The History of Humboldt (Part III): Miseducation

“Education cannot so improve a man that it uproots his natural inclinations,” so counseled Michel de Montaigne. I often find myself on college campuses; in fact, I’m in and out of universities like rappers are in and out of prison. All this exposure has rendered me a keen observer of education. Whenever I’m confronted with the sight of a hung-over undergraduate consuming unhealthy food, wearing ill-proportioned clothing, and spouting crap grammar, instead of feeling outraged, I simply mutter to myself, “Heaven forbid anyone uproots his natural inclinations!”

No student is ever educated to eat Fast Food, wear sweatpants with words scrawled across both buttcheeks, speak like a chimney sweep, and binge on cheap alcohol like a barfoholic; it just happens. But it happens so frequently, and within so many different educational environments, that it’s impossible not to wonder if miseducation isn’t the true objective of education.

Miseducation: (n) education that worsens a student’s natural inclinations; dogged learned ignorance

In addition to the idea that food should be celebrated for its rapidity and price instead of its ingredients (“Taco Bell’s Beefy Crunch Burrito sounds like it might casually disembowel me, but shit… it’s only 99 cents!”), here are some other common examples of miseducation: the belief that socks are optional (unless you get weekly pedicures, nobody wants to see your toes); that employment is the goal of education (if you believe this, you probably also believe that Justin Bieber is a talented musician); that sex is the defining feature of human existence (if you believe this, I have some Shakespearean sonnets I’d like you to read); and that our President is black (people of African descent who are born in Hawaii are Hawaiian, just like people of Indian descent who are born in Fiji are Fijian Indian).

A good deal of the humor within Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking is a direct result of miseducation. Just before he is expelled from school under the suspicion of being Amish, the story’s protagonist, Humboldt, is miseducated by a batty history teacher. The result of this miseducation is that Humboldt spends the rest of his life struggling to understand the world. For example, at one point in the story, he mistakes post-Katrina New Orleans for an upsidedown post-Lebron Cleveland. Humboldt’s plight illustrates another defining feature of miseducation: while education is quickly forgotten, miseducation lasts a lifetime.

One way to avoid miseducation is by embracing your own “natural inclinations.” A nerd of epic proportions, Montaigne was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek maxim: “Know thyself.” It’s no secret that my own “natural inclinations” lean towards laughter. And because of this, I find education hilarious. For example, I still snicker when remembering the looks on my student’s faces when, as a graduate assistant in the art history department at the University of Auckland, I once blurted out, “You mean, you guys have never heard the story about how Caravaggio almost cut off another man’s penis?!!!” (And to think, until that day, they all thought Baroque art was boring!); I also still remember how hard I laughed, years later, while proofreading a student’s essay on The Return of Martin Guerre, in which the word ‘marriage’ had been so badly misspelled that it had been auto-corrected to ‘barrel.’

Here are a few choice quotes from that essay:

“In 1538, Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols entered into a barrel.”

“After ten years of barrel, Martin abandoned Bertrande for Spain.”

Ever since reading this essay, I can’t help but think of marriage as two people being forced into a barrel together.

For anyone unfamiliar with The Return of Martin Guerre, here’s a brief synopsis: eight years after Martin Guerre disappeared for Spain, another man appeared in his hometown and claimed to be Martin Guerre. The ruse worked so well that the impostor climbed into Martin’s barrel! After four years of barrel, Martin’s family grew suspicious, and brought a lawsuit against the impostor. The jury was just about to acquit the impostor, when the real Martin Guerre walked into the courtroom on a wooden leg.

Admit it: you just scanned that last paragraph.

Most people’s “natural inclination” towards The Return of Martin Guerre is one of total disinterest. Actually, I’ve discovered that disinterest is a pretty common response to any discussion of education.

It’s OK if you’re not interested in Martin Guerre; long ago, I accepted the fact that it ain’t easy being a Guerrebeliver.

Guerrebeliver: (n) any person whose obsession with the story of Martin Guerre rivals an adolescent girl’s obsession with Justin Bieber

But I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’m not alone; Montaigne was a Guerrebeliver, too! After following the trial (I told you he was a huge dork), Montaigne was actually in attendance when the impostor received his public sentencing. What fascinated Montaigne were the questions of self-identity that arose during the legal proceedings. How can anyone prove that he is who he says he is? In other words, how can anyone “Know thyself” when somebody else is claiming to be thyself?

In my opinion, such questions are only mildly interesting; what really fascinates me is that wooden leg. Where does a guy buy a wooden leg in 1560? And what did it look like? A table leg? A bigass toothpick?

