Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Narrowing my Sights

Narrowing My Sights

Andy Jack, one of the many wise, brilliant classmates I worshipped at The Woodlands Secondary School, once made this wise, brilliant observation: "You start out knowing nothing about everything. Then you go to school and learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing." I may be paraphrasing poor Andy a bit, and maybe he got this idea from somebody else, but as the years have sped past I have appreciated the truth of that thought more and more. For Andy was completely correct: When I started out I had little more than an active imagination to keep me company. But every stage of education has narrowed my focus more and more, and I for one am getting sick of it.

When I was in primary school, I learned how to tie my shoes (which I never did very well), tell time (which I did even worse) and read books (a skill I am thankful for to this day). I learned how to add and subtract and multiply, and that the names of all the computers at our school began with the letter 'M.' I also learned that making friends was hard, and that people laughed at you and chased you around the playground if you had the audacity of being different. I learned that I was no good at sports, and that I could not climb the monkey bars. I learned how to handwrite neatly and that we always double underline our titles, and single underline our dates when we make notes. And in grade five, I learned how to draw cartoons.

Those were perhaps the most fruitful years of my life. I would learn many important things during the day, and I would sign out two books a day to read when I got home. I was smart back then.


But then Language Arts lost its art and transmuted into English, and I was thrown from primary school into grade 7 and 8, and then into high school. My breadth of learning was fairly peachy until grade 8 -- I got to paint pictures and learn about oil spills and write poetry and make cardboard polygons to paste book reports onto and see Les Miserables and Aida and solve puzzles and learn the Scientific method and generally enjoy a well-balanced academic career that I can only wish for now. I wasn't an expert on anything, but why did I need to be? As long as I was using my head and my imagination, I could learn anything and everything I wanted. And I knew that, once.

Everything changed in high school. All of a sudden, I had to choose courses, and every choice I made limited a direction in which I could have steered my life. True, I was overjoyed that I only had to take a single Gym class, and I managed to evade Introduction to Business, but now I'm fat and I wouldn't be able to get a job to save my life. Taking DIC 2AO -- Introduction to Computers -- put me on the fastrack to a Computer Science degree, but I never learned how to touch type because that course replaced the Keyboarding course I was supposed to take. I never learned how to write in shorthand because I wanted to continue my English and Science credits instead, and I never learned Spanish or German, even though I followed French through to the bitter end. As I passed each grade, my options grew fewer and fewer: I missed out on the legendary senior history courses with Mr. Davis, and I never got to take my Geography courses, and I never developed a proper appreciation for Visual Arts, and I had to ditch Grade 10 Music for Grade 11 Chemistry (although, to be fair, I was afraid of the Grade 10 Music teacher because I heard he tortured those poor souls who couldn't keep a beat, and I had trouble keeping my tuba up to speed).

My imagination began to fail me in high school. Somewhere between grades 12 and OAC I lost the joy from playing with my toys. I never admitted that I liked to play with my Transformers and the string animals I made and the assorted nifties I bought from 25 cent vending machines (The same kind they charge a loonie for now), but until my imagination fled I loved to sit on my bed and imagine adventures pickles epics for Brainstorm the awesome Headmaster and his pilot Arcana (Whose plastic arms eventually fell off and had to be refitted with the heads of finishing nails). My bed embodied the Gaia hypothesis; its hungry bedspreads and blankets would swallow all those unfortunate enough to land on its surface. I developed alliances and held grand battles that usually ended up with every participant strewn in pieces about the mattress. (I'm male. I was supposed to enjoy violence. Besides, I watched G. I. Joe and Transformers every day)

And then I stopped. I just lost my motivation to play, lost the joy I was able to extract from adventures pickles epics, alliances and grand battles, and the treasures hidden in 25 cent plastic bubbles. Sometimes, I would halfheartedly dream something up, but only half my heart would be in the venture, and I would give up. And even today, as I try to make the few toys I have left sing and fight and live as they once did, I am very rarely successful. Maybe that is the saddest thing that happened in my pampered life.

But onwards I marched, through the misery of my final two years of high school, somehow managing to fight the system by taking OAC Electronics and OAC World Issues despite lacking the prerequisites, and (somehow) getting to university, where the rope of "educational focus" tightened around my neck again.

At this point, I would just like to assert that university lied to me. Attending university -- at U of T or elsewhere -- was supposed to expand my horizons or broaden my mind or something like that. Now that I have been through four years of The System, I can confidently say that my horizons are more anorexic, that my mind is narrower and drained of more potential than it ever has been before in my life. Thank you.


