A Little Learning*

When I was younger, say, in graduate school, there was a vision of what I wanted to accomplish clear on the horizon, like a mountain rising in the distance. It was, to be sure, far away, and the path long, but the goal seemed something definite and achievable, if only I had the endurance to stay on the path. One day, I imagined, I would reach that mountain having acquired certain skills, knowing particular things that I needed to know in order to do the work that I wanted to in my field. And all the hard work would have been worth it.

Now, some twenty years later, I think that I've made it to the mountain, perhaps even been here for some time, but I'm not sure. I can't see it anymore. If I turn back, I think I can see the path that brought me here, but there is nothing ahead of me, which must mean I've arrived. Or gotten lost. Worst of all, I have no real sense of actually having climbed the mountain, although occasionally I do turn around and gasp at how high I seem to have come. But what happened to my goal? I thought that once I arrived, I would feel, well, more accomplished. Instead, I just feel tired and confused. In a fog, as it were.

The skills are here, I suppose. Languages, bibliographies, long lists of books that I have read: I clearly know something. And--the one great skill a researcher must have--I know where to find out the things that I don't yet know as well as I'd like.* But I've lost sight of my purpose. What was the point of climbing the mountain? To be on the mountain? To be able to see the path from the other end? I thought once that I got here there would be, well, secrets revealed, meaning unlocked, a life transformed. Instead, I just find that I miss being on the path.

So what do I do now? Wander about on the mountain looking at the rocks and plants that I can now see in all their exquisite detail? But nobody seems to want to hear about the rocks and plants except for a few students and colleagues. Everybody else just wants a description of the mountain--which I can't see anymore. An apt metaphor for our labors in academia, don't you think? We climb and climb and climb until we catch sight of a view that nobody else has ever seen, but having climbed thus far, leaving everybody else climbing his or her own particular mountain or back on the plain, we end up with nobody to talk to and nobody who understands why we now find this particular flower so beautiful.

And then we are accused of being elitist. Or "narrow." Meanwhile, some journalist parachutes in onto our mountain, grabs a few of the rocks and flowers that we point her to, sprints back down the mountain and is welcomed back on the plain as a great adventurer, having braved the wilds of our mountain but without having actually spent very much time there. And then she gets all the glory from the people down on the plain by telling them about what she has found. What to do? Do I stay on my mountain, studying it in all its particulars, or do I come back down, too, and try to describe what I've seen? But to describe it in all its beauty, I need to show you the details, not just the contours of the mountain. The big picture hasn't necessarily changed, but everything about what we (or I, at least) know about its details has. And that matters, doesn't it?

I realize now that I love my mountain. I've been here a long time. There's a whole world here to describe and everything that I catch sight of only leads me further up and further in. Like the new Narnia on the other side of the stable door.** But so few people down there on the plain seem to believe me or want to hear what I have to say. And I'm lonely, not having any one to share my discoveries with. Others call out to me from their mountains, tempting me to come study with them, but I want to understand my mountain, not theirs, and so we drift apart again, not being able to share.

I envy the colleagues who seem to be able to mountain-hop, finding paths that connect peak to peak, but their descriptions of my mountain are always incredibly shallow--really, they didn't understand that flower or rock at all, almost as bad as the journalist. So I am wary of walking too quickly, afraid that there is something I might miss. And yet, there are others who must see me as the rabbit, flitting from rock to rock, while they spend their whole lives describing but a single rock in all its contours.

So perhaps I've found my answers after all. For some reason that I still can't quite explain, I need to be here, on this mountain, describing what I see. Maybe if I'm lucky, some journalist will happen by--or maybe better if she doesn't. I'm not sure. But I did take a long time to get here. I might as well enjoy the view.

*I don't know if I know where to find the things I don't actually know; how would I know to look if I knew nothing about them?
**Do I footnote this or leave you to discover the allusion yourself? See? There's the rub.


  1. I really love this post. It is beautiful and a little melancholy. If I were to enter academia, I think I would want to print it out and post it somewhere relevant, like near my computer or on my door.

    ... Anyway, thank you for sharing.


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