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Back to School: Chaos and Umbrellas

It’s back-to-school time once again. Students everywhere are returning to campus excited to see each other and catch up – but Roanoke College Professor Brent Adkins wants to know something. He wants to know why students are in school in the first place – and encourages them to look beyond the degree.

Why are you here? This is a question that I ask all of my classes in one form or another. Let me tell you how the conversation usually goes.

Me: Why are you here?

Student: I’m here to get a degree, and this class is required for the degree.

Me: Why do you want a degree?

Student: So I can get a job.

Me: Why do you want a job?

Student: So, I can make money.

Me: Why do you want money?

Student: So, I can buy things I want.

Me: Why do you want those things?

Student: Those things will make me happy.

Me: Really? Is that all there is to it? Some set of things will make you happy?

Student: Well, I suppose there’s more to it.


In this “more” lies the difference between getting a degree and getting an education.

I believe that education is an apprenticeship. I believe that the purpose of this apprenticeship is to enable us to create something new. I believe that life is a struggle between the opposing poles of chaos and cliché, between disorder and what everyone believes to be obviously true. We cannot live in chaos, and yet clichés stultify life. Creating the new must risk chaos but not be swallowed by it. The artist does not begin with a blank canvas but one covered in clichés that must be painstakingly removed before creation can begin.

As D.H. Lawrence notes, the usual strategy for protecting ourselves against chaos is to open an umbrella. We then paint the underside of the umbrella with what we wish were the case. This is where the clichés come in. We cover the umbrella with all the soothing bromides that seem to bring stability to the world. “Education is a journey.” “There are no stupid questions.” “A college degree will get me the job I want, so I can be happy.”

These are the kind of things we tell ourselves here in order to avoid the difficult work of facing chaos.

I believe we have mistaken the facile security of our umbrellas for a real engagement with chaos.

I believe we have mistaken the certainty of our clichés for the uncertainty of life.

I believe that we came here hoping to get new and better clichés painted on the underside of our umbrellas.

I believe that the value of education lies not in painting new clichés but in cutting slits in our umbrellas.

I believe that letting some chaos in is the only way to create something new.

I believe that education does not make us safer but exposes us to increasing danger.

I believe that this is the risk that all creative acts must take.

I believe that this risk is life itself. That’s why I teach, and that’s why you’re really here.

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