Brain Cramp

- by Michael!

I love learning.

Part of it is, of course, that I love knowing. I’ve been told many times on good authority that I am an insufferable know-it-all find it difficult to reign myself in when I know, or think I know, the right answer to a given question. (The first step is admitting it, the second is having the right kinds of friends and a wife who is smarter than I.)

But part of it really is the process of learning, the steps that it takes to grasp important concepts and learn how to apply them, the development of consistency and logic. I love that. I’ve always loved that. I was always that kid who everybody thought was smart because I did really well in school, on standardized tests, any kind of extra-curricular learning activity, you name it. I don’t know that I’m actually smart in any measurable sense, but the fact is that I loveeverything about the learning process itself. I’ve had some pretty fantastic learning experiences throughout my life, but one stands out as being a brutal cut above the rest:

The final exam of Dr. Boan’s “Modern World” class.

I was a sophomore in the interdisciplinary honors program at Belmont, and this was the culminating course of the 4-semester ‘humanities’ portion of the curriculum. In each semester, we took one ‘chunk’ of history – ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Enlightenment, modern – and studied everything about it: political and economic theory, literature, religion, scientific inquiry, art. All of these were seminar-based classes that included extensive readings and fast-paced discussions, but Dr. Boan’s also featured a drastically unique final exam.

Each of the 18 students in his class had to come up with an essay question, but of particularly sweeping quality. Mine, for instance, was “Describe the different roles that socialism and socialist political concepts played in the development of the two superpowers of the 20th Century, beginning with the First World War for each.” Another asked the class to argue for or against the proposition that popular music in Europe and America since the late 18th Century consisted of a continual ‘plundering’ of non-white cultures, including Native American, African, Asian, and others. Huge questions – questions on which one could conceivably write a book, or teach a seminar-level course.

And when we showed up for the exam, we each picked up one of eighteen packs of paper. At the top of the first page in each pack was one of our questions.

We had four minutes.

When Dr. Boan called “time,” we signed our portion of the work, handed the packet to the student on our right, and took the packet from the student to our left.

We had four minutes, plus 15 seconds to read the preceding material and decide whether we would continue its thrust or argue against its interpretations.

We did this for all 18 of the questions.

It was exhausting. It was demanding. And it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

It wasn’t only that we had to have encyclopedic knowledge of a broad swath of history (which was challenging!), but that we had to have such mental agility in order to review the work of our peers and decide what trajectory to take from there.

I’m a decade removed from my collegiate experience, and don’t have much need for specific knowledge from history classes like this (although Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class has become scarier to me every year). But that sense of give and take, the ability to let thoughts from another spin into me and take them up and forward or repudiate them in writing – that remains a precious and invaluable gift.