Sunday, July 10, 2005

Shut Up, Brain, I'm Busy

Education can be a bad thing.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a self-indulgent ‘Oh, it’s so hard to be smart’ thing. Those of you who read this regularly will know that, despite my IQ and qualifications, I am capable of acts of such incredible stupidity the I could fill a whole season of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ if you just videotaped my morning.

I once even told my wife that her dress made her look fat.

In fact, I’m not talking about intelligence here, I’m talking about being well educated.

Yes, there is a major difference between the two.

It is possible to be strikingly intelligent with no education whatsoever, and anyone who’s ever seen a documentary about some private schools will know, it’s possible to be very well educated, while being as thick as a submarine door.

For example, I believe that most student examinations test nothing but memory.

You may have the sharpest, quickest intellect in the world, but if you have no memory, at school, you’re screwed.

For example, at university, I got low marks on lots of essays, because I didn’t include a bibliography. Why no bibliography, you ask? Because I stupidly assumed that my tutors wanted an essay on what I actually knew, not just an introduction, followed by a hundred quotes from textbooks, followed by a conclusion that just said “I agree.”

University became an exercise in learning and understanding things…then spending hours in the library, trying to find the guy who said it first, so I could quote him. If you understand the concept, or know the fact, essay writing becomes an exercise in ‘Hunt the Author’. I know that vampire’s teeth have phallic connotations, but if I can’t find anyone who thought of it, wrote it down and published it, I can’t include it in my essay on “The Mythology and Social Relevance of the Vampire Genre.” Because if I do, my tutor WILL know who said it first, then I get a fail for plagiarism and passing off other’s ideas as my own.

A flash of inspiration is followed by two weeks research, just in case some other bastard had the same flash, wrote it down, and published it.

I said that exams only test memory. Just because you know the answer to a question (thereby passing the education system’s requirements), doesn’t mean you actually understand it.

For example, I know that ‘When a magnetic field passes through a strip of conductive material, a potential difference is set up across its ends.”

Great, concise and to the point, and explains the theory exactly. I put this in a final physics exam, passed and got an ‘A’.

Unfortunately, I have no clue what the hell that means. I think it has something to do with electricity, or maybe magnetism...maybe both!

However, I didn’t understand a word of it, but memorizing the textbooks got me an ‘A’ in science.

Now that I’ve pissed all over the education system, I’ll return to my point. Why can being educated be a bad thing?

Well, my biggest problem was that I foolishly chose to study things I actually enjoy. Books, movies and any kind of story telling.

Let’s take a flashback to a late-teens Paulius, sitting in an English class. This semester it was Film Studies.

“You know, I hate this class.” Paulius said to his tutor.

“Why?” Replied the Tutor.

“I used to be able to sit back and just watch a movie and enjoy it. Now I’ve had three years spent studying them, I have to actually think about them. I automatically start critiquing, looking for relevance and metaphor. It’s become a habit that I can’t break. I can’t just sit back, munch my popcorn, suspend disbelief and enjoy it. I can’t watch a movie know without actively thinking and analyzing it!”

“Good.” Replied the tutor.

This is why I now tend to enjoy the ‘Special Features’ on the DVD more than the actual movie.

There are two main problems with this. The first, and most acute, is that it drives the wife absolutely nuts. I mean, it drives her mental. She sees a good movie. I ruin it by tearing it to shreds.

Again, picture the scene. Paulius and Sunny are driving home from seeing Star Wars: Episode III.

Sunny makes the fatal mistake of asking me what I think.

“It was good.” Said Paulius, who should have stopped there. “…considering Lucas had to shoehorn 3 movies worth of narrative into a single episode. Did you not think that the way the Emperor destroyed a young family showed his evilness a lot more effectively than him destroying a planet? You could relate to it more. Like how focusing on one small group of people, rather than the whole army, gave you a better sense of the sacrifices of war in “Saving Private Ryan”

“Uh.” Said Sunny.

“Did you know that George Lucas uses a lot of mythical archetypes in his movies? You have the classical characters, the young, simple hero, the experienced warrior, the mysterious wizard, the princess. He follows Strauss’ model of narrative theory.”

“Er.” Said Sunny.

