On Campus

A knife all blade

How do you remain an idealist in the hard, logical world of academia?

I’ve been thinking a lot about idealism lately. I entered university an idealist, believing a more sustainable and equitable world than the one we currently inhabit is achievable. Over the course my my first three weeks here, my idealism has been consistently challenged by my peers, my professors, even my textbooks, and I find myself scrambling to reconcile what I’m learning with my beliefs and goals.

The challenges have arrived mostly in the form of logical arguments regarding why my idealism is unrealistic, so my attempts at reconciliation have been similarly rooted in logic, which is proving to be very difficult. For example, in discussing whether altruism exists or not, it’s very hard to come up with examples of pure altruism to prove that it does exist, since any seemingly altruistic act ultimately makes you feel good about yourself and is therefore in your self-interest. Logic, it seems, is inadequate to prove that altruism exists.

Similarly, in my Global Governance class, we’ve been discussing the idea of a world government which would legislate and enforce laws for the entire world and would therefore be much better than we are now at dealing with global problems like climate change or terrorism. But, for many practical reasons, the idea is considered overly idealistic and unrealistic: another instance of idealism getting bogged down in logic.

Even despite the seemingly overwhelming logic confronting much of my idealism, when I read great thinkers like Oscar Wilde saying that “a map of the world without Utopia is not worth looking at,” I think it might be worth clinging to.

There’s another quote I like that goes: “a mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It cuts the hand that uses it.” I recalled this bit of wisdom from the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore yesterday as I was listening to a monk at a Buddhist temple I was visiting out of interest, and it struck me that perhaps I’ve been overly focused on logic while neglecting intuition. Of course, universities are institutions of logic and reasoning, so my recent trend of over-intellectualizing things is perhaps understandable. At the temple, however, there was much talk of how to live a happy and yes, idealistic life, without logic ever being inferred.

Of course, religions rarely feel impelled to justify their teachings with logic, and yet the teachings certainly manage to resonate with many millions of people. After all, extolling virtues of generosity, peace and love, wisdom, and connectedness to others should hardly need justification, and these are essentially the virtues on which most idealism (most of mine, anyway) is based.

So for now, I think I’ll ignore the dissenting voices of logical pessimism and keep my eyes focused on Wilde’s Utopia, justified (I’m still not totally off logic) with one last quote popularized by the ever-wise Kanye West : “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”