Columnist Gene Cox reflects on a lifetime of learning.
My time in graduate school was instructive because it confirmed how much I had to learn. That is always a good starting place. Some years earlier I had taken the entrance exam for the diplomatic corps and walked away feeling really stupid. The test featured a lot of stuff I should have known already but did not. I knew few of the answers. It left me with an enduring respect for diplomats because I knew they had passed the test and were far ahead of me. My ambition to become an ambassador to Andorra was crushed, however.
SCHOLARSHIP IS MORE THAN HAVING A COPIER
I had arrived at graduate school with limited knowledge and an imperfect understanding of how one gets knowledge – as in “through research.” Until then, I had been able to cull through various things written about various things and compose a paper saying basically what had been said before but in a somewhat different way. In graduate school, I learned that that is not scholarship. It is copying. Scholarship is about finding something new. Our world turns on those who are able to do it. Hurray for penicillin.
In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the basis of penicillin, but it took continuing research before the antibiotic was ready for practical use in the 1940s. Lots of really smart people pursued that activity, observable only by a microscope, until they had it.
But the secrets of life remain mostly hidden even today. Fortunately for us, there are people who get out of bed each morning and take another whack at it.
Most of the commentary and indeed the history we read today is composed by writers who draw heavily on what has been said before. Rarely do we read something that is totally new, and when we do there is a tendency to reject it because it is hard to understand something new.
I often marvel at my iPhone. The little device has more technology in it than everything in Mission Control during the first space launch. If one parlays that rate of progress ahead 20 years or so, the future is hard to imagine.
In some fields, of course, there is no progress at all. Politics comes to mind. Politics is mostly about economics, and that remains a dismal science. Unlike penicillin, economics works sometimes in some places, but fails when the conditions change.
Religion is another field where progress is almost indefinable. Most religious writers collect past thoughts … and shape them to fit their purposes.
RESPECTING THE BRILLIANT, EVEN WHEN WE DON’T UNDERSTAND
So there I was in graduate school absorbing the reality that I didn’t belong there. The professor looked at me with dismay as if to say, What are you doing in my class, anyway? Toward the end, I began to get what he was trying so hard to teach me: Don’t regurgitate what we already know … come up with something new. Propose a new idea and support it.
I don’t remember what my proposed thesis was about but it merited a “C,” no doubt because I had paid my tuition.
Still, I learned a lot. I learned that although most of us might be called dull-normal, there are brilliant minds among us who will show us the way. We must respect and support them. When I can’t make up my mind about something, I consult experts who I think are smart, and consider their opinions as probably better than what I can come up with on my own.
I know these things are true because this year, the iPhone 6 came out and we all rushed out to buy one … even though none of us understands how it works.
[Editor’s note: This is Gene Cox’s 20th and final column. The former news anchor for WWBT-NBC 12 and later ABC affiliate WRIC-TV 8 began writing for BOOMER in October-November 2011. Having left television this past June, Gene says: “Not sure what I will do but I want to try some new directions.” His focus is on his recent memoir, The Burning Church, he said. “I want it to go well to pave the way for more books. If it doesn’t work, I may go into sheet metal work.” We wish him well and hold open the prospect he may return here occasionally instead. In the meantime, visit him at GeneCoxRVA.com or join the nearly 10,000 following him on Twitter at @genecoxrva.]