Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Has the University Stolen the Fire in Our Bellies? A Proposal to Activate & Celebrate Student Responsiveness by Ria Shah

Have you ever felt your own electrically excitable cells being introduced to one another? A thousand tiny neurons are suddenly able to communicate with a part of your brain that used to be silent, dull, and most importantly, useless. New circuits and pathways are found, resulting in the permutation and combination of new ideas. This is what living and learning, insight and reflection look like. Our existence as humans relies on our getting the most out of our firing neurons, which digest information and navigate new thought waves. The decision is inbred: either we fight to keep our neurons interactive or we succumb to the inevitable—the death of thinking.


*  *  *  Real Learning  *  *  *


Many individuals that modern society holds to great prestige embody the most diverse collection of understandings. Praised for their unique contributions, their core mission was first to learn the trade of humanity and then their profession. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin and Noam Chomsky are masterminds whose understanding of leadership, the sciences, politics and other subjects have infused their critical thinking and problem solving with an advanced level of creativity. This cream of the “successful humans” crop is made up of those who dwell within the multi-faceted realm of scholarship. The question becomes: do we accept that those who achieve are born geniuses and simply wait for the next one to pop up or do we consider that some great teacher instilled a curiosity and a will to learn which allowed them to transcend their momentary disequilibrium and experience the information-digesting, synapse-building, neuron-firing type of learning?


Trace the circular pattern: from writing stems linguistics; the origins of speech are rooted in psychology, which is the gateway to the physiology of human thought. From the study of the brain comes the entire sphere of subjective social and political happenings that are being processed inside our internal sensory machines. Our human species does not have the ability to separate ourselves into impermeable substances. As Walt Whitman drummed in the opening lines of “Song of Myself,” “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1). In other words, every subject we encounter, break down, digest and re-combine into new orders is another addition to a singular and unified field attempting to uncover the “why” behind everything.  As in all highly functional “thinking caps,” one is able to better make sense of a specific subject through having an advanced understanding of another and the opportunity to look through multiple lenses.


However, an intense amount of work to achieve a more porous knowledge-absorbing membrane may push the frightened masses to skip the hard work of multi-faceted learning and specialize. Indeed, this is the vigorous yet unfortunate phenomenon that has gripped our generation. The solution to this problem, which is located at the intersection of poor learning habits and a lack of will, comes only after the doubts and “easy-way-outs” have been destroyed.  The setback many encounter with having the curiosity and will to learn, in this broad sense, is that they have not fully learned how to learn. Are we apprenticed to the “banking concept” method (Freire, 1), which prompts a student to lose perspective and mechanically program a single subject into their hardwire, useful for regurgitation only, or are we creating a methodology that helps us ignite learning via our own passions for the subject matter? With the latter, the focus lies not in memorization but rather in internalizing the subject—learning something in a way that tattoos concepts onto the membrane of our unconscious.


Many insist that this method produces a jack-of-all-trades graduate who knows a little about a lot and is therefore ill fit for our specialized and technocratic society.  Such a point of view contributes to the paradoxical structure that today underlies post-secondary education in the United States. Our system consists of choosing a major, taking courses specific to that major, and then ruthlessly searching for a job for which only the major (one you had been rushed into choosing) can qualify, thus foregoing “a broad general education that cultivates respect for the diversity of different disciplinary approaches to the same questions” (Smetanka, 4). The academic dean of Saint Vincent College, Smetanka notes, “What’s your major? has become one of the most common ice-breaker questions during [college] orientation and beyond” (5). It’s a primary example of how schools mold some of the brightest 18-year-olds into limited and peripherally challenged smarty-pants.  The solution to this spaghetti-maker system, churning out the same shaped students, lies outside standardized learning.  Those who contend our current system already caters to the diverse nature of human consciousness do not acknowledge that the conformity students experience from grade school is the same force that crowds out the growth and development of individual capabilities.


