On Etymology and Education, a tedious brief essay

By Aidan Ryan

As part of my duties as a Resident Assistant, I recently found myself hanging up posters emblazoned with the college’s latest attempt at a witty ad: “Keep Cool and Stay in School,” it said, with “Canisius Online Summer Sessions.” I tacked them to the wall, of course, because my job depended on this fidelity to the school and its vision. But I must say that I hold several reservations about this latest campaign, both philosophical and etymological.

As this week’s editorialist astutely points out, one generally does not take online classes “in school,” as the phrase is commonly understood. This is the (only) benefit of online classes: that you can take them from home, in your pajamas, while masturbating and watching ESPN SportsCenter. We must assume, then, that the author of this Canisius.edu post meant “school” in a sense as abstract as it is limited – that by taking online classes, one perpetuates one’s formal education outside of the classroom, in isolation, and is therefore mentally, if not physically, in “school.” If this is the case, then “school,” as these canisius visionaries must conceive of it, must mean nothing more than an attempt at mental self-improvement over roughly 15 weeks, formalized only in that one pays for the opportunity.

I suppose that this is not such a stretch. After all, we must allow the banner’s unnamed author a certain degree of poetic license; specifically, the license to stretch a word’s meaning in the service of a rhyme, or an unsubtle pop culture reference, as seems to be happening here. However, etymology, as is so often the case, here has implications beyond a simple banner ad. We have to consider both denotation and connotation, meanings intended, unintended and scarcely understood.

First, while I applaud any attempt at self-improvement undertaken alone, I think that one would be silly to pay for it. Siddhartha didn’t pay to sit under the bodhi tree; nor did Eve buy a five-cent apple from the Devil’s fruit stand. Unfortunately, I feel that I do have to remind everyone that the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library still exists. And for those whose local branch has closed (as has too often been the case), and who avoid the downtown branch because of its dual function as an unofficial homeless shelter and Buffalo PCP Club meeting place, an internet connection can tide you over for a few years of study: Project Gutenberg offers free e-book version of most of the great texts of history, Open Culture catalogues free video courses and lectures from Ivy League professors and Arts & Letters Daily will keep you abreast of the latest articles, books and essays of note.

With these vast cultural resources at our fingertips, why aren’t we balking at a 3.9% tuition increase? If we can watch Lawrence Lessig and Jorge Luis Borges online, why do we show up to class here at Canisius? If knowledge is free, then what are we paying for?

Well. First off, I do not subscribe to the definition of “school” presented on the homepage of Canisius.edu (the first point of contact, I might add, that many prospective students will have with our insitution). I would not consider trolling Gutenberg.org to be going to “school” any more than I would consider spending my summer “Keeping Cool” in a Canisius online course to be a productive use of my short time on this Earth. “School” is not merely an attempt at self-improvement; nor is it a Neo-Classical gold-domed academic building.

I had the opportunity, through the Honors college and through the generous donations of Honors alumni, to visit Italy over spring break, and on that visit I was lucky enough to bask for a while in the Stanze di Raffaelo, or “Raphael’s Rooms” in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Of the many frescoes on these walls and ceilings, the most striking, by far, was Raphael’s “Scuola di Atene,” the School of Athens, featuring all the characters you met in PHI 101: Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Pythagoras. No “school” is depicted, in any concrete, or marble, sense of the word. There are a few arches, a tiled floor. But this is not the school to which Raphael refers.

Instead, we mean something closer to a school of fish, in that the “school” is the collection of individuals, not the building in which they meet. The “school” can convene in the library or the quad, where the late Tom Joyce held court with his students and friends. The school could meet in a classroom in Old Main, of course, but it could just as easily meet at three in the morning, at Founding Father’s, over a basket of free nachos and popcorn.

A school is any collection of individuals dedicated to the pursuit of some higher ideal – aesthetic, political, scholarly – and bound together both by a love of the pursuit and a love of each other: a genuine desire not only for self-improvement, but for the success, stimulation, and amelioration of the other members. Members of a “school” don’t have to go to class, but they often do, generally because the classroom provides an easy atmosphere for free and flowing interaction between the young lions and the old graybacks, the uninhibited exchange of accumulated knowledge and fresh insight. This is why I can say, with confidence, that Canisius is a great school. The professors care about the students, the students care about the professors, and all are bound together in a mutual love of all things academic and aesthetic. The key is the personal exchange; the real benefit of a Canisius education lies in the face-to-face.

So, despite the website’s encouragement to “Stay in School” by taking online courses, I urge my fellow students to forgo this frivolity, reject this sterile, faceless form of education and, in short, to save their money. It would be better spent on a brew or two at your local watering hole, with friends, to lubricate a discussion of whatsoever has most recently captured your imagination. Perhaps I’ll meet you there.


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