Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back at Duke

I came back to Duke to attend the second of two “final project seminars,” in which liberal studies students in their final semester share excerpts from their final projects.

This means that I’m back in the van—at least for a couple days. When I first got in, my first thought was the common refrain: "What the hell is that smell?" It was an awful garlicy, oniony sour smell. And it was everywhere. I figured another mouse had expired in my van's ceiling, but after a thorough search, I gave up and laid in bed. That's when I got a whiff of my armpit, and realized the smell wasn't the van; it was me. (Explanation: So I don't have to buy another bar, I've been rationing my usage of this one by applying deodorant only once every three days.)

After mysteries of mice and smells were solved, I realized: Oh—how I've missed my dear, darling Econoline! Last night, I slept in ideal vandwelling conditions—a brisk not-too-cold, not-too-warm 45 degrees, perfect for bedding beneath my unzipped sleeping bag. This morning I awoke to a squirrel running across my roof, warm breezes blowing through my windows, and songbirds frolicking in my neighboring blooming bamboo forest. (Why there’s a bamboo forest here is beyond me.) This past afternoon, I laid on my bed for three hours, doing absolutely nothing except contemplating the Milky Way and reading Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. (I'm trying to spruce up on the "memoir" genre.)

As lonely as Duke can be, it is a refreshing change of pace. Most of all, it’s just nice to be around members of the female gender. Having lived in seclusion with David, his cat, and three chickens for the past three months, I'd almost forgotten what a woman looks like. I find myself eyeing them all amorously, falling in love with strangers 50 times a day (especially now that they've packed away the rather unbecoming “leggings” and “Uggs” for the season).

Sadly, my vandwelling days are drawing to a close, and I will only be able to enjoy a few more nights in what has been my home for much of the last two years. Between car repairs and insurance costs, I’m running out of money. (I have only $450 left). I’ve had to cancel my cell phone, and I don’t even have enough to renew my ($34) gym membership. (Though—with the help of one of my professors—I’ve been getting in for free at the faculty gym.)

So—as much as it pains me to say it—in order to financially stay afloat I will sell the van at the end of the semester. I say that with sadness, but also with excitement. It's time to plant myself in a bigger flowerpot—it's time to move on.

Thoreau said he found it hard to say goodbye to his Walden cabin, but left because "it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” I think I could live in the van quite contentedly for years to come, but I suppose that I have “more lives to live,” too. What those lives are—I’m not sure quite yet, but I look forward to a life full of new experiments and daring endeavors—each, a trail-marker, not leading me to a particular destination, but keeping me on a never-ending journey and my eyes always fixed toward the direction of my dreams.

Van or no van, I can say that I’ll always be—till the day I die—a vandweller in spirit, as I believe that a simple existence is conducive to a happy existence. And while I may come to reside in homes without wheels, I will not fritter away my days filling them with frivolous stuff.

My graduation date is May 14. That will be the conclusion of my loan-free college-degree experiment.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Duke University—an evil institution?

“There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.” –Hannah Arendt

"Goldman Sachs." "Hedge fund." "CitiBank." For the past two years, I've eavesdropped many a conversation at Duke, and I've heard words like these uttered over and over again. That's because many students at Duke have, for years, been populating the ranks of highly dubious Wall Street firms.

Duke takes pains to sell itself as a liberal arts school, and while they don’t—like most schools—offer an undergraduate business major, "economics"—a close cousin to business—is the most popular major year after year.

While there are plenty of English and history and philosophy majors at Duke, one could make the case that it's becoming a business or vocational school (as Duke has instituted loopholes for students to get around gen. ed. requirements like writing). Not only that, but there are another 1,500 MBAs enrolled in the graduate business school, and the undergraduate Markets and Management Studies is the most popular of all certificate programs at Duke.

This is nothing out of the ordinary. Business is, by far, the most popular degree in the country. Nationwide, there were 335,000 business degrees given out in 2007-08 school year, more than double the next most popular degree.

But why are there so many students majoring in business or business-like programs? Perhaps these students mean well. Perhaps they have dreams of starting small businesses or creating jobs for people. Or, maybe they have more selfish reasons.

While I do not have the statistics, I wouldn’t be surprised if—like at Harvard—as many as a third of Duke’s graduates wind up in the financial services industry. Every May, it’s as if Goldman Sachs and companies like them position a giant vacuum at the end of Duke’s commencement stage, sucking up many of Duke’s cap-and-gowned grads to be emptied out on Wall Street.

Our best and brightest are not going out to save the world; they’re going out to make money. (I have a friend who’s a Rhodes Scholar who told me that her fellow scholars, similarly, were flocking to the financial services industry, lured by the high salaries.)

Whenever I come across a student who’s going to Wall Street, I've always wanted to ask: “You actually want to work for one of THOSE companies??? Aren’t they largely responsible for a not-so-little economic meltdown? Aren’t they, uh, kinda evil? Don’t you care about any of that?"

One day, last fall, I had my chance. In fact, I got to pose my question to a whole classroom of undergraduate economic students.

“Do economics students major for idealistic reasons?”

For several moments, there was nothing but silence.

“You mean to ask: are we going to out and save the world?” asked one of the students.

“Yeah. I guess,” I said.

“No. Definitely not.”

That was more or less the end of the discussion. My professor, at the end of class, leaned over with a smile and whispered, “You know why they’re all economics majors? Because they’re all going to Wall Street.”