Leonardo Da Vinci, master of a range of skills, wrote, “Everything connects to everything else.” The more diverse our understanding, the deeper our problem solving becomes. So if the educational system is the primary method for fostering learning, why is our system limited to the classroom? A few answers are already taking place: expanding curriculum to include the arts, advocating for broader undergraduate “majors” and restricting specialized courses to junior and senior years. However, time spent outside the university—either traveling through a new country or volunteering for a local enterprise—could be the proportionate mixture of application and understanding that students need. This idea of “learning outside the classroom” has taken root in the high school-university-occupation model through building non-traditional and oddly shaped paths of learning.


*  *  *  Inside the Gap  *  *  *


The so-called gap-year has been growing its stock over the past few decades, inviting those who dare to invest into a realm of exploration and experience. “A gap-year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers” (American Gap Association Data & Benefits, 1). Unlike the university system, the gap-year provides students a dual-sided front: it faces the super-specialized mind by dragging it into real-life scenarios while it simultaneously enhances the student’s thought process—similar to a petri dish filled with a culture of multiplying and interacting cells.


The original intention of a university was to create well-rounded members of an educated population.  Not until the university system became the university industry did this praiseworthy ideal shift to the highly competitive, bankrupt-producing machine we find today. When the industrial revolution hit our nation, we allowed the era’s capitalistic personality to infiltrate the way in which we educate (Springer Link, 2). The vital loss of classical curriculum and the rapid rise of mass schooling directly contributed to the overall sense of rush implanted in our high schools. We are told to finish our schooling as soon as possible and get into the workforce! Yet within this confining ideology that we have sewn into the American educational system are fibers flexible enough to reflect the growing needs of present society. Today’s generation is inherently going to be the collective group to bring the gap-year from its knees to its feet. Through spending time in an entirely new setting, young minds have no choice but to re-evaluate what it is they truly care about, the principles that they stand for and the mark they wish to leave on the planet.


When one feels trapped, confined to the thoughts and ways of others, it is not only a problem for that specific person, but it creates much more of a problem for society as a whole. We may all possess a “wild tongue” (Anzaldua, 1) but many who have been raised to be good students may not have simultaneously grown the courage to voice it, especially if it criticizes the status quo. Fortunately, the pursuance of any sort of gap-year or modification to the traditional high school to university transition is itself a step outside of the standardized box that society has labeled as the only way. The fear to speak and the pressure to stay silently stuck in the box is the monster I have met on the “art of learning” battlefield. It’s the same monster actively pushing all of us students away from our diverse interests, and in the process, stealing the fire in our bellies (and brains) to learn.


*  *  *  Personally Accountable  *  *  *


As a junior in high school, when faced with the opportunity to graduate a year early and take a gap-year, my keen sense of curiosity was met with precedence. I walked into the principal’s office, made my request and braced myself when she responded that taking time off of school could limit and even deter me from college admission. I would have to remain in high school for one more year even though I had completed all required courses—in essence, stuck in the system. Though nervous and scared, I could not stomach the thought that I simply could not because it is not what everyone else does; little did I know that standardized thinking was leveraging the people who had taught me how to know myself. Right in front of me, many of times overlooked, were my parents—both of Indian heritages yet one raised in Mumbai, India, and the other in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their complementary methods of molding me were like a pair of magnets; sometimes I learned that there were two extremes to a way of thinking while at other times I saw the magic of congruent communication.  My mom, coming from a life of maids and the conservative mentality in the Indian subcontinent, pushed me from the beginning: Books over boys; no getting up until there is no more food left on the plate; school, snack time, homework, then play… if time. My dad, knowing the “American way,” pushed my brother and me in a different way: Sports are a requirement; experiment with them all but inactivity is not a choice; ‘What did you do at school today?’ is not a rhetorical question; the more thorough you are, the more points you score; never act out of two things, greed and/or fear. It’s these concepts, engrained in me from the time I wore diapers, which has led me to believe in everyone’s ability to make a choice, and that if there is a will, there will be a way. Out of this North Star that I carry in my pocket at all times came the firepower to break from conformity.


