******** So this is what it feels like to be a freshman at a “liberal arts college.” Our first draft of our Heritage fall project is due in two weeks, and I walk to Dr. Gleason’s office in order to go over my idea: reflections of Stoicism in the ancient Roman war machine. How did I end up studying anything like this? What makes me believe I can make an argument about a culture I’m studying for the first time in my life? The incredible pace of the Heritage program sped us all through the Roman Empire in little over a week, and
here I am, trying to back an outrageous claim. I am just a teenaged, newly-enrolled college student entering into dialogue with giants in their fields of expertise. As I walk through the hall of the Christian Center, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” enters my head, and I feel “on my own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” I realize that pursuing a liberal arts education means I must do more than stand “on the shoulders of giants”; I have to challenge them. Fourteen days later, I sit at my computer in my room in Bacot, the smell of coffee lingering faintly from an empty cup, cans of Red Bull lining my desk. I reflect on how I had chosen my topic for my Heritage fall project. I remember that Dr. Gleason liked my theory of how the rise of Stoicism in Rome was reflected in Roman war strategies, unit formations, and siege engines, and he told me he had never heard of anyone writing on the particular subject. Writing on a topic of my own devising becomes difficult as the caffeine makes my fingers shake, but I have to get this paper written before class the next day. Lamenting my situation, I stare blankly at the watch on my wrist telling me it is three in the morning. My stomach churns as the lines from my favorite Green Day song mock my situation. “My eyes feel like they’re gonna bleed; the clock is laughing in my face.” Somehow, I must create at least four more pages before the sun comes up. “Crooked spine. My sense is dull. That’s the point of delirium.” A few days after we turn our projects in, Dr. Gleason hands them back to us in class, and I anxiously turn to the last page of my first magnum opus in my Millsaps career to reveal a hastily scribbled “A-”. All the toil and strife I faced while writing my paper melt away, and, later that night, I go to the fraternity house to celebrate. On the back porch of the fraternity house to which I have recently pledged, my brothers and I throw
back a couple of beers, talking about nothing important at all; I realize that, sometimes, the unimportant moments are the most significant. “DJ, you need another one?” My fraternal big brother’s nickname for me will be one that sticks to me for the rest of our time together, and I take the drink as one of my brothers walks over to the computer play list. I hear OAR’s song “I Feel Home,” and, for one of the few times in my life, I feel home when “I’m chillin’ outside with people I know.” The night drags on as a haze covers the dream-like scene as the guitar strums drown out the multiple conversations around me.
******** The second semester of my sophomore year, I decide to be an English major, and conquering Dr. Miller’s British Literature classes becomes my first step to academic victory. Now, if only I could also rid myself of the language requirements, the bane of my academic career; I work on Spanish exercises, listening to the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You.” In Dr. Miller’s class, we have recently read excerpts from John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” in which Newman explains how a liberal arts education may not be what some people consider “useful” in the strictest sense, but it is “good”: Good is not only good, but the reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likened of itself all around it. Good is prolific; it is not only good to the eye, but to the taste; it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself; it excites first our admiration and love, then our desire and gratitude, and that, in proportion to its intenseness and fullness in particular instances. (Newman 1124) Perhaps obtaining an English major at a liberal arts school is not a quick route to wealth, but, according to Newman, my education will lead to my being a better citizen with an appreciation for an education that forms character. I agree with him. The mind-opening
experience that has become my undergraduate career has done more for intellectual than I ever thought possible. I set my pen beside my books and listen to David Grohl sing the last chorus of the song, and I get ready for a long night with good friends. It is hard to believe that two of my best friends, Sarah and Courtney, are transferring, and I also lose my favorite jam partner, Courtney’s boyfriend, Charles. He has only a few months before his USMC unit is deployed in Africa. The four of us sit together as he and I pick up our guitars and open with the usual “Champagne High.” The session lasts for hours, and my fingers turn raw against the metal strings. We choose “Closing Time” by Semisonic to close the set as we usually do. We smile at each other knowing that even though we will not see each other as often, we can make time to get together. He begins to strum the opening chord as I follow suit and the last line resonates down the halls. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
******** “Under Pressure” begins to play on my iPod as I sit typing in the basement of the library. My first semester of my junior year has been far from my easiest. I must be an idiot to have thought I could take on James Joyce’s Ulysses, but, for some reason, I feel a strange affection for this book. I tell myself to calm down. I remember my success from the first time I stood on my own with a theory all my own my freshman year. It’s the same situation with different content. Recalling the risks I was not scared to take as a freshman, I begin interpreting symbols, making connections, and my understanding of the complexities of Joyce’s grows and shifts, as protean as the writing itself. I tap into all of my close-reading skills I have developed over my years at Millsaps College to finish on time. Watching the clock, I know I have to finish soon; I promised my girlfriend I would
take her out to dinner in celebration of completing my paper. After the last word appears on screen, I realize that Joyce has become my favorite writer, and, if I could study Irish modernism for the rest of life, I would be happy. A semester later, I wait in the airport for Charles’ plane to land. I cannot believe that he is finally coming home, and really what a horror it is that his homecoming is scarred by his father’s death. What kind of God would take his father from him the day before he comes back from serving his country in a foreign land for ten months? Despite all my religious studies classes, I still cannot rationalize the existence of so much pain and a benevolent, loving God in the same cosmos. None of the existential or metaphysical theories I have studied offers any answers; constantly questioning the idea of a divine plan in class manifests itself in the pained eyes and uncomfortable silence of my friends. I hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in my head, the simple guitar riffs telling the story of a war protest, and I am the first to spot him as he steps through the terminal. Courtney runs to him, and the scene fades as we prepare for one of the hardest journeys home he will ever undertake. At least we’re together again, albeit for a bittersweet arrival.
