I was inspired to revisit this now, 13 years later, because what it says is still true, and still a problem for me, even outside of the cultish environment of the college in question.
Note: The following is an opinion-piece, written for the St. John’s student newspaper, on the place of “quiet students” in the discussion-based atmosphere of the school.
Mr. MacLean has raised some issues that have preoccupied me, on and off, for the past three years. Although I cannot present anything other than a personal case, perhaps it will offer some psychological insight.
Frankly and at the outset: I am a student with a notorious history of pained quietness. I can say only that other quiet students do not personally offend me, or seem to threaten the life of any of my classes. What is of concern, I believe, is not any threat to the community that might come directly from quiet students, but whether students like myself are missing--and are perhaps incapable of attaining--something crucial with regard to their own educations. This is the sense I have from my intense awareness of how my classes function and of how I am, in respect to their functioning that way, deficient. This is not a defense I feel the need to give because I believe myself objectionable; I am not objectionable, but neither am I wholly in accord with the operational standard. I give my case history below.
Granted that St. John’s belongs to students who think out loud, I think, mainly, on paper. The difficulty lies, specifically, in the moment of intuition (intuition in the Cartesian sense, Rules for Direction of Mind), which unfortunately for me does not retain its connection to the logical circumstances that produced it. As soon as I “see” something (a math proof, for example), I lose accounts. A train of words does run through my head, but is generally detached from the real issue at hand either for my mind or the discussion. Bringing the words and the images together is a constant undertaking. Perhaps others have this problem, too, and are simply stronger intellectually and so overcome it more quickly. It is true that, with some subjects and situations, I experience this less. But, as it is, a link is missing that enables me to say what I “see” and “see” what others say with the rapidity called for by most occasions.
There are other problems (emotional), which stem mostly from fear of being exposed in the above handicap: of speaking and producing not the moments of intuition but the words running through my mind, and saying nonsense.
It is true that conversations involve common ground between participants. I think I have grown capable of finding this along with my classes, but often don’t stay there myself. I simply can’t work out any ideas of my own at all, and put words to them, in time with the conversation. I am too busy picturing the situation someone else presents to respond immediately. In this way, I often fall back upon my own trains of thought--which frequently enough are just outside the bounds of the discussion. What interests me—what I would say—cannot be said in the context of the conversation. What I do say is what I believe to be lacking in the presentation on the table. Perhaps this reaction is grounded in a need to feel some integrity within myself in the midst of a disorienting situation. This is a shortcoming on my part. In assuming my personal ideas to be of more importance to me than the exercise of conversation, I commit what may be a fundamental sin against the standpoint of the College.
I’m not sure I foresaw this effect: I had hoped, as a prospective, that I would undergo a miraculous transformation (there is something rewarding about holding forth in a group of people that I had, in fact, always dreamed of) from the environment alone. Perhaps my soul was not prepared. Perhaps it never will be. The fact is, others can and do spend less time thinking about the readings but naturally and, it seems, effortlessly send out the words they do. Something prevents their rising in me (though I could write them with a little more time). I see others participating in this way--pretty much the way I do in orals, paper conferences, and one-on-one situations in general--and cannot help feeling I am missing something, although I am fairly reconciled that I must hold myself to a different standard. Whether or not such a different standard exists coherently in the eyes of the College has caused me some uneasiness.
My tutors have accepted me, hitherto, because I am very alive intellectually and certainly benefit from classes, both in the development of my thought, and in my relationship to conversation. (The second type of benefit I noticed almost immediately: conversation with friends and family at home became, by Christmas freshman year, much easier. I could deal with strange ideas and viewpoints more rapidly.) I don’t need to mention, for all will know it in their own cases, how I have grown intellectually here. My own education, then, is going just fine--unless, of course, what matters to an individual student’s education here lies not in what he learns, what new ideas he takes away, but somehow lies in the act of conversation itself. On the one scale, students of my order are not even ideologically reprehensible; but on the other scale, there are heights of development we (assuming there are others) are incapable of reaching that nevertheless are central to any student’s task at the College.
Although, as stated, I don’t believe we are in danger as a community from quietness, the above question--whether the purpose of education lies in learning things and being involved with the ideas of the program and one’s classmates, or instead lies somehow in the intellectual exercise of conversation—is a serious one. To this higher standard we may, I fear, be accountable: it consists, I imagine, in a still higher readiness to accommodate strange thoughts, place them, and work on them rationally; a more rapid and trained “seeing” of what one hears. These are virtues for me because they are my deficiencies. Whether these virtues are the primary purpose of our work here determines how far students such as myself should be accepted. Any quieter means of reaching for such virtues, should such means exist, would be the criteria of our acceptance.