What’s so wrong with going to Wall Street? Aren’t consultants, investment bankers, and Wall Street-types good and useful? Aren’t they necessary for the health of the planet and people alike? I have a hunch, but I’m no expert or insider, so it's impossible for me to answer such questions in a responsible manner. (Though this person poses and answers the same questions.)

Regardless of whether or not these Wall Street-types provide a useful service, I think there is something very, very wrong when a graduate takes a job without thoughtful introspection. When a graduate goes out into the world without character and principles, and with the sole purpose of making a fortune, he can be a very dangerous human being. And a college degree is no longer a flimsy roll of parchment—it's a weapon.

I’ve learned that it’s not just economic or business majors eager to sell their souls to Corporate America. I’ve made friends with a few grad students in the Nicholas School of the Environment—a department, I figured, that would be a surefire hotbed for liberal do-gooded-ness. I imagined a group of dread-headed, tie-died hippies who loved scrubbing oil off sea turtles and fornicating in wild, body-painted orgies. But this friend told me—much to her disillusionment—that “about half of the environmental majors are taking environment courses so they can get jobs in the oil and gas industry.” I was shocked. When I asked a Nicholas School professor if her students had “sound ethics,” she said, point-blank, “no.”

Goldman Sachs? The oil and gas industry???? What the hell is going on?

I thought college students were supposed to be ambitious and idealistic, helpful and hopeful? What is the point of Duke if many of its best and brightest are taking jobs that—to borrow the colloquial—fuck shit up?

Hannah Arendt, author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, said “There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.” She noted that the people who committed some of the most shocking atrocities in the Holocaust were not psychopaths or extremists; rather, they were “terribly and terrifyingly normal”—just everyday people who followed orders.

I don’t think Duke is evil. And I certainly don’t think Duke’s students are evil. (My economics classmates were all very likeable, intelligent, and generally—from what I could tell—good people.) But I think many students are morally vacuous—especially those who’ve spent their four years doing little but creating models and punching numbers. Among them, there is a startling unwillingness (or is it an “inability?”) to ask themselves the necessary ethical questions.

A college should be a place to question everything; to dream up radical and revolutionary ideas; to reevaluate our economic and social institutions (especially those that tend to rape the earth and funnel power and money to the super-rich). Yet, the consumer-capitalist model not only goes unchallenged in most curricula; rather, it’s quite literally taught. We’re taught—as Carnegie Mellon professor Jeffrey Williams sardonically puts it—that the “ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market, and that the market is natural, inevitable, and implacable.” Duke is not a place to question the dominant institutions; it’s a place to support them.

Of course Duke produces many great people. Every year, Duke students become innovators, doctors, professors, journalists, and there are probably even a few do-gooding businessmen and women.

But I can’t help but wonder if places like Duke might be doing more harm than good. There’s clearly something wrong when graduates are aiding and abetting criminal institutions. There’s clearly something wrong with the business-heavy, liberal arts-light education a school provides when many of its graduates don’t think about the consequences of the product they produce (if you can even call it a "product"). And there is clearly something wrong when they enroll in classes, not to become better people, but to buy bigger homes and flashier cars.

I once read somewhere that if, hypothetically, we removed all the ants from the world—in one fell swoop—the food chain would be disrupted, there’d be massive extinctions, and the world as we know it would end. But, if we removed human beings, most everything else would thrive. What would happen if we removed the financial services industry? What would happen if we removed parts of Duke and places like it?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring at Acorn Abbey

It's been a rough week for the writing life. I started editing my first 13 chapters (45,000 words so far), and much to my horror I found myself moaning--on every other page--"This is fucking awful!"

"This isn't just a shitty book," I thought to myself. "This is the shittiest book I've ever read. And it will be--yes, I can guarantee it--THE WORST BOOK EVER WRITTEN."

For two days I sunk into a minor (though still gloomy) depression, hardly able to get out of bed to open up the dreaded Word document again. Add to that my financial troubles (I had to replace my serpentine belt to pass inspection, which cost me yet another $100+), and my uncertain future prospects, and it was a perfect storm for a couple days of despondency.

I just read my book over again and decided: "Well... it's not that bad."

Thankfully, spring has arrived at Acorn Abbey and a little hard physical labor was just what the doctor ordered.

We are growing our garden from seed. Soon, our spring crops will be taken out of doors and into the garden. We are growing cabbage, celery, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and snow peas. (Later we'll grow our summer crop from seed including tomatoes, squash, watermelon, etc.) It is--I will posit--a universally human pleasure to watch things grow, and it certainly has been a pleasure for me.

We are in the process of revitalizing David's soil. We've mixed in loads of organic fertilizer, lime, and compost before churning it all together with the tiller.

I also--and this is going to sound insane--tied almost two miles worth of fishing line above the fence (400 ft. perimeter) to keep the hawks from swooping down and attacking the chickens. Since I've put it up, there hasn't been any more hawk encounters.

Here I am about to smooch my favorite chicken, Patience, who's the closest thing I have to a girlfriend.

And here's David's cat, Lily, who--in the seven months I've lived here--has exhibited nothing but disdain for me. The last time we "played" together (and when I say "play" I mean when I try to pet her as she sprints away), she drew blood from one of my knuckles.

Next step, is planting our crops in the garden, digging an asparagus bed, and building a fence within the fence to keep the chickens out of our crops.