“He also uses a lot of contextual and deeply symbolic cues, to subconsciously give the viewer more insight into the narrative and characters, done in such a way that you don’t actually realize it, but it speaks directly to your psyche. For example, the juxtaposition of Anakin’s Bright blue lightsaber, indicating goodness and purity, against his dark clothes and looks. Did you notice he was the only Jedi to wear a lot of black? Showing that he has a hidden evil within him?”

“Umm.” Said Sunny.

“Following that line of thought, did you notice the Jedi always wear their hoods down (apart from the bit in Episode II on Kamino, when it was raining), which indicates openness and honesty, whereas the Sith always have their hoods up or faces partially hidden, signifying dishonesty, shadow and being hidden?”

“Shut the f**k up.” Said Sunny.

“Not to mention the lightsaber itself is very visible, non-concealable weapon signifying…” THUNK.

“I said shut it.” Said Sunny.

“Ouch.” Said Paulius.

You see, what I should have said was: “It was good! Did you see all those Wookies? ‘ROOOAAAAAARRRORRR!! And that fight scene! Wow. I like the bit where that guy fought that other guy and got his legs chopped off!”

Education causes bodily injury.

If you follow this logically, my reasoning is simple. Put in its simplest form, your significant other will beat you about the head with a two by four, just to shut you up.

I said there were two main problems with education. The second is this:

I no longer have any tolerance for anything but excellent writing when it comes to books..

In fact, that’s a little too lenient. I have no tolerance for anything less than almost genius level work.

I don’t mean that a book has to be as intellectually high-brow as Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ for me to read it. (I have actually read ‘A Brief History of Time. The 8% of the book I actually understood was very interesting) I just mean that for me to read a book, it has to have been written spectacularly well.

In my pre-Uni days, I had billions of books. If it was printed on a page, I would read it, and probably enjoy it. Who cared if it was just a cheap rip-off of another book? Who cared if it was as formulaic as a recipe? Who cared if the characters were one dimensional stereotypes?

I didn’t.

But I do now.

In fact, there’s only a handful of authors I will actually read. In fact, scratch that, there are only a few authors I actually CAN read.

Terry Pratchett is my current favourite. To reiterate my point, his books aren’t high-brow at all, they’re pure entertainment. It’s just he manages to say in a single sentence what other authors take 10 pages to put across. I mean, his work is so excellent, you get that magic experience where the book, words and pages melt away, and you actually ‘see’ the story. You get totally swept away. He’ll describe a scene, and you can actually see it. Even the characters, which include werewolves, wizards and a beggar with a smell so foul it has its own form and personality, are so real, you hardly believe that they’re fiction.

I have an acid test for books. I simply turn to a page somewhere in the middle, and read the first paragraph I see. The book has exactly that amount of text to hook me. If it doesn’t, it goes back on the shelf.

This may sound stupid, but a book has never passed that test that I didn’t like. Every book that has failed that test, that I read anyway, normally makes it to about half way in, before I just can’t force myself to read any more of it.

It makes me feel like I’m missing out. It’s the same experience as watching a cartoon you loved as a kid, or playing a computer game that you used to play on your original Nintendo…and you’re horrified to discover that it isn’t half as much fun, or nearly as good as you remember it being. You’ve replaced a cherished childhood memory with “I can’t believe I used to love this crap.”

(The Magic Faraway Tree, however, is great childhood book no matter how many times you read it, or what age you are).

That’s what a lot of books are like for me. Even ones I haven’t read. I know that 10 years ago I would have loved it, but now?

My wife is currently reading a book titled ‘Eragon’, exactly the type of book I used to read in a single sitting, and read over and over again until it was so worn out it fell to pieces.

I tried to read ‘Eragon’, and despite the fact that story seemed good, I couldn’t continue.

The reason? It was too derivative of every other Fantasy book out there, and all the characters seemed to be carbon copies of every other fantasy character ever created. It seemed good, but there was nothing new.

A good book lets you see past the words, directly into the heart of the story.

An education MAKES you look past the story, and into the mechanics of the tale. The most magical thing seems mundane when you know exactly how it works. You don’t see people, you see constructed characters, you see the plot points, you see where the author struggled, you see where he got lazy and carbon copied an existing character.