******** So this is what it’s like to be an outsider in a different culture. Here I am, the summer before my senior year, at a hookah bar in Costa Rica, surrounded by people I have never met before in a completely foreign land. I reflect on how my loathing of the Spanish language turned to love over only one semester. Professor Wamester really noticed my potential and, according to her, my talent in speaking another language, and, after giving Spanish another chance, I realized how much the skills I use studying
Spanish will help me interpreting literature and gain a greater understanding of my own language. If I had not had her as an instructor, I would not have even considered studying abroad and immersing myself in another culture. I look at Aldo, my hermano tico (Costa Rican brother), as he walks through the crowd to buy a round of drinks. I talk with his friends, Alberto and Adolfo, and we decide to challenge a couple of guys at the bar to a fooseball game. The foreign music fills the bar as all the Costa Ricans sing along with it, and Alberto begins the game. The sounds of the ball rolling on the table and the punch of the plastic soccer figures on the table are inaudible in the bar. As the night comes to a close, Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” plays throughout the bar; apparently songs exist that transcend language barriers. My new friends and I sing along, and I put the notion that I have class in seven hours out of my mind. Only a week after I return to campus for my final year I try to focus as every web page looks like the one I had seen before it. I feel covered in an avalanche of course work, GRE studies, and graduate school applications. Mounds of books encircle my small desk as I look down the barrels of the “‘canon’ to the right of me, ‘canon’ to the left of me.” I question the value of my liberal arts education, but I believe the skills I have learned, practiced, cultivated, and begun to master will ultimately determine my next step. I have no idea where I want to go, what I want to do, or how I’ll find the time to balance everything to get through the semester. My phone rings and the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter” breaks my spell of tacit, overwhelmed contemplation. I have to laugh at how the song fits the situation oh so well. I talk to my girlfriend, and she tells me not to worry, that all will be fine, that she has faith in me. “Well that’s one person,” I
tell her, and, eventually, the conversation ends. I resume my arduous task of planning my uncertain future.
******** So now I sit in the library in an all too familiar position, listening to whatever song appears on my iPod, writing an essay about my experiences at Millsaps College. Revisiting Newman’s article, I still agree with his idea that liberal arts education builds character as well a strong educational foundation. Yes, the school has taught me to write more clearly, to read attentively, to develop valid arguments, but so much more has come from this school. Millsaps College, liberal education in general, is a school of experience, hermeneutics, aesthetics, questions, open discussion, and many other approaches to learning. My liberal education has provided me with so many friends and opportunities to stand on my own, and through it all, there have been songs to accompany my journey. As I imagine, the soundtrack to my life will continue to expand, and, on the day of my graduation, the Millsaps “Alma Mater” will be a part of the track listing as well.
Works Cited Newman, John Henry Cardinal. “The Idea of a University.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2B. 7th Ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 1119-27.
Track Listing: A Millsapian’s Soundtrack David Chandler And you, liar, teller of tall tales: you trample all the Lord’s commandments underfoot, you murder, steal, commit adultery, and afterward break into tears, take down your guitar and turn sin into a song. Shrewd devil, you know God pardons singers no matter what they do, because he could simply die for a song… --Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ I have grown up with an appreciation of music. Even as I type this paper, the delicate notes of a plucked guitar string escape my speakers and fill the room. In fact, I have always thought that, no matter the situation, there is a song that, directly or indirectly, can relate to any circumstance. My life has a soundtrack, and my experiences at Millsaps College have contributed greatly to the track listing. As I sit in my room, hoping that some Muse will inspire me to write a paper detailing my experiences here, I cannot help but be reminded how much influence music has had on my academic career. Perhaps my love of music led me to be an English major. How can someone not hear the rhythmic cadence of hoof beats in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” or the harmonious hallelujahs of the angelic choirs in Milton’s Paradise Lost? In looking back on my years at Millsaps, I find it only appropriate to do so accompanied by the songs I know and love as they have shaped the way I perceive the world around me.