On Graduating College (Sean O’Connor’s Public Comment video diary vlog– episode #8)


-From an F in Math in fifth grade to a 3.98 GPA and a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Studies at 33 years old… my views on education have evolved significantly-

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The philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne– whose work I had the opportunity to study in college– continues to influence and inspire me. I revere his contribution to the development of the “personal essay” and the written treatment of individual subjects from the perspective of reflection on experience with/connection to such subjects. In this context one can learn about the person in particular, the human soul in general, the topic, in a conversation as opposed to a lecture or pure argument. And in the case of essays such as the sort Montaigne wrote, there’s the freedom to digress, in his case, in and out of history, philosophy, politics, et cetera.

I think of Montaigne now, as I contemplate my extemporaneous, thinking-out- loud- as- I- go approach to vlogging and podcasting, and as I touch on the subject of graduating college, from the perspective of someone who once received an F in fifth grade and dropped out of college multiple times to someone who fell in love with academia, graduated with a  3.98 GPA and was granted the privilege to speak at his college graduation. That is to say, there is, among the ironies, the irony that while I possess some “academically” derived thoughts on my academic experiences—I mean, based on scholarly articles, and university research from which I could merely synthesize that sea of research—I could not speak with accuracy if I detached from my personal connection to this subject.

To graduate at 33 as opposed to 22 years old, at points in my reflection, brings sadness and regrets because sometimes it can seem like all this does is confirm some notion of myself as slow compared to my smarter peers. Yet I don’t think that way about those who are my age or my elders who earn their college degrees later than is “conventional.” That would be to do what Ayn Rand referred to as “context dropping.” As one former professor of mine once said, “you never know where you are in someone else’s narrative.” She was actually citing a former professor of hers. Moreover, what is the problem with not going right to college or never going? College simply offers an array of specific opportunities to receive specific sets of knowledge. Seemingly countless resources of knowledge exist beyond the college setting. What matters is not whether one attends a university or not but rather the question of what one seeks to learn and what one aspires to achieve with that knowledge. (This is not to say that I downplay the incredible value, especially of community, that various types of schools, whether university, college or trade school, can offer. I think too much autodidacticism might lead to isolation and a kind of anti-social philosophy; at least this turned out to be the case in my experience).

Central to the context behind my academic struggles was mental illness (depression an anxiety specifically) combined with incorrect and poorly defined, fundamental philosophical principles. Even when I possessed a scientific epistemology, I didn’t think about how it applied to much more than science. I had no real sense of values. Not because my family failed to instill them but because I wasn’t taught, in high school, any kind of serious intellectual presentation of theories of values and ethics. How much of a difference would that have made? How much difference would consistent mental/psychological check-ups have made? I don’t believe in torturing myself with “what if’s” but I do like gaining an understanding of context behind how events transpire. That is something I gained from the many history courses I took.

So, with psychological and philosophical reasons for detaching from “school” from elementary school through my first few years of college, I retreated to the arts. In my childhood, horror stories, movies, writing, and acting were my refuge.

As inclined to the arts as I may have been, with very few exceptions, I treated my artistic endeavors with profound narcissism. That is to say, the concentration I put into writing, passionate though I may have been in some sense, I feared any kind of real feedback and thus, while I always hoped for people to praise whatever poem or performance I shared with them, really, alas, I didn’t think about it as constructive feedback to help me produce anything meaningfully consequential. It was largely my escape from academic standards at play.       

By my sophomore year of college—when I attended Florida Gulf Coast University—I experienced further ironies. While convinced of my incompetence and lacking “belief” in knowledge, I was nonetheless engaged in philosophizing and extracurricular study of poets who interested me, including Kerouac, Ginsberg, Dylan, Morrison, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Ovid, Sappho, Shelley, Lennon—all the ones I considered the “rebels” of poetry. Even after I dropped out (then returned, then dropped out again, then returned, then dropped out again…), I remained avid as a reader, and persistent in my desire to be something of an intellectual artist or an artistic intellectual, delving into Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, William James, John Dewey, Dostoevsky, Napoleon Hill and eventually Ayn Rand.

My Ayn Rand phase with even more ironic yet because I became an “objectivist” who now believed in “knowledge” staunchly so, and spent all my free time reading non-fiction books, yet I still maintained my “anti-academia” perspective. This newfound objectivism, alas, failed to facilitate my eradication of the frustrating poverty and tedium of cashiering, even when it led to my first run for political office. As I thought more and more about my life logically it occurred to me I ought to return to college and there I saw, gradually, the pile of contradictions that made up my puritanical sort of “objectivism” (I call myself, for a lack of better words thus far, a “clarificationist” because I believe we can strive for objectivity and gain ever greater clarity but never quite get a point of absolutism or pure objectivity). Likewise, I saw the flaws with my libertarianism as I took courses on poverty, Native Americans, women and the law, the Holocaust/Nazi Germany, the U.S. judicial system, et cetera, and learned how leaving people “free” to exploit and abuse leads to exploitation and abuse. Not in every case, but often enough that it remains rampant today.

I thought, as my college education reached its final chapter, that an MFA in Creative Writing was in my future. This seemed to me the ultimate way I could build a community of greater person- to -person understanding, empathy, intellectual freedom or free thought (which is what Creative Writing came to mean to me as a concept) (I mean, as a “creative writer” and professor of the subject) and even though I’ve been offered an opportunity to study at graduate school, the last five months out of college have thrust me into deeper questions about the meaning of practicality, contributing the world, making money, finding a place in these revolutionary times, and making the most of the college education I received.

Navigating Through the Debris of Information Overload (Sean O’Connor’s Public Comment video diary vlog–episode #7)

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How can we gain a sense of the world, of life, living it to the fullest, appreciating all that’s “out there” with such a bombardment and deluge of information…an overwhelming plethora of options to contemplate everywhere? How does this impact the way we process, say, the news, for example, when historical, monumental, complex events transpire: I’m thinking of President Trump’s Attorney General William Barr who faces Contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena for the unredacted Mueller report, and how this thrusts us, (say Judiciary Committee Nadler and Speaker Pelosi) into a “constitutional crisis.” What does that mean? What does it mean for the future of our country, our democracy, and the rule of law as the president persists in obstruction of justice and his executive branch plays along?

This conflict of prioritization has bothered me for a long time. Back in the Spring of 2011, for the first time, I identified my “priorities” of awareness. This was when I discovered the value and importance of the news, politics, & philosophy.

Read the New York Times article: “House Panel Approves Contempt for Barr After Trump Claims Privilege Over Full Mueller Report

Since then though, the struggle to determine exactly how much attention one should pay to the news has been yet another complex question for me, which persists, not because I’m a news enthusiast or “politics junkie.” Rather, I cherish basic awareness; I consider it a fundamental ethical principle.

And then I wonder: which news sources should I prioritize. I love the New York Times and the Washington Post, but I can’t read every article they publish. What about Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Politico, et cetera?

And what about the challenge of sorting through all of the news’ complexities? The details, the confusing concepts and contexts which require deeper understanding…additional research?

And beyond the news reports (the articles, the television commentaries, interviews, segments, et cetera) there’s accounting for, and mentally processing official government business: official documents, pending legislation, proposed budgets– to name some examples.

Read the resolution recommending Barr be held in contempt of congress

And what about the rest of the day?

How do we fit in our meditation, exercise, work, entertainment, cleaning, paperwork, social media feeds, all the while trying to acquaint ourselves further with art, science, technology?

It could be argued of course that the world has gone “niche” but it seems so cheap to me to abandon a holistic perspective, as if it leads to a denigration of life…of the universe and the miracle of experience.