Mom and Dad had pushed me out of my comfort zone in childhood, and so now I, with all the courage I could manifest, pushed them in the same way. Why should I spend an entire other year in high school when I could spend a year doing something unimaginable? They agreed! I felt the butterflies, the tingles in my fingertips and a heartbeat unlike any other when I walked the halls of my high school in rural Ohio knowing that I was leaving a year early. Indeed, I would have sweaty palms, a lump in the back of my throat and several cases of panic knowing that I was moving to New York with my parents and brother in order to keep the four of us under one roof—for that was the reason I had decided to graduate a year early. What kept me most on edge was that by the time we heard of my dad’s new job on the east coast, college application deadlines had passed. One year spent outside the American education system—would I ever get into college? Would I be a vagabond in search of what everyone else had magically received in their senior year? Even more worrisome, would I be eaten by a monster? I was far from confident that this was the right move. The doubts ran in hysterical circles, and it was not until I landed in Lubumbashi, the capital of the copper-rich province in the Congo, in December of 2013, that I found the reason, initially hidden in my gut, why I was meant to graduate early: service to others in providing educational opportunity. I spent the year working for a not-for-profit organization called Malaika, which operates a School for Girls and Football for Hope center in the village of Kalebuka, about a half hour drive from the town of Lubumbashi. The year took me to many places: to the home of Malaika’s founder, Noella Coursaris Musunka, in the Costwolds of England; to Oxford and London; then to Paris, France, and to Geneva, Switzerland. After the glamour of the adventure settled in, the real work began.


We would rise at about seven a.m. inside the home Noella has built for her mother and sisters in central Lubumbashi—the walls flaunted matte colors of green and orange, providing a subtle Carpe Diem. We would arrive at the school after a sweaty, bumpy drive in a van, where continuous French was thrown around and my mind tried to pick up all the new words.  Inside the school I felt a need to sit down at the back of a classroom and hear the English being taught and numbers being added. After a week of watching the local village come out every day to act as security guards, cooks in the cafeteria and custodians for the bathroom stalls, I soon realized I was not the only one taking in new sights. 


*  *  *  Congolese Treasure *  *  *


One of the teachers, all of whom were trained at the University of Lubumbashi, approached me with a smirk and asked, “Why have you come here all the way from New York at the age of seventeen? Don’t you have school or work or even friends to take part in and enjoy back home?” I stumbled, paused and retreated into my head: Why am I not in an American high school surrounded by kids my age, worried about who my prom date is going to be or which AP credits will best suit my college resume? I had no answer. However, later that same day when I exchanged glances with the five-year-old Congolese school girls, I felt their smiles telling me, “Hey, you’re just like us!” I could not understand where this feeling of pure bliss was coming from. Then I thought back to a prior experience I had at twelve years old while visiting India with my family. Walking the streets of Mumbai, tightly gripping my mom’s hand, a boy my age with a grin on his face, grateful for the two coins in his palm, looked me in the eye. Instead of seeing him as separate from me, I felt as if I were staring into my own reflection. He wore a thin cloth to cover his midsection, and the rest of his limbs—wrapped in shriveled skin the color of hazelnut—were not fully present. One leg bent backwards and the other, chopped off mid-thigh, allowed him to walk on his hands for the few meters of the block he occupied. Distorted in many ways yet perfectly positioned, he was artistically flawless in delivering a unifying message. I saw myself inside his begging body. I realized at this moment that we human beings are fundamentally forbidden to shield ourselves from events outside our comfort zones. This unknown, unnamed boy, born into the lowest caste and purposefully made to warrant sympathy, rests inside all of us—it’s the voice telling us that we are all one in this meshed-out game, so struggle to be your best and I’ll struggle to be mine. Thus, at the intersection of my ancestors’ heritage and the life I had known in rural Ohio, I accepted my identity as a mystery larger than I could ever imagine but enriched through the experience of love and acceptance.


