Carving an Education

Introduction to Philosophy:

Parker Palmer addresses four themes that he finds in the ancient Woodcarver story: motives, skills and gifts, the other, and results. In this brief paper I want you to apply Palmer’s analysis to your own education.

Reflect on how you have done your education to this point. What have your motives been? What skills and gifts have you discovered along the way? How have you related to the “others” you have studied-nature, texts, teachers, etc.? How have grades and other “results” affected your learning?

Finally, I want you to reflect briefly on how you might do your education differently from here on if you took Palmer’s Woodcarver as your example.

My early education was adversarial. From my earliest memories all the way through high school I was stubborn and frustrated, I had discovered no discernible skills or gifts and my results were discouraging and served to increase my frustration level and hardened my stubbornness. I couldn’t understand what was so important about Algebra, Biology, or Chemistry and I looked at the teachers as if they were some kind of relics from a forgotten day. If I can look at myself now as a piece of wood being carved by education, then in high school I was a stone capable of being carved only by the sharpest of chisels and the strongest of hammers.

After graduating from high school I joined the Army, home of the strong hammer and sharp chisel. My overriding motive for joining the Army was desperation. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in college. I also knew that I had no skills, no prospects, no money, and that my parents would not tolerate my sitting at home all day with no plan. I saw that I could escape in the Army, that I would be away from home doing something that didn’t involve sitting in stuffy class rooms listening to teachers drone on and on about things that didn’t have meaning out in the real world.

Parker talks about fasting and the art of forgetting who we are in an effort to find our true self, he writes that we must be absorbed into the whole before we can find our purpose. Basic training is the perfect example of Palmer’s idea of annihilation of self. During the first days all of your hair is cut off, everyone is put into the same clothes. You’re marched in formations everywhere you go; you walk in step, eyes straight ahead. You begin to understand that you, as an individual, are unimportant, only the whole is important and if the whole fails, you fail. If you fail, the whole fails.

But this never meant that the self didn’t exist. Everything we did was designed to push us to and past our breaking points, to show us how strong our body could be if our mind would only believe it. At Pelham Range I learned that I could walk 17 miles with a 40 pound pack on my back in 90 degree heat, I learned how to work a myriad of weapons, I learned that even at the height of misery it was still possible to wake up and continue on with life, and I learned how people interacted with each other in difficult, sometimes impossible, circumstances.

But after eight years of playing someone else’s game, I decided that I had had enough. When I joined the Army I took the job of Military Police. While I was in the Army I discovered that I had a gift for law enforcement. I won awards for catching the most drunk drivers on post, I was sent off to special schools to learn how to investigate traffic accident and run Breathalyzers. All of my friends assumed that I would be moving to a highway patrol somewhere and that I would spend the rest of my days chasing after speeders and drunks. This was not to be.

Sometime during my last year in the Army I realized that law enforcement wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. Looking back I can’t say for sure what caused this change, but it was sudden and certain. While I was in the Army I would talk to my mother often and she would always implore me to think about college, to start taking classes and get educated. I would hear none of it, I wanted to keep working, I wanted money. The lifestyle of a poor student didn’t appeal to me at all. My mom, highly educated herself, would always tell me that “education is the one thing no one can take away from you.” So, as another chapter was closing on my life, I made another decision based on desperation and applied to college.

I was very worried to start school again. My ghosts from high school were fresh in my mind as I walked across the icy parking lot towards Linn Hall to start my first class. Nagging in the back of my mind was the thought that this would be a short lived experiment, that I wouldn’t even last a semester here and would soon be searching once again for my purpose in life. Indeed, I had been researching different truck driving schools as a back up plan to college.

I was surprised to find that I was doing very well that first semester; these results were encouraging to me. They told me that I could do this work, that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Two classes in particular stand out to me as life changing, Composition II and Introduction to Fiction. The first paper I turned in for Comp II, I thought was a loss. I went into my conference with the teacher expecting a poor grade. I was surprised when I sat down and he told me that not only was I getting an A on the paper, but he wanted to use my paper as an example of what he wanted everyone else’s paper to look like. I had found my gift. I fell in love with my Fiction class, the way an author can make you think about important ideas by telling a simple story. I had found my major, my purpose, my goal.

Many people in the Army look at someone with a college education with distrust. We saw our education as being superior, they learned things through text books and teachers who never stepped outside the comfortable confines of a campus, we learned through the violence and finality of the real world. I see now how short-sighted this view is. In the Army I saw a lot of things that made no sense to me or my comrades. Now that I’m in college I feel like a pair of dark sunglasses has been lifted from my eyes, I’m starting to see the world around me through unobstructed eyes.

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