Sunday, January 19, 2020

'A Desirable and Enviable Existence'

I welcomed the undergraduate into my office and had her take a seat. She was well-dressed by campus standards, polite and attentive, and appeared eager to please. The word “wholesome” came to mind. She was an engineering major and I wanted to know what influences had gone into that choice of education and future career. I got the usual boilerplate about wanting to change the world and make a difference, so I probed a bit deeper but she didn’t seem to fit the customary engineer profile.

She hadn’t played with Legos as a kid, solved math puzzles, played chess or built her first computer by age ten. STEM didn’t seem to engage her intellectually. I asked if any books had influenced her. She said she didn’t read much and had never been in the university library except during the orientation tour. I asked what she did for fun. “Hang out with my friends.” Any complaints about life at the university? “It’s kind of boring. There’s nothing to do.” She's clearly intelligent and didn’t appear depressed.

That pretty much finished our conversation. She remains a cipher, though it seems significant that she checked her smartphone several times during our interview. I’ve never understood being bored. There are boring people and boring situations, but there’s never a good reason for me to be bored. I felt sorry for this undergraduate. She has the privilege of getting a first-rate education and access to much of the world’s knowledge and art, most of it free of charge, and that seems not to interest her much.

Rereading the late Clive James, I came across this in his introduction to Cultural Amnesia (2007): “There is too much to appreciate.” Mozart, he notes, never heard all of Bach. “We can hear everything by both of them.” He writes:

“It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.” 

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