Absence of curiosity, the enemy within

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 28 May 98


The humidity wavers between a heat wave and a downpour. The air-condition unit in the car collapses and within seconds, my face is covered with a film of moisture. Heat prickles at my face, forehead and arms. A slight breeze brings comfort and disappears into the still air.

 

A car overtakes, shaving me off the road. The veins on my hand are engorged. Traffic jam. Boys who should surely be at school or play, or home, wave peppers, peanuts, a bag of green mangoes in my face. Smiles turn into disappointed jeers as I refuse. I’m moving again. The maxi taxi in front of me stops abruptly in the middle of the road, on the highway, making me “slam” on the brake pedals, pulse and anger rising. Swearing, I think “damn my curiosity, damn it.” That’s all I learned in university. I should have studied a science, which only dealt with absolutes and rats, and then I would be safe in a lab somewhere.

 

I am driving to the UWI campus, St Augustine. An eminent academic asked me to “come and see” the place for myself after I fired a volley of questions at him one evening whilst drinking hot cocoa with the rain beating outside. “UWI,” said his wife, is like a high school. “UWI,” countered the academic, “should be turned into a post-graduate institution. It does not work as a university for undergrads.”

 

I told them about the Canadian university where a lecturer turned up with his guitar and strummed war songs. He was going to teach us about World War I through the poetry written by the men in trenches. And how another put his feet up and said “I’m going to eat my donut. You guys discuss King Lear.”

“UWI lecturers,” said the academic, “are too busy hustling consultant work and reading out lectures prepared in the ‘70s to be creative.”

As I thread my way to the campus, I get a flashback of UWI three years ago. I was there to conduct a TV interview with a lecturer. Nobody seemed to know where the Economics - or was it Politics - Department was. “Academic” and “non-academic” staff, students and toilet cleaners alike looked at me as if I was asking directions in Russian. They frowned and looked amazed and it took me half an hour, numerous little clues and half gestures to find my way to the History Department. The campus was clean and academic enough, but there was a hush which felt lethargic. I must have gone at a bad time.

 

My abiding memory of my initiation into university was when I walked into a townhouse in Peter Robinson College of Trent University in Ontario, Canada, to be offered a chocolate chip cookie. Everyone in the room, Miguel the bisexual Venezuelan, Andrea the stunning sylph-like Jamaican with skin like creamy chocolate, Dave the lanky bespectacled pianist, Allegra the Brazilian with the cake foundation, Samira the Tanzanian diplomat’s daughter with the confident voice, thick from smoking cigarettes and issuing commands, stared.

 

I bit a piece of cookie and licked the crumbs from my fingers and ate the lot. They stared and stared until the room began to go round and round. I had eaten an entire hash cookie. High as a kite, I laughed like a bubble of laughing gas. And laughed and laughed some more. Then I watched them laugh at me. I was the naive virgin child woman from India and Trinidad and Tobago with a weird Indian/British/West Indian twang, who wore leftover tartan skirts from English boarding school, and kurta pyjamas to breakfast. A dodo-head waiting for experience.

 

Although I never ate another chocolate chip cookie again, I never stopped laughing. And I got stoned on books like Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil. And being totally ignorant of most things including Nietzche’s supposed influence on the Nazis, pronounced him my liberator.

 

Clang, clang, clang. The chains fell off. I cut loose of everything I was conditioned to believe in. I was a slate wiped clean. I stripped off the boundaries of race, religion, country, language, society, and genes. I was a freewheeling 17-year-old. I was a sponge that absorbed any idea that floated in the breeze. For about six months I was thoroughly confused. I fell in love with my ugly Greek philosophy professor, Constantine Bundas. He quoted Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” When I didn’t think, I vanished. Prof Bundas made me doubt a chair was a chair, my hand was a hand. I made myself miserable with questioning.

 

Waiting for the bus, I would whisper like a wild tortured woman in the minus 16 degrees cold: “It is better to be a contented pig than a discontented Socrates. Or is it the other way around?” I was glutted with questions, hungry for ideas. I went through those four years breathlessly, going to bed at 4 am, getting up early and eagerly, like a child perpetually preparing for a birthday party. Flinging the windows open to brown sludge or pure white snow, shoots of delicate spring flowers or summer heat. Like all juveniles I was intensely unhappy or intensely joyful. I was intense all the time.

 

The university was small, with pretensions of being fashioned after Oxford. Four colleges built on a river. Students even had to wear gowns for a while but the Canadians are too earthy to put up with that for too long, thank God. Most of my essays were done at night, in a state of feverish intensity. Kneeling, I would spread the sheaves of notes around me. Occasionally I would wheel around, grazing my knees to match one idea with the next. It never occurred to me to type my papers. I was silly enough to feel that neatness precluded creativity. My final full stop to a 3,000-word essay would come at about 6 am. I would triumphantly slip it under the professor’s door 30 seconds before the final deadline.

 

Don’t blame me, professor, blame the choices, blame my youth, blame my freedom, blame the beautiful landscape, blame being around thousands of eager minds. If you wanted me to sit in a library from 9 to 5 every day of the week, and sometimes Saturdays, your university shouldn’t have art exhibitions where cheese and wine were always to be found. I had things to do, professor, other than researching the literature of the French Revolution. You made Flaubert, Balzsac, Moliere come alive I’ll agree. I preferred to slip and slide across snowy fields to the light of stars, and icy gaunt trees glowing like crystal after an evening of solving the world’s problems in the pub.