The Return of Martin Guerre also proves the importance of a lesser known maxim: “Know thyspouse.” An inevitable offshoot of this maxim is usually “Know thyspouse’s every story.” And thus I was shocked, one afternoon while seated at a bar in Portland, Maine, to discover that my barrelmate had never heard the story of how I once mistakenly took a college visit to a black college. How could I have forgotten to tell her this story? The story was so well-received (read: floor rolling) that it became the final essay within The Kid from Cambridge. This meant that the essay was also my final foray into emulating the humorous tone of James Thurber.

Here are three excerpts from that essay, which is titled ‘A College Odyssey’:

“Let’s talk about college, shall we?”

These are words that young adults loathe hearing almost as much as not-so-young adults loathe saying. No one wants to talk about college. When unwilling jaws are pried open, platitudes usually stream forth. College is called a “privilege” and a “rite of passage.” But the empty phrase bespeaks the underdeveloped frontal lobe. Like government and rudimentary math, college is at best a necessary evil. As such, it can also be justly described as “the lesser of two evils.” Forcing an adolescent with an underdeveloped frontal lobe to choose between evil and evil is a rotten thing to do, especially when the “lesser” of the two costs forty thousand dollars a year.

The best thing I can think to say about college is that it teaches you how to become who you are. Wisdom seekers will be taught how to continue seeking wisdom; wealth seekers will be taught how to continue seeking wealth; and pleasure seekers will be taught new things to mix with cheap vodka. (And perhaps, I should add: ‘People who love to misquote Nietzsche will be taught how to continue misquoting Nietzsche.’)

Is being taught how to become who you are worth forty thousand dollars a year? To be honest, no one should attempt to answer that question without cheap vodka.

Ohio’s cup overfloweth with higher education. Every hillside is home to a lecture hall, every valley echoes with a volley of questions and answers. The state is a cornucopia of colleges, and thus adolescents must choose the necessary lesser of many, many evils. Welcome to adulthood, kid.

With so much distinguished educational history, it is possible to mistake Ohio for one of the most enlightened states in the entire nation. But sadly enough, although it can boast of having a new Lexington and a new Concord, Ohio is not a new New England. Ohio is just Ohio. Its necessary evils are no more evil or any less necessary than the necessary evils of any other state. And its cheap vodka is no more cheapy or any less vodkay; although, this particular bottle appears to be empty.

I never wanted to go to college. And yet, I never wanted to not go to college either. Even as a high school senior, the educational logic of lesser evildom was clear to me. While I never wanted to go to college, I always wanted to go on college visits. In High School, these visits were the equivalent of a paid vacation. The best part about a college visit was that it required absolutely no commitment. You could use a college visit on any college, even those that you had no intention of attending. Of course, there were some limitations, as I discovered when a friend and I signed up for a welding workshop at a local technical school.

At Cambridge High School, every student was allowed five college visits during their senior year. By mid-February, I had somehow managed to use up all five of mine. Knowing this, my mother made me an offer that she knew I would not be able to refuse. She would call the attendance office and ask them to grant me an extra college visit, if I would agree to tag-along with her on an upcoming business trip to Cincinnati.

Before our trip began, I was entrusted with planning our route. To accomplish this, I turned to my father’s beloved Rand & McNally Road Atlas. In retrospect, it was perhaps unwise for me to solely base my college decision around research done with an outdated Road Atlas.

Cedarville University

The sense of smell is often overlooked when discussing college. Many people are fond of saying that college is the best years of your life; rarely, does anyone ever say that college is the best smelling years of your life.

Possessing a supersensitive sniffer, I was initially drawn to the idea of spending four years amidst the pleasant smell of cedar trees. But if there was a single cedar tree on Cedarville’s campus, my sniffer must have missed it. Not only did Cedarville not smell like a grove of cedars, it smelled like lunch. Immediately upon entering the university’s largest building, my mother and I were greeted by the sounds of clanking crockery, the din of conversational white noise, and the unmistakable smell of meat being cooked indoors. It was lunchtime, and we had walked into a dining hall.

Quickly turning a corner, we found ourselves in a long, institutional hallway. On one side of this hallway was a neatly arranged row of backpacks. With not a single student in sight, these backpacks appeared to be some kind of bizarre contemporary art installation. As we began to travel down the hallway in search of the admissions office, I casually glanced at the row of backpacks. What caught my eye was that each backpack was emblazoned with the same sown-on patch, which read: “You’ve got a friend in Jesus.”

Stopping mid-stride, I pointed out my discovery to my mother. Her response was to flash a look most commonly employed to signify the act of stepping upon something unpleasant.

Just at that moment, a smiling face materialized out of a doorway and addressed us cheerfully.

“Can I help you two find anything?”

Crap, we had been spotted!

The thought of having to endure an admissions interview at a college where the primary extracurricular activity was befriending Jesus triggered our biological flight instinct, and my mother and I spun around in unison.

“No, we were just leaving,” my mother shouted as we quickened our pace towards the exit.

