Thoughtless: the college conundrum

How I've destroyed my own ability to think

| Forum Editor

I talked to my good friend Tyler this weekend. He goes to Yale. He is a repository of continually-renewing ideas and distinctions that, just for being in his mind, make the world a better place. He kept a notebook of ideas since the end of the summer. When he has an idea, he will write it down in this notebook. That notebook is now, a little more than three months later, almost full.

It began with ideas for his job with the Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper. What can we do to make Hamilton County, the city of Cincinnati, better? The notebook evolved when he went to school, into a resting place for ideas ignited by the things he read in his political science and intellectual history classes. It is now an almost complete history of the good things he has thought of since August 2008.

I decided, immediately after talking to him, that I had to, that I must, keep such an idea notebook myself. There are so many novel and bright things that go through my head every day that I sadly lose, that I will likely never see again. I picked an empty notebook from my shelf. I designated it: “Ideas.” That was Saturday. The notebook is empty.

I felt silly, naturally, when I took a look at it sitting impotently on my cluttered desk. What a failure I am, I thought. I don’t follow through with any of the best things in life. I did not record when I said I would. I let slip what I said I would hold on to.

But it slowly became clear that lack of follow-through was not my problem with the project. It slowly became clear that the real problem was that I did not have one worth-while idea in the past three days—one novel thing worth writing down in roughly 45 waking hours—one
flame of originality in two days of a free mind and one day of class. It slowly became clear that my mind was totally empty.

Welcome to Washington University. Welcome to my college experience, and to that of many others. Welcome to me going from bed, to Center Court, to homework, to the gym, back to homework, out with
friends, back to the dorm to hang out, to sleep and up again the next morning doing different things in the same way:
first, without knowledge of why, and second, without even having time to think.

When I step back, it seems to make sense. Think of all the rich life experience I’m gaining, along with academic knowledge, enjoyable relationships and reduced risk of heart disease. How could I possibly get any more out of life?

But when I step back in and look closely, pulling the lint out of the crevasses and consulting the smudged instruction manual, I suddenly realize that I’m a hopeless mess. I have no identity; I have no ideas. I have no basis from which to construct anything novel. If you asked me who I was, I’d probably just pull out the newspaper and show you a column I wrote. There is no “I am”; there is only “I do.”

And you would think that all this academic business would really incite intellectual curiosity, would really get the ideas bumping around in my head. Not the case. Somehow I’ve become so concerned with reporting what the article or text said to the teacher that I’ve ceased to have any critical engagement with anything. All I can tell you is that there are words on a page and they assert a certain thing.

I am an idiot. I am a shell. Melodramatic, certainly, but it’s sad too. I recommend, then, an attentive engagement with the self before it’s too late. If you can’t come out of a day with one thought you had, one distinction with which to organize the universe, one entrepreneurial idea with which to save the world, you need to change. Otherwise you’ll graduate and then…wow.  I don’t even want to think about it.