Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Worldliness and cultivation

Isabel Archer summoned my response to the latest incarnation of the paper-versus-plastic-versus-tote debate. However, I'm far more intrigued by her two most recent posts than with the question of how one takes home groceries and takes out trash, so after quickly mentioning that in Paris, the grocery store encourages toting, the market (or at least this one market street) is all about the plastic bags, except that they're more like produce bags with handles, and are meant to be placed not in a tote, nor even in a straw basket, but rather in a fabric cart-on-wheels, onto the others. I'm meeting her contrarianism with contrarianism, although I do on some level agree with most of what she says.

First, meritocracy. I too come from a family that values education, and it seems to have stuck. (Today I finally got to see actual books in an actual library in Paris! Woohoo!) So I think I get where Archer (Isabel? How does this work with pseudonyms?) is coming from. But while I agree that the education system places far too much emphasis on well-roundedness, and that making more Archerist families has potential, I think we need to be attentive to what is, I suppose, the opposite problem: the assumption that attention to appearance, interest in getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, having social skills... that these qualities are detrimental to or incompatible with academic achievement. This is a problem for several reasons. One, it's simply false - some people win in the looks, brains, and charm departments, and we can read all about some of them in the NYT Vows. Such is life. Next, the idea that smarts and social ease are mutually exclusive is what's led to the phenomenon of the dorky kid being assumed brilliant, even when presented with heaps of evidence to the contrary. (I know Miss Self-Important has written about this, but am not quite awake enough to find where...) And finally, there's the gender-studies angle. It's far more detrimental to women and girls to demand a choice between being a primp-for-prom person and a go-to-class one. (Although for the record, agreed that it's all kinds of ridiculous to cancel class so that students can get their hair done.) Girls are correct in perceiving that life is easier with better looks, and while this can be taken too far, if all that's necessary is trading a worn-out shirt from an aquarium exhibit for something better-fitting and less dolphiny from the GAP, I don't see the tragedy. If I can conclude in a way that makes any of this make sense, what I'm driving at is, schools shouldn't demand well-roundedness, but they shouldn't penalize it, either. There are enough hours in the day to primp, study, lust, play (ugh) team sports, and so on.

Next, travel. I suspect that part of what Isabel Archer experienced as a Dartmouth student in Paris had less to do with the fact of being abroad, or of being in France in particular, than with the altogether odd experience of being an American college student on study abroad. I suspect this because my own time in Paris in college, though productive academically (as in, some of the best courses I had in college, from UChicago profs but in French), was not necessarily the best way to go about experiencing that city. We all had the option to stay for the rest of the year, attending a Parisian university (but with American tuition), but I didn't think twice about returning. To Chicago. Hyde Park.

What I've felt the first few days living on my own in Paris is a bit like what I did when, months after Birthright Israel, I returned, this time with Jo - rather than a busful of potential Jewish husbands and an armed guard - to Tel Aviv for a few days. For me, at least, travel is only any good if you have the freedom to go around on your own. Whether you're on an educational tour of cathedrals or on a bus with prospective ethnoreligiously appropriate fiancés, or even just traveling without a group, but with a very set checklist of tourist sites, if you have that sense of being shepherded (or shepherding yourself), you feel as though you're briefly seeing places or even people that look interesting, yet are being so thoroughly shielded from any exposure to the place itself, because that would be dangerous and unproductive. Going to the HEMA in Belgium, or Monoprix in France, is indeed just looking at foreign shampoo and Target-like accessories, kitchenware, and so on, but for me, stuff like that is half the fun of travel.

Which brings me to the cultural differences question. Yes, it's banal that cultures are different, and anyone who's spent any time in a not 100% homogeneous place knows this from experience without leaving home. However, there's a big difference between meeting individuals of different cultures and being altogether immersed in one. Perhaps I'm biased, because my (limited, although I realized this even at the time) impression from a few months in Paris of what it meant to be Jewish in France as opposed to the US motivated my choice of career. Yes, embarrassing as this is, My Study Abroad Experience Changed Me.

Finally, agreed 100% that traveling is not relaxing in the least.

1 comment:

Isabel Archer said...

First, thanks for the long and thoughtful response to my two posts. As far as pseudonyms, I think Isabel is fine in a situation where you'd normally use a real first name, and Archer in one where you wouldn't. I think we've hyperlinked to each other enough that using the first half of my pseudonym is fine for most purposes.

As you indicate, I don't think we're especially far apart from each other on meritocracy. I agree with you that it's silly to presume dorky looking kids brilliant in the absence of other evidence, or conversely to stereotype pretty girls as dumb without real evidence. And likewise, that the anti-primping element of Archerism can fuel certain neuroses (I think I've probably written about this in some places, perhaps navel-gazing well past the point of being interesting or enlightening.)

Ideally, I'd prefer schools to be largely hands-off about well-roundedness. I.e. I don't mind high schools having dances and proms... but it ought to be unthinkable to move around classes to accommodate them. (You'll notice that the whole how to schedule salon appointments thing could have been handled much more easily by just having the thing on a Saturday, or even on, say, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. But the people organizing the thing were sufficiently convinced that the administration would listen to them because OMG prom that they went ahead and scheduled it for Friday anyway.) Likewise, I don't really mind it if people play team sports in their own spare time. But I'm not keen on schools funding them or taking away from normal class time to have pep rallies about them.

It's somewhat interesting, in light of our prior blog exchanges about hands-off vs. hands-on visions of higher education, that K-12 schools are in many ways far closer to the hands-on model than almost any college is. It's true that you eat and sleep at the college, and in that sense, the experience is much more hands on. But while Dartmouth offered all kinds of social and athletic opportunities, nobody was required or even much encouraged to take advantage of them. The faculty was pretty much agnostic on how we lived our lives, so long as we managed to turn in papers. Maybe it's harder for K-12 schools to adopt that model because their charges are younger and more fragile, but I'd still find it good for them to move more in that direction.