Monday, June 8, 2009

Information Flow and the "Transcendence Deficit"

The blogosphere is sort of like a fun house with a vast array of forked paths which defy normal architecture. You'll start reading one thing, but jump to a link in the middle of a paragraph and you might never go back. This is why I think the term web-surfing as derived from channel surfing is a shade inaccurate; channel surfing with a TV remote is merely a sequential scan of options whereas the following of links from one page to another has a logical connection or at least some sort of subjective relationship in the reader's mind.

This is true even when no explicit link is provided. I was reading a post by Amy Welborn last week called "Coming to you from Yale" about her daughter's application interview to the Ivy League school. At some point she completely removed the post, most likely due to comments which were candidly discussing the pros and cons of attending a prestigious university which is terribly expensive and not terribly friendly to the claims and moral principles of Christianity. One of the readers brought up the infamous smeared fetus art exhibit as an example of the poison ivy league culture.

Another comment pointed out a piece by Walter Kirn called "How I lost my mind at Princeton" which I found by Googling. It was certainly worth wading through the banalities of Welborn's temporary post to find Kirn's nightmarish recollection of his mental breakdown.

Twenty-five years ago, at age 19, I lost my mind at Princeton University, the place where I'd gone to find my mind (and, if possible, enlarge it) after sailing away from my rural Midwestern home on the magic carpet of high standardized-test scores. My breakdown was social and intellectual rather than narrowly psychological, triggered by two great sources of grinding stress: a class system dominated by the wealthy that kept me in the shadows of campus life and, No. 2, the mental confusion bred by the baffling new academic fashions known as “Deconstructionism” and “Theory.” The clubby rich descendants of the old guard, with their scuffed-up Topsider shoes and sun-bleached polo shirts, their guaranteed jobs at family brokerages, and their spiffy BMW coupes for weekend jaunts to Nantucket and the Cape, made me feel marginal and shabby, while the lofty proponents of Theory made me feel dumb.

I always feel like a marginal and shabby writer when I read prose this great. But then I remember that I'm a blogger not a writer. Duh.

This was my favorite part, about his hitting bottom in terms of intellect.

And ultimately, once my alienation had festered, I could barely communicate or think. At the low point of my breakdown, spoken words sounded like globs of sonic mud, while written words writhed on the page like dying spiders. I could still speak, but I knew not what I uttered. I merely moved my lips and hoped.

Note that Mr. Kirn must have gotten his mind back to be able to write this, so that's good news. Unfortunately not every acid casualty Humpty Dumpty kid gets put back together again; I personally know examples to the contrary and I'm sure you do as well. He does admit that a lot of his troubles were "of his own making", but it does seem like the backdrop of cultural vacuity didn't help him any. Here's his attempt to define the cause of this intellectual breakdown.

The nemesis we'd confronted, our common adversary, was an impoverished definition of human intelligence itself—one that inevitably, I came to think, molded and deformed our spirits. To young people born under the weird planet of the SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and raised on the pseudo-scientific notion that mental worth can be ranked in cold "percentiles," intelligence was equated with agility, with raw acuity. It was an empty vessel, void of content and void of passion, too.

I think he comes close to the problem here; I'd suggest the problem goes much deeper than a realization of the crassness of SAT scoring, a measuring method to which the alternative is to let wealth and nepotism dictate admissions entirely. Modern science has completely bought into and promoted this "impoverished definition of human intelligence" with evangelistic fervor. The latest evidence of this pervasive materialistic attitude is an increasingly common attempt to analogize our consciousness with computer components. For example, Kurzweil has recently stated on NPR that we'll be able to "upload" our entire consciousness onto an electronic platform in the near future. This kind of thinking represents what I call a transcendence deficit which I believe is what Kirn experienced as a young man, a moment in which he incarnated the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. Young people still hope for meaning. As they get older they acquire coping mechanisms that allow them to become functional in their quiet desperation devoid, as Kirn writes, "...of content, void of passion, too."

Of course, religion has classically provided the answers to transcendent and ultimate questions of life. The problem is that everyone is afraid religion might offend somebody. Therefore we will continue to accept insanity instead as the lesser of two evils, even among the best and brightest among us. I guess "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" is old hat in the modern world. Welcome to Princeton; here's your straight jacket.


  1. Of course, religion has classically provided the answers to transcendent and ultimate questions of life.

    For that matter, universities have classically provided the answers to transcendent and ultimate questions of life via religion and theology.

    Maybe part of the problem is that universities have long since ceased being universities, and no one has much noticed.

    "Religious doctrine is knowledge, in as full a sense as Newton's doctrine is knowledge. University Teaching without Theology is simply unphilosophical. Theology has at least as good a right to claim a place there as Astronomy." -- Ven. J. H. Newman, Idea of a University, Discouse 2

  2. Wow, what a fantastic post. And for me, so timely. Number One son took the SAT this past Saturday. We think he did well -- he's been taking practice tests for eight months and doing well. But, in large part, the SAT is a test of how well one takes tests. It doesn't measure things like my son's quirky creativity, his penchant for making up surprisingly melodic little tunes, his preoccupation with demographics and political statistics.

    A colleague who's fairly obsessed with her kids' academic achievements expressed surprise when I told her that we were thinking in terms of Belmont Abbey, Christendom, and Steubenville, not an Ivy or Duke or even Chapel Hill. Her only comment: "Well, he'll probably get a good scholarship at one of those places." My thought: "He'll probably get a good *education* at one of those places." Minus the transendence deficit!

  3. oops, that would be "transcendence" -- man, typos make me feel dumb. ;-)

  4. That was an interesting exchange on the Welborn blog. even more interesting that she deleted it...

    well, i did well on the SATs without particularly meaning to -- so of course i think they are the sine qua non of intelligence tests. ;). i didn't do as well at college though, because i was dumb enough to take actual substantive courses like japanese and chemistry, instead of political kool aid gut courses like women's studies and sociology. (I wised up by junior year and took some lit crit)

    while it's nice to do well on the SATs, academic achievement in general rarely translates into success in the real world (at least as the real world exists now). but i'm one of those foolish people who think Antonin Scalia is objectively, demonstrably more brilliant than almost any lawyer in the country, up to and especially including his colleagues on the USSC. and i know a lot of idiots who got great grades at prestigious universities.

    i'm not really going anywhere with this post, am i. oh well, at least y'all know i did well on the sats.