(Just a heads-up: this is a SUPER long post. If you don’t have time to read it all, skip down to the paragraph that starts “Okay, last big discussion…”)
I’m feeling much better today. Life’s started looking up again after the tumble, which shook my spirits yesterday. Today I’m not here to write about that though. Instead, I choose to explore a little of what my materials engineering professor told us in our last class this morning.
I’ve always enjoyed going to my introduction to materials engineering class, even if it is at 7:40 in the morning twice a week. While it’s difficult to get up that early (being a night owl definitely has its downsides) it is much easier to get going. My roommates are usually up too, and I meet up with my friend to ride our bikes to class together, so when I get to the lecture hall, I’m more awake than I am for classes that start later. This is also the biggest class (people-wise) that I’ve had to take here: there are 213 students in the class (which is HUGE for my school). But I love it – it’s one of the best classes I’ve had in college.
Not because I like materials engineering – in fact, I don’t, really. It’s mostly chemistry, which I loved in high school but have hated in college. The concepts aren’t difficult, but for some reason, they really confuse me. No, this class is cool because of our teacher, Professor Harding.
Professor Harding has a very unique and different view of education and learning in general. All throughout the quarter he talked about how students are taught to play “The Game” instead of actually learning for themselves. This “game” includes telling teachers what they want to hear, sitting in class and copying down notes that mean nothing to you, studying and turning in assignments but not really understanding what’s going on, all for one purpose: to get a good grade. “Why do you care so much about grades?” he would often ask us. Many times we’d stray from class topics to discuss the importance of a piece of paper that dictates our lives (also known as a college degree), why we’re studying what we are, how we were feeling that day, and just the meaning of life in general.
This is why I liked the class: because we got to think and learn about life. Not because I learned about strain hardening, cold working, or dislocations in materials. Not because we didn’t have midterms (though I will admit that was quite nice). No, it was because we were given many opportunities to learn more about ourselves. We had three reflection assignments due throughout the quarter, where we were allowed to write about whatever we wanted. He asked us to think about thinking (a process called “metacognition”) and discover who and what we really are. He also told us time and time again that this is very difficult for engineers to do, since we are so well-trained to play “The Game” that we can forget what’s really important in life, but he wanted to help us improve.
Many people don’t like Professor Harding. They think he’s too different and that the system will never change because it’s been going on for so long. Students need to get good grades, they say. Don’t question the teachers; just turn in what they want to hear and pass to the next class, just to repeat the procedure. It’s all in the spirit of getting your degree so you can go out and do something with your life. I ran into a stranger in the elevator once who noticed I was carrying one of Harding’s homework assignments. “Ah, you have him,” he said. “I thought he was cool for a while, but he really needs to get off his high horse. All his talk about ‘The Game’… it’s never going to change.”
From this stems a whole bunch of questions, I think. Like, when you have a degree but got it just for the sake of getting it, what are you going to do with your life? Sure, you might work for forty or fifty years, make lots of money, earn a good title… but will you be happy?
And what can we do to change The Game?
I want to enjoy what I’m learning. I want to embrace it as wonderful knowledge that I can use to do something great and meaningful later in life. What that will be, I don’t know, but I have time to find out.
Since taking this class I’ve found that (whether meaning to or not) I’ve really embraced this. I like going to my other classes now because I find them interesting and try to actually learn something, and this has helped me do well (grade-wise) in them. I’m really looking forward to the classes I’m taking next quarter too, and hopefully this attitude will carry over and continue to help me throughout my college career.
And while this is all very important, it isn’t the most interesting thing I learned from this class. One other piece of advice that he gave (before I go into my next discussion… long post, sorry!) was that sometimes it’s more important to be than it is to do. Again, this is something that engineers struggle with: we always have to be moving, thinking, working, or else we label ourselves as nonproductive. But sometimes it’s better to sit and just do nothing. “I want to run this experiment sometime,” Professor Harding said today. “I want to see if people could not do anything for five minutes. … Try that sometime. Just be. For five minutes.” I think I’ll follow his advice and try it soon.
Okay, last big discussion… Earlier this quarter while he was explaining lattice structures, Professor Harding informed us that we’re at least 24% empty space (based on atom-packing abilities and whatnot) and went on to tell us that we actually don’t exist at all. We talked a little about existentialism (which I don’t entirely understand) and said he’d explain at the end of the quarter that while this might be true, he doesn’t think it is.
“Why do you exist?” he started the discussion today during the last five minutes of class. “Because you are loved. You might not be in this room physically, because nothing is here physically – even this room isn’t here, it isn’t real – but you do exist. How? I don’t know how. But I’m going to accept it.” Then he went on to say one of the most profound things I’ve learned all quarter (and maybe all year): “All of life is a decision between knowledge and faith.”
This resonates well with me. I really don’t understand a lot of things, especially when it comes to religion and beliefs. And I don’t have a firm grasp on what I know to be true. I feel like I’m often caught in this battle of “Do I know something to be true? Or do I only believe it to be?”
There are so many things in life that we as humans can’t quantify. Sure, we can measure “progress” with letters, or “amount of work done” with green pieces of paper and fancy names. But when it comes down to core beliefs, to love – there’s no way to know whether that’s right or wrong. For me it’s in this step that I just have to accept it because of faith. I won’t ever know if something is right – after all, the only person to know for sure and to make that call is God. We can look to spiritual books like the Bible for guidance and ask others for help, but in the end, it’s up to us. What feels right? What do we believe to be so?
One other thing he said that I liked and agree with: we exist because we’re loved. The hardest days to wake up are those where we feel like we have to face them alone. For the past sixteen months, I have known every day that there’s at least one person there for me, rooting me on and always able to give me encouragement and boost my spirits. I can’t tell you how comforting this is. I find strength in others too: in my parents, my family, my friends. In teachers that encourage me and really want me to succeed. In passing strangers that smile at me. I think I’m an optimistic person because I can see all of these things. I look at all of this, and I really feel loved.
We also find love in things we do that make us happy. Like writing and listening to music, what I’m doing now: these things make me happy. Being with Davis makes me happy. Talking to my family (unless it’s a particularly stressful situation) makes me happy. Sitting in the hallway at two o’clock in the morning with my roommates sharing ideas and stories makes me happy. Visiting my high school and feeling the love there makes me happy. Catching up with old friends makes me happy. “Why do something that doesn’t make you happy?” Professor Harding asked us today. “You have that choice; find something that makes you happy and choose to do it.” As mentioned above, right now I’m choosing to write and listen to music instead of working on physics homework, because this makes me so much happier than trying to understand magnetic flux and phasor diagrams do.
I’m going to list a few more quotes that Professor Harding said throughout the year. Think about them and see if you learn anything. Maybe they’ll change the way you see something; they certainly did that for me.
“The universe is not a battle between good and evil. After all, what is good, and what is evil?”
“Rules were designed to be broken. That’s why God gave us rules: to give us something to break on a regular basis.”
“It’s not just about being strong. It’s about being tough.”
“The people who succeed in life have failed.”
“You are not computers.”
And then, once again:
“All of life is a decision between knowledge and faith.”
Thanks, Professor Harding, for taking the time to really teach us something worthwhile.
A couple things that made me smile today:
– http://pleated-jeans.com/2010/06/02/realistic-x-rays-and-skeletons-of-fictional-characters-pics/ – a hilarious post on the skeletons of fictional characters… very well done.
– The Varekai soundtrack. It’s a little tricky to find, but I assure you that the search will be well worth it.