The impossible nature of originality
Does university education stifle individual thought?
As the end of Lent Term approaches, I’m sure we all feel like we’re losing our minds in some sense. However, I feel I’m losing my mind in more ways than one. Not only is my sanity slowly seeping away after almost 8 weeks of, well, Cambridge – but so is my ability to think beyond what I'm reading, and I’ve started to see the ways in which an arts degree is just as restricting as it is varied and liberal.
Of course, at universities everywhere, students study in order to gain a broader perception of what is out there in the world: what has been previously discovered, what is currently being chipped away at, and what is likely to be discovered in our lifetime. And whilst this is essential, fascinating, and a sustainable way of learning, it’s starting to feel sort of like a directionless pursuit of knowledge for the sake of… well, knowledge.
Here’s my problem: every time I’ve thought of almost anything without the influence of an external source – the very point I’ve stumbled across comes up in a lecture the very next day. Or, when I’ve written something I think to be authentic in an essay, it might get the odd tick but it’s never recognised as anything more than essay 'meat' (for want of a more poetic phrase). The part of me that isn’t in desperate need of evidence that I have an intellect, can see that, naturally, someone has indeed already thought of it. There have been decades, and in some cases centuries, for anything to be discovered about these texts we’re studying.
That’s just the thing; as a student, there is a certain degree to which I think we all experience the ache of realising that in the years we spend here, we probably won’t come up with anything important. If we do, what’s to stop some student of the late 3000s thinking the exact same thing only to find, as we have, that even if you think of something really quirky, it’s not your idea unless the other people who thought of it before you didn’t bother to write it down?
How can we ever make any important claims or discoveries or points until we already know what’s out there and what to avoid? Until scientists are up to date with what’s being developed in their field, there’s no way they can have anything to build upon to make their own breakthroughs. Similarly, in the arts, until we have a broad and detailed overview of literature and the criticisms of it, and we are entirely informed of the general consensus, we can’t know which of our ideas are truly ours and which are reformulations of our predecessors'. Familiarising ourselves with these works to such an extent feels as if we're making it nigh-on impossible to even begin to have individual thoughts. We are liable to falling into certain ways of thinking that are just too tempting to follow.
All of this is rather demoralising, but it needn’t be. I’ve come to realise, admittedly after some moping, that we’re here to be empowered, to be given the tools to grow into free thinkers. It is the methods we are developing and applying to these scrupulously studied texts that will make us into great readers of literature. Yes, this process of adoption and application takes time and requires us to use a wealth of works from those who have gone before us. However, by going through this process, we are refining our voices as critics and producers of literature rather than losing them, as it can sometimes seem. People studying the same texts are going to come up with the same or at least similar ideas, and that’s ok. The more of us who use them to practise exercising the breadth of our thought, the more of us there will eventually be to write more material. I’m realising that with experience and with exposure come the greatest of endeavours in thought.
What I will say is this: let’s keep emphasising the vitality of individualism. Let’s keep empowering students with the knowledge that their unique circumstance gives them an enviable ability to think about even the most thoroughly studied texts in a way nobody else ever could. Let’s remind ourselves that even though institutions like this one seem to steer us in prescriptive directions and don't encourage us explicitly to take the wheel ourselves, we can and must acknowledge what we’re learning about the power of opinion. Let’s have conviction in what we think, however instinctive or however calculated, and in doing so, let’s not let our inherent originality suffer when there’s no reason for it to do so.