Everything I Needed To Know, I Sure As Hell Didn’t Learn It In School

You ever look back on what you thought you knew when you were younger, and feel totally embassesed about all the stuff that you thought you knew but really didn’t know? I was thinking, a few days ago, about which of my high school classes I felt that I had actually learned anything that I consider of any lasting value. I think that, of all of the classes I took, my English classes were the ones that I did any actual learning in. That totally sucks, beacuse it’s now that I realize how much all that math was actually going to be used in the “real” world. I so suck at math. I decided to revisit some of my high school reading, since I still have some of the books that I was assigned to read way back then. I had King Lear in my hand when I happened upon my copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphoses. I read it when I was in the 12th grade. I guess that reading something like Kafka was suppsoed to be something that the “smart” kids were supposed to do, since it was one of those “thinkin’ people’s” books. It had philosophical subtext. I’ve read The Metamorphoses since leaving high school, but until I held it in my hand at that point, I hadn’t realized how dumb I was when I read it. Let me explain: For those who are unfamiliar with the basic plot of the story, there’s this guy, Gregor Samsa (one of the coolest character names in literary history), who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant cockroach. His family is horrified by what he has become, and he spends the rest of the novel closed up in his bedroom. There’s som hijinks with some lodgers, Gregor gets pelted with apples, and eventually he dies. The story ends with his family going out on a picnic, and a strange description of Gregor’s nubile teenaged sister stretching her body out in the sun (that part always made me a little fearful for any sisters that Kafka might have had. It’s creepy). Anyway, when we read the book in class, our English teacher asked the class if we thought that Gregor Samsa had literally turned into a bug? After all, the text clearly says that when Gregor awoke form unsettling dreams, he found that he had been turned into a giant beetle. Being that we were, for the most part, all of 17 to 18 years old, and that most, if not all of us were totally unaware of what Existentialism was, much less had read any, most of us said yes, we believed that Gregor Samsa had indeed inexplicably turned from man to insect. I don’t want to boast, because I was and remain an incredibly stupid person, but I disagreed. It seemed kind of fishy to me that he would change from a human to a bug, and that his family didn’t react the way that one might expect that one would act if a family member had been suddenly replaced by a roach. What’s funny is that my teacher seemed more willing to entertain the opinions of those who believed that Gregor Samsa had shapeshifted and became vermin (oh, wait, vermin is rodents). When I took logic, I had a hard time trying to figure out why I had to learn this stuff, other than to keep a professor employed. (If someone had told me that was the reason, I would have probably done better in the class… nah!) The same thing happened again when I took philosophy of language ( that time, I actually registered my protest with the professor, which is not a very smart thing to do). But, when I think about the use of philosophy, it rings loud and clear when I think about reading The Metamorphosis — it’s useful to save yourself from embarassment! I can’t possibly imagine the absolute embarassment when one of my former, fellow students, standing at a cocktail party, says when asked about the meaning of Kafka’s masterpiece, “It was really gross when he turned into a bug!” I can imagine the looks of their learned companions, reeling back in disgust at the fact that someone missed the point of the book entirely. What we had missed, in that 12th grade English class, was the underlying philosophical context of the story. Well, it wasn’t that it was missed, so much as it wasn’t taught. We didn’t get the Existentialist point of view that Kafka was using to tell us what was going on in Gregor Samsa’s mind. If we had had that bit of useful information, we would have never wasted valuable class time trying to figure out if Gregor Samsa had actually turned into a bug! By engaging in a meaningless distraction, we missed the point of the book. We read it, but we didn’t understand it. Which is how I pretty much feel whenever I open up a logic text. But at least I know that Gregor Samsa didn’t turn into a bug!

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