Twofish's Blog

December 12, 2006

Overachievers anonymous

To whom it my concern:

So tell me, what does it feel like to be perfect?  I’m really curious, since that might give me some insight in what I need to do in my own imperfect life…..

Signed,

Interested

——————

That’s actually what all of this is about.  I’m one of the first generation of Chinese-American overachievers, and I’ve reached a point in which there are very few guideposts, and the closest thing that I have to a role model is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, which should  be obvious given if you read the rest of my posts.

I’m actually trying to go back and find some historical analogues to figure out what to do.  The Jews of central Europe and the Middle East.  The Sheng-yuan scholars of the mid-Qing dynasty.  Earlier waves of Chinese immigration.  The Romans.  All are useful, but none of them quite exactly fit my current situation.  Which is not surprising since history doesn’t repeat.  I am sure I’ll figure out something.

The thing that keeps me in good shape is that I had a very strong liberal arts education when I was younger.  This focus on learning the liberal arts seemed merely interesting at the time, and it actually seriously hurt me when I tried applying for grad school, but it’s become very, very useful now, that I’m in a new situation for which there are no roadmaps and no guides.

Let me give you an example of a “real ethical dilemma.”  Suppose (hypothetically of course) I work at a company.  I don’t think that the company treats me particularly well.  I want to leave, however I believe that my leaving the company will cause extreme hardship to my co-workers.  What should I do?  Similarly, trying to figure out what to say on a blog and what not to blog brings up a whole host of ethical issues.  I will go insane if I don’t say certain things and I think I also have a moral duty to help 20 year olds realize that their problems won’t disappear when they reach 40.  However, I also have moral duties not to impose in other people’s privacy, and not to hurt other people.  But I also have moral duties to speak the truth.  So what do I do?  Every sentence is basically a balancing act.

It’s trying to figure out what to do with those issues, that is why I’m thankful that I have a liberal arts education so that I can at least begin to think through what should I do.  Now here is the problem…..

I had to fight the system in order to get a good liberal arts education.  Most of what I’ve read about history and philosophy, I’ve read outside of formal class.  Reading these sorts of things has actually hurt me in my academic career, because being interested in things other than the things that you are supposed to be interested in is the kiss of death in academia.  Academia has this industrial assembly line model of education which is just deadly for any sort of real education and research.  In fact the irony is that the industrial approach to education, really runs counter to the need for liberal arts.

A lot of twenty year olds think that they don’t need philosophy, and they are for the most part right.  If you are in a structured environment like the university, most of the decisions are made for you, and the number of real decisions that you make are limited.  Even the decisions you *can* make are hidden, because if everything is doing X, it makes it unobvious that you can do Y.  All of this philosophy stuff is not useful, if you can’t decide, which is why philosophy is not considered useful for slaves (and it is dangerous for slaves to learn philosophy since they start questioning the ideas that keep them chained).

It’s only after you end up in an unstructured environment where it is clear that there are real decisions with real consequences, that you find all of this liberal arts stuff useful.

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