are blessed with an awareness that is rare for your age—an awareness that will be an invaluable asset when it comes time to making the big decisions, such as this one.

Whatever you do, I hope that if you leave, you leave knowing that you’re not exiting the classroom, but that you’re merely entering another. And that—even in our most self-interested and solitary endeavors (such as on a journey)—the brotherhood of man continues to run through us all. We’d be fooling ourselves to think that fulfillment comes from selfish acts, and that—whatever your pursuits—I hope that the end goal is not just the betterment of yourself, but the betterment of others. To change the world, as my favorite movie tagline goes, you must first let it change you.

Thoreau would daily embark on long afternoon walks. He lived alone in his cabin for two and a half years. He was, by all definitions, a hermit, and a curmudgeonly one at times, too.

But he came to the determination—based on his education in both his Walden cabin and Harvard classroom—that it would be an irresponsible expression of his life to live just for himself. And that is, I believe, the very reason why he took off on his own; and that is why I’ve cloistered myself within my own upholstered hermitage. Sometimes to play a part in this great big world, we must separate ourselves from it.

But don’t listen to me. Thoreau said it best: “Be not simply good, be good for something.”

Happy trails,
Ken


PS: Mind if I use this as a blog entry?