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Is There a Grant to Study This?
February 26, 2007 - 7:11pm


A student pouted at me in conference today and said she doesn’t care about writing or reading well. She wants a good grade, and to finish her biology degree, and to get a high-paying job in quality control at her favorite meatpacking plant.

It’s a good plan. But as I tried to think of a gentle way to tell this girl in her 14th year of formal education that her grade and her writing run in parallel, I thought of Dr. Ezekiel Slamball, Scientist-in-Residence at the Charnela Institute of Big Sand Lake, Wisconsin, who in the 1980s was accused of anti-intellectualism by academy critics for various writings on the corporate university as a mere training school:

We cannot live by data alone
And cannot yet know what’s yet to be known.

In his collected letters, he writes to a friend, “Education should be a lifelong tendency with mystery as its leaning, not a product with a diploma as bill of sale.”

I’m all for mystery. Learning always teeters between knowing and not-knowing. That adventure is what makes teaching, research, reading, and writing worthwhile.

My mom, a teacher herself and an amateur naturalist, believed firmly in having mysteries in life, which she then explained away. Poltergeists, she said, were real all right—they were manifestations of children’s mental turmoil that came from immature minds trying to make sense of the world.

So, when all the heating grates were pulled out of the floor in our house and left lying next to their holes, and one of our cats had climbed in and lost its way, and the furnace man had to wriggle into the crawlspace under the floors and dismantle the ductwork in order to remove the cat before it got baked, I told her the poltergeist must have done it, because it sure wasn’t me.

And after she put me to bed, sick, with strict orders not to get up while she raked the yard but then saw me through the living room window, walking around drinking Grape Nehi, I let her shake me awake to see why I’d disobeyed before I insisted that I’d never left my bed and reminded her we didn’t even keep soda in the house. “Isn’t there something called a…doppelgänger?” I said.

You see, I’m also a man of science in this, our most recent, age of awakening in America. I had enough hours as an undergrad to minor in physics and have long believed that the inexplicable serves the human mind. My dreams are vivid and frequent these days, which I blame in part on this blog, since everything I scribble in the little leather notebook Mrs. Churm bought me, which I keep in my back pocket at all times, is put under the microscope of Usefulness, and the search for form is constant. It should come as no surprise that the ideas, people, and places I write about here are bubbling up into my dreams—blog commenter Rory and Abe Lincoln gobbling strawberry bars under the Liberty Bell, for instance.

But how to explain that Mrs. Churm, Starbuck, and I dreamed simultaneously, two nights ago, that the deans of all the colleges at Hinterland University came to dinner dressed as burghers from a Rembrandt painting and waited until coffee was served to ask me to apply to the tenure track?

Surely this is no coincidence. Science will one day explain such group phenomena as the result of simple humidity change, or the earth’s molten core looping magnetically into the mantle under our beds. Until then, our lives are as mysterious as poetry.


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