Last spring break, I was lucky enough as a geophysical science major to participate in a field course at the Salton Trough in southern California with the department. The trough has been the site of a diverse set of environments over the last 20 million years, so this course gave me an opportunity to learn about a myriad of rock types and sedimentary structures. Before the trip, the class spent the entirety of winter quarter reading papers and book chapters that would apply to the various rocks we would see in the field. As the quarter progressed, I gained a broad knowledge of the geology of the trough, and so I was ultimately under the impression that the bulk of my learning would come from those 10 weeks of readings and discussion. I could not have been more wrong.
At last, spring break was upon us, and we were California-bound. At the end of a long day full of travel and errands, we finally arrived at our campsite just before sunset. I leapt out of the SUV to stretch my legs and found myself standing in the perfect serenity of a desert evening. The geology of the Salton Trough that I had so frantically reviewed on the plane completely escaped my mind as I gorged my eyes on the mountains in the distance with the sunset glancing off their peaks. This visual bounty was accompanied by a concert of aromas emanating from the numerous desert plants that welcomed us to our home for the week. As my sense of smell was awakened from its winter-induced dormancy, I recalled a quote from Good Will Hunting: “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written … But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”
At that moment, as well as countless other times throughout the week, I realized that the previous quarter of reading and preparing for the trip would be minuscule in my education and development compared to the actual experience of being in the Salton Trough. My geologic knowledge and intuition made strides in a single week that dwarfed those I made in any 10 week class. The facts and terms that I read about were certainly a necessary foundation, but they would have been meaningless without the clarity I gained from actually seeing the things described in the textbook in the field. Simply put: what I learned in class makes a lot more sense now, and I have the confidence to actually apply it on my own. By the end of the trip, I was pointing out features in rocks that I would have blankly stared at only a few days earlier.
As students at the University of Chicago, this is a lesson all too relevant. We have come to take pride in our theory-over-practice priorities and endless hours spent in libraries. We readily engage with the works of prominent social theorists, but we often lack experience with many elements of society that we hypothesize about in discussion sections. It’s very easy for us to become blinded by piles of reading, problem sets, and midterms, but in the process we forgo opportunities to experience the world that we so tirelessly study.
I am not calling for any major changes in the philosophies of the University or any shifts in regime; in many ways I am exceedingly grateful for the way UChicago has taught me to think. However, I do think we need to be reminded of the context of our education. We have acquired extensive knowledge of vast subject areas through our readings and classes, but that isn’t an entirely fulfilling end. We are an incredibly intelligent group of young adults capable of playing major roles in the world, but we shouldn’t assume we know everything just because we read it in a book.
Apart from the practical side of learning through experience, there’s also something fulfilling about getting out and experiencing the world. It’s very hard to get that “been there” feeling from reading a book. For me, spending every night with only my sleeping bag between me and the stars was just as valuable as everything I learned. There’s a lot to life outside of learning and knowing things, and I know that can be hard to remember while trudging through the academic quarter. Just don’t be afraid to put the book down and go do something every once in a while. This world is an endlessly spectacular place, no matter your interests, and it would be a shame to think you can fully appreciate it based simply on what you can glean from a page.
Ryan Manzuk is a third-year in the College majoring in geophysical sciences