You feel like “This is a good story, I know it’s a good story…but in the end, it’s just a slightly poorer copy of another book.” Or. “Sigh, let me guess, his friend is going to be working for the bad guy, this bad guy will have a change of heart and this chick is definitely going to get kidnapped. Yawn.”

It’s like me creating a TV show called “Doin’ it in the Metropolis” Featuring 4 world weary women, looking for men, featuring a slutty character, an over-thinker, a naïve, doe eyed optimist and a woman who writes about ‘Doin’ it in the Metropolis’ for a popular magazine.

It could be an excellent show in its own right, but you already know the characters, the setting and what’s going to happen. If you ever watched the ‘other’ show, you’re not going to like it.

In other words. It sucks.

The best way I can express this is that it’s like watching the world’s best magic show, but you know exactly how all the tricks are done. You know what you’re seeing is good, but the actual wonder and entertainment has been sucked out. Where everyone else in the audience is seeing a man fly…all you see is a man being hoisted around the stage on a Kevlar thread by three guys behind the scenery.


Miz S said...

Okay- heres an idea...........take a DEEP fact- take SEVERAL deep breaths and RELAX.

So Jaded to be so young...You gotta enjoy life more and ...



Invisible Lizard said...

This is interesting to me, because education has afforded me a greater appreciation of good writing as well, but I think, for me, I can also enjoy moderate writing as long as it has a fascinating story to go with it. Not to digress, but I've actually given a lot of thought to the difference between good writing and good story telling, how some authors can do one over the other, but few can do both, and many can do neither.

But back to your post... I've never read Terry Prachett. I am curious: who else do you enjoy reading as much that you would also consider to be at the excellent/near-genius level of writing?

SL said...

I'm with you, Paulius. I feel the same way about books. Not so much films - I do lose myself in them, sod reality.

Books, however, I do disect and it does make me angry. Can't say I've got to the point you have though. I feel you may be missing out on a lot of good escapism.

For example, I could open up any of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, read a paragraph and immediately put the book back. But having read them all, there isn't a better series of its kind in existence.

Try it - open The Gunslinger to any page, read a para. You'll put it back. Read the book. It's great.

Just a thought, my friend, just a thought.

MC Etcher said...

I have the same acid test you do for books, glad to know I'm not the only one.

I know what you mean about films-

It's hard for me to play video games now, without all the flaws glaring at me, and spoiling the game. They've got to be very well done for me to get into them.

Paulius said...

Sunny, I'll remember that remark the next time you throw a vase at the wall because there's no chocolate left in the house.

Invisible Lizard, Other than Pratchett, there's very few authors I consider genius level. Phillip K. Dick, Stephen King (If he wasn't so 'wordy'), I'd go on, but my mind's gone blank

Serial Loser, I've read some of the "Dark Tower" series. I wouldn't say it's the best series ever...but excellent non the less.

As for escapism, I do read some "less than excellent' books. Anthing by Clive Cussler is good...if only for the wooden dialogue, and total unbeleiveability (Chopping the tail off a lear jet with your helicopter blades, then crashing 500 feet into 6 feet of water and walking away).

MC Etcher - While I have no where near your expertise in video games, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Take 'Advent Rising' for instance. An excellent game ruined by frame rate issues, and a very finicky targetting system. Or 'Gothic', an excellent, deep RPG, which keeps you at arms length and ruins an otherwise immersive experience with a crappy control system.

Miz S said...

EXCUUUUUUUUUUSE ME, but there is NO way you can compare not having CHOCOLATE in the house to ANYTHING else!!

I have never thrown a vase because there was no chocolate in the house, thank you VERY much....
It was because I was PMSing AND there was no chocolate in the house AND I was two days from payday so I could BUY some chocolate for the house!

It's not that I CRAVE chocolate that much- I just need to be able to SEE the chocolate and KNOW it's there IF I need it!

Yeah.....that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever tried reading Tom Holt - I put him close to Terry Pratchitt but he takes today's every day world and not only turns it on it's head but includes a 320 degree turn with a semi priorett, with inverse angle's thrown in for good measure.