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Juan Gris: Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1912)

"Higher education, lower expectation."

The pace of classes at university fascinated me. Assignments came without regard to the size of my plate or any preexisting condition. The fact that some other class featured unrealistic expectations in no way inhibited every other class from having them too. These conflicts could not be resolved. Such was the paradox of higher education. One was chided to become a good student, but not even the best student was really expected to complete every assignment, to read every chapter, to ace every exam. Those who excelled were like The Muse, who was born with the ability to pass any test, even if she'd not studied, because she understands how to ace tests, I guess. I was not so blessed.

My university days were filled with guilt over all I could not complete.
I often thought that some subject I was studying might well be worth coming back to sometime in the future, when I could do more than quickly scan material for key phrases such that I might appear to understand it on the final exam and thereby lose any expectation that I might one day actually learn the subject. Classes were basically introductions without the notion that anyone might learn how to do something. We were learning about, not learning how. Higher education, I learned if I learned anything, focused upon skimming cream off the top without overly concerning itself about how anything functions. Functioning was obviously not a management responsibility.

Out here in what passes for the real world, I've grown to appreciate the skills training I received at university. The primary skill, the one everyone came to master, was what I might call Interruptus, the fine art of functioning within a context of continual interruption. Nary a thought begins out here but what some distraction appears. Those unconditioned by a university education might lose the threads of all the elements they're simultaneously juggling, but not us university fellows. We've got those skills, if no others. We might not have acquired a single other functional skill, but we did somehow come to master this one. We learned how to manage interruptions well. Our survival depended upon this.

And a moment's thought reveals the absolute wisdom of this focus. I remember asking my advisor when I was about a year out from earning my degree just how long he though what we were learning might still seem relevant. He sagely predicted a short shelf life for the content, but added that perhaps the real purpose of the whole exercise might not be the content, but something else, like learning how we learn or coming to grasp how to function when imbedded within near constant disruption. This lesson has served me well. I might not remember how to create a capital asset pricing model, but I certainly do interruptions well. I only rarely permanently lose any thread. I can maintain scores of whatever I'm juggling in the air at any time, including the oddest combinations like an elephant and a hatpin.

I mention this under-appreciated skill because I've been noticing as I'm Reconning that my focus keeps jumping from place to place to place. Perhaps Puritans once cleaned their plates before moving on to the next course, but we moderns do not. We frequent buffet lines. We might be painting the side of The Villa, for instance, then get waylaid by a little winter weather. so we go on to something out of strict sequence. Starting that alternative, small opportunities appear allowing us to page back in to the original interrupted effort and soon, we've somehow started a third, just to fill in a few gaps between our two primary foci. This is the life I lead, ad infinitum, Amen. Just like at University, I start more than I ever finish. I cannot focus on any thing to the exclusion of any other and I swear that every completion seems more like a rumor than an actual experience. Whatever I'm doing, there's always something else harassing. Higher education, lower expectation.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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