 

I had to spend all morning continuing an argument in a donut shop. I had to go running with my mad vegetarian friend at 5 am and sit through yoga with her. I had to put my week’s allowance into a champagne and strawberry breakfast party. And after that I was too glutted to work. But here, I have also lived intensely in the world of ideas, and participated in tutorials, read all night, written till dawn. Here is your essay. Marked down for lateness.

 

It was terrible to be so uncertain but it also meant that my range of possibilities was stretched to the limit. I couldn’t bear to miss any of it. Despite the fact that academics was incidental to university life, I actually graduated, one lovely summer, in a laughable girly white dress and had my picture taken in a cap and gown and fake roses.

 

I am now on the UWI campus. My companions are a former student and a student teacher. Both bright, articulate, a credit to UWI. Exams are over. There are few students about. Bad day to visit a university. We walk about. The wide-angle view reveals a new shiny building, a large pretty library, a long narrow wooden building with partitions. Looks like shacks from a distance. Blotches of construction. Then there are the trees which, no matter how wide they fling their branches, cannot cover the barren brown earth.

 

I have missed the excited students, the horsing about, the debates in the cafeteria, the intellectual and sexual tension of the combination of 5,000 young people bursting with curiosity. “Well,” says a student teacher, “not exactly. Most students just can’t wait to get out of here. They know they need a degree and more so if they want to get a good job.”

The former student says, “In my time 10, 15 years ago, we were rebels, like students everywhere. We were involved. Deeply interested in ourselves in a political context, had a social life here. I don’t know what happened.” She trails off.

 

We meet lecturers. They emerge from cramped offices, crammed with files and papers and some books, into the morning heat. One in typical endearing academic fashion unconsciously hums a Hungarian tune to remind me of a tape he once lent me for a radio programme. He was once a communist; innocent and endearing. He wasn’t different from academics anywhere, caught up in theory and ideals.

 

I feel safe here. The aggressive boy/men who leered at me through the car windows belonged to a different country. One professor thought that lecturers were underpaid and overworked, and the non-academic staff overpaid and under worked. They all start something interesting then stop midway, hold back, retreat; none says what they think, afraid of a backlash. Now I feel I am in China.

 

We wander the deserted grounds and came upon the shabby cafeteria where students, dispersed, in ones and twos sat drinking and eating, talking softly. We sit next to two young women whose heads were bent, absorbed in a conversation. They are trying to get other students interested in campus life. They are literature undergrads.

 

I sense in them a yearning, an eagerness for experience and ideas, interaction. Sparks keep them going. One of them lights up at a literature professor who rattles off poetry, and makes cross-references like crazy. American Black literature, writers like Tony Morrison have given her a sense of self, of where she came from, who she is in the world.

 

They both stay in campus long after classes. They love socialising, meeting students from other parts of the world. It releases them from a small-island mentality. The other is a live wire, frustrated at the passivity of fellow students. “They put up with high prices at the cafe; don’t support the non-academic workers, or take part in campus life, swim in the pool, exercise, lime. Maybe if we had more interesting visiting lecturers.”

Still she herself can’t imagine life before university. “What did I do before this?” After speaking to them I realise that creative lecturers, stimulating campus activities, lectures, and facilities do not make a university. The engine of any university experience is what students bring with them - energy, curiosity, eagerness, a sense of possibility.

 

In contrast, three male undergraduates we talk with on the stairs are disappointed. Dispirited, passive and soft speaking, they complain that lecturers are authoritarian, and dull. They expected students to regurgitate their lectures in exams, and slap down questioning. Were these the best years of their lives? The answer is bitter: “If these are the best years, then I don’t know it.” I ask them if they feel threatened because almost 70 percent of all students are women, tell them women are outdoing men in every field. They say “no” because they are still confident that it was “a man’s world.” My female past student companion answers for them. “What will happen is that they will be threatened by women’s excellence and you will see a lot more battering.”

 

I am making my way back into Port-of-Spain. I think of my question to the two literature students: “Why are other students not as intense and energetic like you two?” One of them replied: “I suppose a university is a reflection of the country we live in. If people are insular and divided, if young people feel powerless and turn to crime, if people are worried about being employed, if young men feel insecure, if academics and columnists are undynamic, boring and repetitive, then you will find much of the same of it in a university.”

 

On the highway, I am thinking that the ones with the bright spark will prosper anywhere. It is the passive ones I am worried about. Universities are supposed to breed leaders, scientists and humanists who will save this pock-marked world from unhappiness.  We live in times when much of our work is about damage control, fixing mistakes handed down by history. Universities are supposed to tap energy and potential of young people, put them into a wide context of a country, a continent, a universe, so that they can do their bit, apply their band-aid in their own way.

 

A real graduation prize is called curiosity, which has many relations, energy, involvement, intensity, achievement even happiness. Curiosity’s nemesis, passivity, is a university’s worst enemy.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur