Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Part I: Who I am, why education matters, and - most importantly - why I am an advocate for student loan debtors . . .

[Note: If you have not donated yet to the "Enough is Enough" campaign, please chip in $5-$10 today! I have sent off my forms to create a bank account for Education Matters. Once that is in place, I will be filling out the forms to turn us into a 501(c)(4)].  

 I care deeply about higher education and believe all Americans have a right to access various institutions that are dedicated to teaching them how to think critically about the world around them. I have spent most of my adult life in the realm of academia, and have a deep love for knowledge - history, literature, and philosophy are the three categories that matter the most to me.

My first step toward entering the world of higher education began in a humble way. Like many fellow Americans, I began pursuing my first degree at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. I hated high school. In fact I despised it and was intent on graduating early. That's exactly what I did. Also, I longed to be in college, so I got out of high school a semester early and began taking courses at JCCC (or " the J-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C!," as my friend used to jokingly call it).

Although I did quite well in most of my first college classes, this first step was not easy. I will, however, never forget one particular English teacher who was hard on me. But thanks to him, my writing improved dramatically. After that brief time at JCCC, I entered college at the University of Kansas. Like most state schools, KU is very large. It is easy as a freshman to get lost there. One thing is certain: if you wish to obtain a good education at a place like KU, you are responsible for finding it on your own, and that is what I did. Of course I can't take all the credit. I had a lovely best friend at the time (she was pursuing a degree in Latin American Studies) who helped guide me through the seemingly labyrinthine schedules and actual physical campus. In addition, my older sibling introduced me to a professor of intellectual history (he's really a philosopher if you ask me, but I digress). What matters about this particular professor is that he would change the course of my life forever, and not just in a professional way. He would affect it in the best of possible ways, which would entail a long-term relationship that to this day I still treasure more than anything else.

On the intellectual side of things, this professor changed my outlook on how I thought about ethics, about those who lived before me (centuries and centuries ago), and why those previous lives matter to the way in which we conduct ourselves today. Even more important, this professor taught me how to truly read. He taught me why you must return to books over and over and over again. He taught me the value of digesting texts slowly and also about the importance of rejecting God. Just who was this professor? He was a man who came from old money from the East Coast. At the tender age of 16, he was already taking classes at Harvard (more on that later). But to him, the University of Chicago was the real deal.

Shortly after working with this professor for years, I left for Munich, Germany. My education continued on my own and in another language. It was there that I studied German, and it was intense - 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. It was a total immersion program. Moreover, it wasn't just an immersion into that language, but into an entire world or worlds for that matter. With a degree in history, I had a deep appreciation for all the things I was able to see and do in Europe. It was yet another level of education that has formed my intellectual and personal identity. Although I had valued politics, and especially works by Noam Chomsky and Marx, at that juncture I had deviated from the moral lessons that these thinkers had inspired in me a few years prior to departing for Germany. At this point, I was intent on deepening my love and understanding of the Ancient World and that of the High Middle Ages. As an atheist at this time, I was determined to try and appreciate the Ancients in a way that was devoid of Christian interpretations of them. I realize that sounds quite highfalutin and silly, but I was young and still quite naive about these things. Nevertheless, the opportunity to study and live in Germany proved to be indispensable to my learning and intellectual growth. At this time, several critical and life changing things happened: I became engaged, and I was accepted into several top notch programs in the United States. One such school was the University of Chicago

Oh, yes, the University of Chicago: "where fun comes to die." No kidding. That year proved to be enormously hard. Throughout that entire year in a grueling quarter system I proclaimed on countless occasions that I would never pursue another degree. (I was accepted into their master's program in the Social Sciences with a small scholarship, but I had applied to their Ph.D. program in History). But it was during this time that I learned to appreciate an academic community. Although I thought I was absolutely miserable, I have since realized that I was learning to think more critically about texts and researching things about the past. By extension, this allowed me to consider how to think thoughtfully about the actual world around me. After writing a master's thesis on laughter and carnival in the late Middle Ages, I finally graduated on a chilly June day. It was then, while gazing at the freshly minted Ph.D. students, in their cap and gowns, that I decided I wanted to continue with more formal education. Shortly after graduating, I returned to Kansas and got married. God was still dead, and yet my childhood pastor agreed to marry me anyway. God Bless that man . . .

During this time I worked as a waitress at a French Bistro, in a Title Company (that was around the time of the mortgage boom, and I remember thinking that the number of people refinancing their homes was frightening), and also at a library. So you see, I couldn't get away from academia. That is when I enrolled at KU again - as a non-degree seeking undergraduate - and took more language classes. This time it was Italian. (I also studied Spanish at KU when I was done with my language requirement, which was, naturally, German). I needed to get back into school again, and this time I was determined to obtain a Ph.D. God was still dead.

So I applied to more schools all over again, and also went on an amazing whirlwind tour of all the Ivy League Schools, or at least the big ones. It was a good excuse for a fun vacation, and fun it was . . .
At the same time I put together an academic paper that was accepted at a conference in Athens, Greece. God was still dead upon my arrival at the Acropolis.

Shortly after I delivered my paper in Greece, the History Department at Brown University accepted me as a Ph.D. candidate. That's how I ended up living on rat-infested Europe Street in Providence, RI. This street was nothing like its name. That first year as a Ph.D. student was miserable. It wasn't the work that made it hard (like U. of Chicago), but rather the living environment. I also experienced major culture shock in New England. Seriously, I couldn't believe at times that it was part of the U.S. For the first year I was embittered by my surroundings, and despised that city. The schooling? It was great, but the town, in my view, was a dump. I'd written it off, and God was still dead.

After one year at Brown I obtained my second master's degree. At the same time, I also received a decent grant from the American Historical Association. Things were going pretty well at this point. I was heading to Harvard University that coming fall to be an exchange scholar. There I would end up working with a highly reputable historian in the field of German Intellectual History. This second year at Harvard and then at Brown were critical, too. They made me realize what I really cared about: teaching. Sure, the research was great, and I still love that aspect of my life as an advocate for student debtors (after all, I was trained to be a researcher). However, teaching college-aged students was an honor and a privilege, and that made me begin to question my pursuit of a Ph.D. God was still dead, but teaching enlivened my spirits.

There was also another event during the second summer at Brown that would change the course of my life forever, and thankfully that is when God reintroduced himself to me. Besides, I was beginning to reconsider this whole idea that he was dead. At the same time, I was preparing to take my field examinations to become a dissertator, and was working on a fantastic and interesting project related to a 19th-century German magazine vis-a-vis humor and laughter (those were my themes - laughter and humor - in grad school, and to this day I think I should have just tried to become a stand-up comedienne or something, but I digress again). I had already written my dissertation prospectus, too - I was, of course, working on humor under the Nazis, and had already established faculty members who would be on my dissertation board (that included the professor from Harvard). So things were looking up, and that is when personal tragedy always hits. Indeed, it did, and I lost someone very close to me. This death made me reevaluate the trajectory of my career in academia. That is when I decided to take a leave of absence and headed to a world far removed from the Ivy Tower ("toodle-doo, Brown" I cried) - I went to work in the world of retail, and I don't regret doing that for one second. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was at this time that I fell in love with New England and became a catechumen in a small Franciscan parish in Providence, RI. That is where I found home, humility, and hope. And it is where I desperately wish to return. But that remains to be seen, as I write this thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away from New England. I was also reintroduced to themes I'd been interested in as an undergraduate. The most important one being social justice. The Franciscans at this parish are open to all. When they say: "all are welcome," they mean it. They made reconnect to a humble dignity that I continually try to grasp onto . . . some days it seems beyond my reach, but I am human.

So God was no longer dead, and I realized some important things about poverty and those whose voices are ignored. But my passion to become a Doctor of Philosophy had withered . . .


gail said...

Bravo Cryn! That was very informative and enlightening. I am also envious. I would love to have even half the education you have, but I admit to many poor decisions in my life. Live and learn as they say! I do however have 2 children and 3 gorgeous grandchildren, so all has not been a total loss. I continue to read constantly and presently dedicate my time to the same cause as you; working towards affordable higher education for all, and I thank you for allowing me to assist you in this worthy cause.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous for now.

Hi Cryn:

Have you ever read "Brideshead Revisited"? Such a sort of wistfulness.

The whole Franciscan theme you relate reminds me of the novel towards the end.

BR is a very elegant, and beautifully crafted book. Evelyn Waugh.
I'm not sure actually though, if Sebastian ended up with the Franciscan order. I'll have to re-read as you say. But I remember he was in some sort of a Catholic Monastary.

I would like to send you newly minted photos of home. My corner of it anyway. A way to stave off homesickness, which always ends up in good health at home. Happily ever after. Take it from an old timer.

I'll send them to your e-mail. You can share them if you like.

I also sent an e-mail letter to Glenn Beck tonight.
I told him that as much as I am in the camp of the Republicans, I will vote Democrat because the Democrats are at least making a few feeble efforts towards the Student Loan Lifetime Debt issue.

I can send a copy of the letter.

In fact, I will cc everybody in existence.
What better time than election time?
Win or lose.

Politics, after all, is the art of the practical.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous Sept 7 - I have read BR at least half a dozen times, and I've seen the original TV series with Jeremy Irons that many times, too. Please vote Democrat for this matter. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

There is a nice audio tape version of BR (unabridged) with Jeremy Irons reading.
I always feel that it is such a treat to listen to a professional actor read a novel.

I also loved Jeremy Irons in the movie: "The Mission" based on a Robert Bolt novel.

Well, here is the letter. Sent Last night. The subject being "Student Loan Forgiveness"

Glenn Beck's got my name too, but I left it off for the purposes of this post. For now. I would highlight it in a different color, but don't know how.

Dear Glenn:

I am struggling with a hard choice. Please realize that I am totally in your camp. But there is one issue that will forever keep me from voting Republican this November.

That is the issue of Student Loan Debt.

I won't bother to describe the situation, since I am sure you are well aware of what is going on.

If the Conservatives and/or Republicans could promise a serious and practical resolution to the "Education Bubble", and the end to the hopelessness of a lifetime Student Loan Debt that was brought about by compounded interest over the last decade or so, (regardless of the job market.)

Until then I, along with many other Educated Debtors will vote for the Democtratic Party, since they seem to be the only Party doing anything, however little, about it.

I hate to tell you this. But that is the way I feel.

I love you all the same.
God Bless America. Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to all men and women.

Anonymous said...

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