While in Africa I could not begin to understand the after-affects of this “high,” but my version of a reorganized style of learning was something I needed to tell the world about. I was using my education to assist in the development of projects from infrastructure to curriculum. Throughout working with our Malaika team to help map out new community well sites, individually teach English to young French-speaking minds and collaborate with teachers on their lesson plans, I came to learn of a covert and camouflaged enigma in these peoples’ chests. Unrecognizable at the surface, its existence only becomes discernable when interacting with these children and diving into their community. One day I saw this treasure: they wanted to express what they could do even when food remained scarce, light remained limited and families would sell them in order to survive—amidst it all, the girls remained on the hunt for knowledge. Repaying a visit to the same teacher who had approached initially, I asked her how they maintain this treasure-piece. She said, “We ask our girls how they envision fixing the homelessness and starvation they encounter, and our jobs become simpler. We don’t need to motivate them to learn; we simply have to show them the toolbox. The creativity they then bring forth is why I come here everyday, and why I work here.”


*  *  *  The Notecard Ceremony   *  *  *


Due to my own experiences inside the “gap,” I consider the gift that the school provides for the people in the village of Kalebuka, Congo, as my personal reason to hunt for knowledge. I have transformed into an advocate for our human responsibility to our ancient ancestors, to our future, and especially to our current being to find our own unique and irreplaceable reasons to hunt for more.  The few months between the gap-year I had spent abroad and the beginning of my freshman year at Hofstra University provided me with the proper combination of time and thinkable matter. Post-trip, I prepared for a fundraiser in my hometown of Mason, Ohio, in which I attempted to do justice to the gratitude I felt for Malaika and the gifts I had brought back from the year. These gifts were mainly the new thoughts I stored. In lieu of this event, while sitting on the plane ride home from London’s Heathrow, I pulled out a stack of notecards—each a snippet of what I wanted to share, yet what I most wanted to convey was not just the words and ideas written down, but the acts of capturing such moments. On the plane, I wanted to jump up and shout to passengers: There is a whole other life out there that we are always missing some part of; we need to be in search of this—the lacking trait or destination. Confidence in goodness means that wherever you are meant to thrive will stumble upon you. To be who you are is sometimes left out of the curriculum in pre-K to 12th grade—never succumb to the fear or greed that others or a system may impose. Our neurons will never forgive us for not having the will and courage to take that extra step!


Well, let’s just say I screamed it in my head for fear of getting kicked off the plane. Nevertheless, the notecards do provide some additional insight.


The After-Effects of Under-aged Exploration: We’re told to listen to our elders; we’re also told the best way to learn something is to fully immerse ourselves inside it. So I guess the secret to learning is teetering somewhere on the dotted line in between. This is what I learned while not being in school—what you think when you have time to think. It is not against schools of today; schools are the seed to all community growth and development. It is simply encouragement to learn more about oneself and others at a younger age. A gap combined with classroom learning could be the recipe that everyone needs to try for themselves in order to relish the unmatched flavor.


While preparing for my trip to Africa, a close mentor who worked inside Malaika said to me, “There are three experiences that will change your life: death, poverty and having your own child. They create emotions inside of you necessary for full comprehension of what life means.”


I felt an overwhelming gratefulness and appreciation to my ever-supportive parents, who, along with the non-profit foundation, sent me into the depths of rural Africa.


Meeting up with co-workers from past summer internships in Geneva, Switzerland, led me to think of the friendship existing inside a stranger.


I believe in all types of help… but education is a lifeboat you are giving to someone to brace all types of water.


It teaches you confidence in knowing that you have ample opportunities, with a little bit of willpower and the internet, to help change what you have seen.