...So there I was in university, discovering that I cannot take the same variety of courses I could in high school. I had managed to take OACs in 14 distinct subjects at The Woodlands; at Erindale College, I could choose at most three -- two majors and a minor, or a specialist and two minors, or a specialist and a major and a minor, or some pitifully narrow combination of subjects in which I would become an expert. I opted to take Mathematics because everybody told me I was good at Math (I'm not) and because it would mesh nicely with Computer Science, which would become my specialist. These courses would please my parents and land me a good job (or so I thought at the time) and so there was little need to take anything else. But I decided to minor in English, because I needed to take courses in something that was not related to Computer Science or Math, and because I wanted to cling to a sliver of the variety I embraced in high school -- for fourteen different courses seemed like an enormous number when contrasted to three, even though those fourteen were themselves a small subset of what I wanted to take.

In retrospect, taking English was probably the best choice I made for myself in choosing my degrees. I have met many people who opted to take boring useless subjects like Economics as their alternate degrees, and people who have opted to take no alternate degrees at all. But I have found that the people who take the so-called "artsy" courses -- the Political Sciences and the Fine Arts and the language courses -- are the most eloquent in their thoughts and writing. That's important to me.

But three? Three measly topics? What kind of selection was that? Where was my beloved Chemistry? Where was Physics, or Philosophy, or a language course or Linguistics? What happened to Environmental Science or Professional Writing? Gone, they were. They were sacrificed so that I might learn about Compilers and Rings and Fields and Data Structures and 20th Century World Literature.

The tragedy of the situation is that I don't know whether I can go back now. Even if I had the opportunity to take first year Physics or Chemistry, I would be too afraid, too insecure that I am "just not cut out" for the Hard Sciences. Could I take Russian or Italian now? Would my GPA suffer too much? Can I actually learn anything anymore?

I don't want to know the answer to that last question. I'm too afraid of the answer.

Because I am selfish and narcissistic, I blame university for draining away the rest of my imagination. I can't even think up the plot of a short story anymore, never mind dreaming up ways to save the world. Furthermore, I blame university for making me the selfish, dependent freak I am today -- the elitist who feels superior to the person begging on the street, the spendthrift who thinks little of spending a dollar on a muffin, the lazy bum who delibrately avoids walking, the myopic who cannot understand that there is a bigger, more fantastic world of despair in front of his nose. Even though these are faults I have developed all by myself, I blame the theft of my conscience and imagination on this stale institution quite frequently. That seems to me like a pretty good indication of just how far I have fallen.

I thank English for whatever thought I have left, because English showed me a different way of looking at the world. If I succeed in graduate school, it will be because English prevented the blinkers of my mind from becoming blindfolds.

I got through my undergraduate degree, I think. I ended up scarred and bitter and sick of The System, with no passion for learning anymore. Hopefully, I will heal this summer, because I have applied to graduate school, and there is a chance I will have to go.

And part of being in graduate school is choosing a specialization, of narrowing your focus to nearly nothing. Goodbye, English. Farewell, Math. One is not allowed to enjoy even your breadth when dealing with "higher learning." Now, I have to restrict myself to Computer Science -- but what's this? Computer Science is too broad a field, because it involves Operating Systems and Data Structures and File Management and Databases and Simulations and Complexity Theory and Artificial Life and Computer Vision and Robotics and I have to choose just one topic from this mosaic? Well, how about Machine Learning? I always wanted to know whether computers could learn and think as independent entities. Why don't I limit myself in that direction?

"What aspect of machine learning are you interested in?" asks the Wise Professor.

There are aspects of machine learning?

You mean, I haven't limited myself enough already?

"Well, it's difficult to know whether you would enjoy machine learning if you don't know which aspect interests you."

I haven't limited myself enough already. If I want to be a successful graduate student, I am going to have to select a question -- or perhaps just a fragment of a question -- and adopt it, cuddling and nurturing it in a way all its other foster parents neglected, until I can squeeze out a drop of insight, which I will publish as my thesis. That -- as far as I can make out -- is graduate work.

That's what learning everything about nothing is all about. And just wait to see what happens if I somehow get through my Master's degree and go for a PhD...

Am I the only Master's student wannabe in this big wide world who finds this idea disheartening? Am I the only Master's student in this big wide world who knows he is doomed to fail before he even gets his undergraduate degree? I guess not. That's why they invented the essay option, I guess. But I am disheartened. I am sitting in a giant library that looks like a turkey, a turkey stuffed with more books than I could read in 30 years, books that were born when countless numbers of people squeezed countless drops of insight out of countless problems to form an ocean of knowledge, and I'm wondering: Is there no better way? Probably. Somebody probably wrote a long-forgotten thesis on it.

O Andy Jack, yours were the words of the gods. Fie on me for not heeding your prophesy.