I have a confession to make: I didn’t want to go to Oglethorpe. During my senior year of high school, I applied almost exclusively to women’s colleges in the northeast. I was going to get out of Jackson and out of Georgia. But when I got the scholarship letter from Oglethorpe, after a few agonizing days, I couldn’t bring myself to turn it down. It was decided: I would go to school in Atlanta, and I would graduate without loans. I sent in my acceptance to Oglethorpe more out of prudence than out of faith in the education I would receive.
And for the first three years, that’s how I approached my education: without faith in Oglethorpe and without faith in my decision to come here. I was constantly on the defensive—to my high school teachers, to my friends who attended schools that are ranked higher in U.S. News & World Report, to everyone I met who asked, “Where is Ogle-tharpe again?”
The worst of it is that I allowed that defensive attitude to affect my academic career. I felt like I had to over-perform because I was here on scholarship, but oddly enough the weight of that expectation made me under-perform. I had anticipated going to Smith or Bryn Mawr or Wellesley and being happily mediocre; I wasn’t ready to be expected to be at the top.
I would spend hours and hours on my reading assignments, but I observed an odd phenomenon during those first few years: the harder I tried, the less I learned. I was spending more time desperately looking for something insightful to say about Adam Smith or Chaucer or the Venerable Bede than I was simply absorbing the texts. I utterly lacked the “bright alacrity” that C.S. Lewis says characterizes the best students. I was too concerned with the appearance of good learning to actually be a good learner. I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many professors’ offices I’ve cried in over the years, and for no good reason—only the paralysis of academic insecurity.
In his introductory essay to the “Education” volume of Lapham’s Quarterly, Lewis Lapham, the crotchety former editor of Harper’s Magazine, seemed to be speaking directly to my academic anxieties. I read the essay during fall semester of my senior year of college, and the message couldn’t have come soon enough.
In college commencement speeches, as with the handing out of prizes for trendsetting journalism, I often hear it said that the truth shall make men free, but I notice that relatively few people know what the phrase means. The truth isn’t about the receipt of the diploma or acceptance into law school, not even about the thievery in Washington or the late-breaking scandal in Hollywood. It’s synonymous with the courage derived from the habit of not running a con game on the unique and specific temper of one’s own mind. What makes men and women free is learning to trust their own thought, possess their own history, speak in their own voices.
I wish I could say that reading those words immediately transformed the way I approached learning. In reality, transformations happen more slowly.
I have to go back earlier than reading Lewis Lapham’s essay. It really started with the Shakespeare at Oxford course I took with Dr. Hornback, Dr. McCarthy, and Dr. McFarland over the summer of 2008. They asked us to come at the class as an academic improvisation. In our papers as well as our scene work, they asked us to try new things, to play with our ideas. You’re not capable of intellectual play if you’re too worried about your intellectual dignity. I was tired of being dignified, I began to realize. More often than not, trying to be dignified just made me look silly.
Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I have a love for librarianship and, even more specifically, that my passion is for rare books and manuscripts. Accordingly, I spent hours upon hours upon hours this semester applying for jobs, internships, and graduate schools in the field, unsure whether I’d hear back from anything. But three of the fish bit. I have been accepted to the University of London for an M.A. in the History of the Book. As much as I want to go, I am asking for an admissions deferral. Instead, I have accepted an summer internship in exhibition programming and technical services at the Folger Shakespeare Library, followed by an internship at the Swarthmore College Writing Center for the 2009-2010 academic year.
I am pleased to have been offered the positions and to be able to financially stand on my own two feet, but I am even more satisfied by my poise during the endless rounds of interviews: that I was able to keep my composure even when my nerves were stretched to the breaking point—that I was able to say I didn’t know when I didn’t know—that I was able to ask questions when I didn’t understand something about each program. I was a different person at those interviews than I was as a college freshman. The thing is, though, I don’t think I’ve changed into another person; rather, I think I’ve become truer to myself, more honest about my shortcomings and less awkward about expressing them.
So with graduation day behind me, I’m thinking about the ways in which I cheated myself of a fuller education. Pride and embarrassment kept my mouth sealed during too many class discussions. Sheer dread of trying to put words on a page kept me from working on too many papers until the night before they were due. Dating off-campus too often kept me from really immersing myself in Oglethorpe culture. I will own up to my regrets.
But I refuse to be incapacitated by them. The idea of graduation is in a certain sense contrary to the idea of a liberal arts education because it implies that we have arrived. In truth, we never do. When I head for D.C. and Philadelphia and London, I know that I will be carrying with me a more curious and flexible mind than I had when I arrived at Oglethorpe. Over the course of my life, I know I can look forward to the honor of good learning.