Wilberforce University

My older brother’s college search was much more rigorous than mine. Not only was he burdened with being the older brother; as class salutatorian, he was also burdened with higher expectations. To help him make his decision, our family developed a distinctive method for evaluating colleges. Because of our experience at Cedarville, my mother and I decided to employ this method as we neared Xenia, Ohio.

According to our Road Atlas, there were two colleges located next to each other on the outskirts of Xenia. One was named Wilberforce University; the other Central State University. Although I had never heard of either school, I assumed that one of them would have to be promising enough to result in an admissions interview or even a campus tour. Because of the sheer badassness of its name, we decided to visit Wilberforce first.

Our family’s method for evaluating a college was to proceed immediately to the school’s basketball gymnasium. Once there, we would peer inside the gym and evaluate its size, age, and upkeep. If the gym passed inspection, we would wander around the school’s Recreation Center, which usually consisted of a weight room, cardio room, racquetball courts, and indoor track. If all of these things were deemed satisfactory, only then would we proceed to the admissions office.

You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about a college by simply visiting its Recreation Center. Or maybe you wouldn’t be. Maybe, you’re one of those people who think that college is nothing more than one big ‘Recreation Center.’ In this case, my family’s method for evaluating colleges probably seems nothing short of genius.

An unintended result of our extensive Rec Center research is that I’ve become quite the connoisseur of photographs depicting old sports teams that usually adorn every available inch of Rec Center wall space. These photographs promise a wealth of funny facial hair, daring dated hairdos, and fabulously outdated fashion. I even once discovered an old swim team photograph in the lobby of Denison University’s Mitchell Recreation Center in which one Speedo-clad swimmer points a gun at the head of another Speedo-clad swimmer.

At Wilberforce’s Recreation Center, I didn’t see any Speedos, guns, or funny facial hair. What I saw was afros: lots and lots of afros. And what I didn’t see were many white people in the photographs. This was slightly alarming.

Sure enough, Wilberforce University, like its neighbor Central State University, was a black college. This fact was made even more apparent moments later when the clock struck the hour and classes began to let out. While I felt more comfortable at the thought of attending Wilberforce than I did Cedarville, I still saw no reason to take a campus tour.

Antioch College

After Wilberforce, there was only one school left circled on our Road Atlas: Antioch College. Being late in the afternoon when we arrived, we found Antioch’s campus crawling with students. They congregated on pathways, lounged around together on the grass, and smoked in the school’s quasi-gothic doorways. To my eyes, these students looked… different. Like the school’s architecture, Antioch’s student body could also be aptly described as “quasi-gothic.”

But what was more disconcerting than the odd appearance of the school’s student body was the fact that my mother and I couldn’t find the Recreation Center. After retracing our steps around the entire campus, we decided to stop and ask the next quasi-gothic student who passed.

“Excuse me, do you know where the Rec Center is?”

My initial thought was that I must have startled our young passerby, as she flashed a look of dazed confusion.

“What’s a Rec Center?”

“You know, a Recreation Center.”

Our quasi-gothic guide gazed off into the distance, as if in deep contemplation. Finally, she responded, “I don’t think we have one of those.”

“You don’t have a Rec Center?” It was my turn to flash a look of confusion. “What about a basketball court?”

“A basketball court?”

Our conversation was beginning to resemble the kind of awkward exchanges most commonly associated with foreign exchange students.

“I think there’s a basketball court in the old exercise building on the edge of campus.”

The old exercise building! Ha, that sounded promising.

“Is that where the school’s basketball team plays?” I asked.

“The school’s basketball team?”

Our promising moment had passed, and the fog of confusion returned.

“I don’t think we have a basketball team.”

“You don’t have a basketball team?!!!”

The idea of a college not having a basketball team was preposterous. Sure, not every school could boast of a Rec Center, and some schools might even choose to pedantically call their Rec Center an “old exercise building,” but surely every school had to have a basketball team, right?

“No. This is an art school.”

Now it was my turn to respond in a foggy echo.

“An art school? What does that mean?”

“It means that we don’t have majors.”

“You don’t have majors?”

“And we don’t get grades.”

“You don’t get grades?”

My mother and I were stunned into a collective silence. What kind of college didn’t give grades and didn’t require students to declare a major?

Sensing that our conversation had ended, our quasi-gothic guide made her exit.



No majors and no grades most certainly meant no basketball team. This was an insurmountable obstacle. In our family, basketball was more important than race or religion.

I was intending to end this post with a picture of Denison’s Speedo-clad gunman photograph, but when I visited Mitchell Recreation Center, last weekend, the photograph had mysteriously disappeared…

Mitchell Rec Center

This entry was posted in The History of Humboldt and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The History of Humboldt (Part III): Miseducation

  1. Loved this passage. When does your book come out?

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