My mom came to visit me during my stay in Cheltenham. In a candle-lit Thai restaurant, over dumplings and hot-and-sour soup, she said, “Money is there one day and gone the next.” Only later did I dwell on this. Today, we use money as a threshold-marking measurement from which chasing dreams both begins and ends. I am not able to stop thinking about how to reach my dream: the ways, the possibilities, and the methods of doing so, though what I have realized is that I cannot place it inside money’s capsule which remains sealed. I need to place my bets on following this adrenaline-rush, mind-blowing goodness from which spurs flexible, moral, and intangible growth.


While teaching a group of middle-aged Congolese men and women in our community center in Kalebuka, a young man stood up and asked me (again), “You’re seventeen years-old, why do you even care?” A lot of them seemed curious in regards to why I was there. My response was a mixture of two things: I care more now because of what I have seen and I had originally started to care because I saw how much others did not care.


I am storing an upgraded mind map. With the manifestation of a big problem, I have learned to search for the opportunities hidden inside. I would then be drawn to an action I have termed as rethinking, which means giving myself enough time to think through potential solutions, strategize and utilize creativity as a means of solution-creation. These three then led me to simply working harder than ever before. The last route on the map points from this hard work to raw inspiration exuding from the world into me and vise versa.


*  *  *  Gap’s Running for Office  *  *  *


Irony never hides. Who would have thought that being told to not break my stride from high school to college would have been the start of a journey that has me on continuous “look-out” for my next gap? My first time inside this unconventional solution shook my neurons until they fired on a new frequency. All of a sudden, there were zero degrees of separation between me and the coolest girl in school and simultaneously no separation between me and Esther, who returns home in the Congo to a mud hut, no food, and an hour of light left to make out the words in her English book. I say zero degrees because the experiences occurring to one and stemming from one eventually matriculates—as the snowball effect depicts—into the human sphere of experience. This truth is the gap’s subtle yet primary motivation to attract each and every student. Imagine a cyclotron that students could step into, speak to the “gap-year” and step out with every moral cell in their body gushing with stimulus and the will to learn. This is the gap-year’s campaign trail on the verge of a victory, manifesting to us how it can save the human race from moral extermination, which is entrenched in a lack of interest and the infamous single-subject route to an occupation. Learning how to learn can only come after we have the untiring desire to, in fact, go deeper than how learning is initially presented to you at the surface. The dots all connect when one personally encounters the metamorphosis on a grand scale.


Imagine your brain as a sheet of paper, white enough to absorb the entire color spectrum yet bounded by four corners which restrict these patterns from coming alive. We find ourselves in this situation all too often—better yet, we condone such behavior from the outside world and more importantly from ourselves. Our brains need to acknowledge and dismantle their corners. When learning is instead well rounded it inevitably asks the brain to learn from outside the geometric boundaries we use to frame our thought processes—projecting our personal kaleidoscope on the world. However, color is most vibrant on a background most untainted, natural, and authentic. We have to find our infinite white space. The gap-year between high school and college, argued as one of many solutions to the system, is just that—only one way. So get up, go, chase after it, find your own version of the gap, whether it means taking an unrelated course that interests you or leaving the walls of a classroom to teach those underprivileged. This theory does not prescript radical decisions. Instead, it proposes the application of learned knowledge in a new, untried way in order to learn, grow, and create an internal environment addicted to the development of one’s self. In the words of Richard Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century inventor, architect, systems theorist, author and designer: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Mindvalley, 3).


Re-published from "Falling Through the Gap," October 24, 2015, https://coffeeatthegap.wordpress.com/, Ria Shah's blog on education and consciousness. Check it!

Works Cited


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Smetanka, Dr. John. "A Reflection on the Purpose of Higher Education." Saint Vincent           College - Dr. John Smetanka's Blog. 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.             <https://www.stvincent.edu/SVC_Pulse/Blog/John_Smetanka/A_Reflection_            on_the_Purpose_of_Higher_Education/>.


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Whitman, Walt, and Robert Hass. Song of Myself, and Other Poems by Walt Whitman, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint :, 2010. Print.