The quotes in this post are from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.”
The modern times: where one must go to school until their late twenties in order to be deemed a “successful” human being. What is success—that is academic, and therefore the career one gets once finishing a certain level of education—if not the ridding of yourself to become a clone of other “successful” people that came before you? A person is only seen as successful and worthy of credibility when they reach the standards placed by other people.
Rousseau believes that “the sciences, letters, and the arts” which I take to mean education, “spread garland of flowers over the iron chains with which they are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original liberty for which they seem to have been born,” (pg. 6). Elementary school teaches us the necessary basics in a fun and creative way. I have no complaints about that. I started hating school in the fifth grade, which is also around the time I and everyone else start thinking for themselves. On top of that, the fifth grade is also when schooling gets strict in trying to shape your mind and the work you produce, and it gets worst for the rest of your schooling life.
Us as students become robotic in a system in which “common customs are followed, never one’s own lights,” (pg. 7). This is true in high school. By the time we reach high school we have an idea of what subject(s) we enjoy the most yet we are not allowed to focus on them, we have to take classes on all the subjects. This is a waste of time and a disservice to our self-esteem. I, for example, knew I loved history but I couldn’t take a history class in my freshman and senior year (I did take two in my sophomore year), I also knew I hated math, but I had to take it all four years of high school. After freshman year, I realized I hated science the most but still I had to take it all four years of high school. After sophomore year, I also hated English, and yes, I had to take it all four years as well. I would get so frustrated at having to learn subjects that I had no interest in and I would always worry about how those classes would affect my GPA and my chances at getting into a “good” school, where I knew I’d be able to focus on History. In order to guide myself by my “own light,” I would watch documentaries and films about history and from past film eras. I would read biographies and autobiographies and all the information I could find online about history. It is so much better to be self-taught.
In high school we were told constantly that in order to make enough money to be able to afford the “good” house in the “good” area, the “good” car, the “good” stuff, to be part of the middle or upper middle class, a Bachelor’s degree was no longer enough for my generation. Our obsession became that of “men of letters… all aspire to the honor of being admitted to the academies,” (pg. 21). We were racing to be the best and get into a university. Not all of us made it.
I never really knew what to think with regards to my future. The idea of going to university didn’t thrill me and didn’t make me proud of myself. The only reason I’m in one is because I seem to be “good” at school. But I also don’t want to enter the workforce. When I tell people that I’m majoring in History they always ask “Do you want to be a teacher?” I hate teachers; I don’t want to be one. They have too much control over other people’s lives. And that’s the same with professors, who are just teachers with PhDs.
There strikes me something very hypocritical about university education and life after university education. It is all about “making men more sociable by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approval,” (pg. 6) especially in the humanities because everything they/we do is write and talk about what they/we think. How is that supposed to mean that you’re smart? Everyone thinks. I have no career goals. I am majoring in History because I have the opportunity to go to school, I currently have no other prospects, and, most importantly, with a BA degree I’ll have credibility. I prefer a million times better to be self-taught, but that won’t get me anywhere in life. I need the approval of other people to succeed: good grades awarded by the professors and that piece of paper called a diploma. I, like a lot of people, am greatly inspired by the stories of successful high school and college dropouts, but like everyone points out, the odds of that happening are less than one in a million.
Achieving “mutual approval” is just making sure your colleagues like what you did. They become this exclusive group of “more educated” individuals who believe their “higher level” of thinking is absolute. “No one will boast of his own merit, but will disparage that of others,” (pg. 7). Humanities people always critique what everyone past and present say. There’s this need to analyze everything about the thinker (lives, gender, society) and how they expressed their ideas in order to invalidate them. That is the goal. “Prove” you are a superior thinker by claiming you are more socially, culturally, politically, socio-economically, and globally aware than someone, or everyone, else. When does it end?
Our entire lives are measured based on what other people think “successful” means. You live in an apartment (I do), your family must be poor. We’re not rich, but we have everything we need. You graduated high school with “high honors” and get to skip college and go straight to university, you must be smart. No, I just have a high tolerance for sitting down in one place for five hours at a time. You’re a PhD (I’m debating whether it’s worth getting one), you must be a higher caliber thinker. No, you’re just really good at reading ancient crap and making stuff up about it in a 100+ page paper solely based on your own opinions on facts. It’s all pretentious. At least for me, as I have no business going to school since I detest the entire institution, but I guess I want to see how far I can go with it.
Rousseau believes that the best way of living is for us, people with no significant talent or status, to “leave to others the care of instructing peoples in their duties and confine ourselves to fulfilling our own duties well,” (pg. 24). I don’t like the idea of being told what my duty is, which is what I think teachers do, as only I know my goals for myself and what I feel I am meant to do (which I always avoid saying when people ask me what I want to do with my life). If my only duty is the one I place upon myself, then I do hope to fulfill it well. And by “well” I mean “every artist wants to be applauded. The praises of his contemporaries are the most precious part of his reward,” (pg. 17). However, the ideal life, in my opinion, and for pretty much only me as I do not care how other people live their lives, is to live in a studio apartment, be a recluse, and join the 27 Club.