odds and ends

What did I actually learn in School? pt.3 The undergrad years

Wow, this has become a little bit more than I anticipated. Still, it’s good to keep this stuff going while I’m thinking about it. I’m realizing things as I type…


Graduating from high school is still one of the happiest moments of my life. I felt like I was being released from prison. Truth be told, I hadn’t really thought much about what I was going to do in college. I just wanted to do something, something interesting. Somehow high school hadn’t crushed my curiosity or my thirst for knowledge. I was drawn to photography (pardon the pun) and decided on a dual film/photography degree at the last minute. I had been known as the photographer in high school. I was probably the best technician in high school, I had pretensions of expression, but I never really developed my vision enough to do that well. Years later I realized that my photography was really a way for me to try to make sense of what I saw on a really basic level. As in, looking at reality was interesting to me and only seemed to make sense when I made an effort to understand it. Once I figured this out, I was able to pursue this without the camera. Taking pictures, doing things in the darkroom, and cameras are still all fun, but I no longer need them like I once did.

My BFA degree program had over 100 people in it freshman year, 13 of us graduated with the BFA. I’m pretty proud of that. 3/4 of the program was made up of required courses in the photography, film, TV/radio, art history, and art departments. The remaining quarter of credits were left totally open for us. WIthout exception, the courses I got the most out of were the theory classes. The tech classes were fun, but ultimately useless. Most of my technical skills and abilities were made obsolete within 10 or 15 years. The theory classes stuck with me. They taught me how to read images, how first principles shape our expression, and how do deal with things that made you think. I realized about my junior year that these critical insights are far more important than any particular thing that I might “express” in photography. To this day, I feel that an arts education structured around these ideas is a very valuable experience. In this vein, Danny Guthrie was probably the teacher that stood out the most. He wasn’t afraid to engage us in conversations about art, what it meant, what it could mean, and how to integrate it into your life. He is still who I think of when I think of teachers that made a real important contribution to my life. His teaching was more about an approach to life and art than the technical stuff. That has stuck with me and always will.

Equally important, and perhaps what allowed me to learn what I did in my photo/film theory classes was a series of philosophy classes I took. My ratio of fluff to good classes was quite good in college, but some of my philosophy courses were pretty bad. I got a minor in philosophy and religion. At the time, I took a lot of the “applied” philosophy courses like the philosophy of art and the philosophy of lies and self deception. What a waste. I wish that I had taken more of the historical philosophy courses instead. There were three classes that really stood out though, and they were all taught by the same professor. Professor Klee taught both my intro to logic and intro to symbolic logic courses. Wow, those were classes that I could not get enough of. They took me back to the one class in high school that really fired my imagination, Geometry. Studying logic really helps organize your thoughts (duh), and symbolic logic gives you an avenue for expressing arguments that is as clear and concise as possible. My new view blazed in me as only a convert’s faith could. It took years for me to understand the limits of deductive logic. Not coincidently, it took about the same amount of time for me to appreciate my religion classes.

I was an avowed atheist back then, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had socialist leanings, all based on my ever so astute logical approach to the world. Religions were a curiosity, nothing more. I only took classes on Eastern religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen in particular. All of them helped shape how I thought about ethics and were to play an important role in my later religious life.

The third course taught by Professor Klee is probably the class that has had the deepest effect on me. I originally signed up for his “Philosophy of Science” course because I needed another class to get my minor and I liked the other two classes of his that I took. Turns out following a professor is a good way to get good classes. I expected it to be something to get through, it turned out to be a mind blowing experience. The first lecture started with him throwing an eraser across the room. He then demonstrated how that action could be explained using Aristotelian physics, Newtonian physics, and relativistic physics. So which one was right? That was what we essentially spent the rest of the semester on. The essential gist is that none of them are “right,” or at least none of them are any righter than another. We used Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to explain how people get caught in world views but don’t have any monopoly on the truth. That insight has continued to inform me on a whole host of other topics and continues to be the most influential paradigm (ahem) in my life.

I learned plenty of other things in my college life outside of classes of course. My first taste of the internet was back in ’91. Back then, it was all command line based, there was no web, no graphical interface. It was all gopher servers, WAIS and the Internic. Even then I was an infovore, I literally gave myself tendonitis the night I discovered the internet. I had trouble opening my dorm room door that night my hands were aching so badly… That’s a habit I’ve kept ever since. Gotta say, the graphical interface is quite a bit better and more entertaining…

There are too many memories and experiences from college that have shaped me to bring up here. I was pretty burned out by the time I graduated and swore that I’d never go back to school. I went into the real world and worked for a number of years. Eventually, I started taking classes again. I’ll do another post about my further education soon…


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