Boxing yourself in

Life within academia is a curious experience that never ceases to amaze and puzzle me. Somewhere within the official rhetoric of a university’s mantra you are bound to find references to fostering the ability to think creatively and critically. Thinking outside the box, as the cliched expression puts it. But how often does this really happen?

At this time of year, most students look at their course outlines and decide which of the five generic questions will give them the fewest headaches when writing that dreaded term paper. Next, they head to the library or the Internet to do research vaguely connected to the topic and string a fairly lucid gathering of mixed sources together. If they can tailor the paper to closely resemble a brief regurgitation of what the professor has been discussing, then they have successfully mastered writing at a university level.

While this is an over-generalization of today’s university experience, I can’t help but feel that it’s becoming increasingly true. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to not only pass a class without any semblance of an original thought, but to do quite well in it.

This is unfortunate, especially if you love to write, as I do.

Writing provides a wonderful opportunity to place all the jumbled ideas keeping you up at night on paper to produce a coherent (and hopefully intelligent) argument.

When you get it just right, and everything fits so well, there are very few feelings that compare. While I won’t go as far as one of my profs did by sarcastically comparing writing to giving birth with its intrinsic pain followed by personal fulfillment, I do believe writing is unique in its opportunity to challenge oneself to a task that is arduous, yet very rewarding.

When standards go down, it is harder to put fingers to keys, especially when you are expected to reproduce lectures you’ve heard all too often.

But there is hope.

Every now and then there’s that one sessional lecturer who will challenge students with a deliberately vague essay topic to be interpreted in a variety of unique ways. Students can then spend their time and effort writing from a perspective they find most intriguing. For those of us who love to write, this is fantastic.

I suppose I’ve outted myself as something of a geek, and if that’s the case, so be it. There are very few times when I feel glad I have given the university 3,000 of my dollars every semester. However, when you challenge yourself to excel, in writing or otherwise, the university experience becomes invaluable.

An education, in my opinion, has very little to do with retaining detailed information. Instead, its focus ought to be on getting people to expand their (sometimes) narrow perspective to include a broader, and more encompassing, view of the world.

While I’m certainly not naïve enough to think writing one great paper will make the difference, moving beyond the common mindset of producing barely sufficient work is a necessary step in educating oneself.

There’s a reason why we’re all at university, and I don’t think it’s exclusively because we want better jobs after graduation. No, there must also be a desire to push ourselves to learn, to increase our confidence, and to lead something of an enlightened life.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

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