Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

I Love the University

I went to visit a friend today at MIT. The past few days I’d been reading more stuff from academia and just that morning I was reading responses to my old posts at Stanford, so academia’s siren song had been on my mind. But getting off the subway at MIT, with me full of energy after a morning jog, the sun shining brightly down, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something, seeing smiles on the faces of the young geniuses who were everywhere around me.

Perhaps it’s natural, when doing something so greedy and practical as a startup, to pine for the idealized world of academia. Its image as a place in an idyllic location filled with smart people has always been attractive; even more so with the sense that by being there one can get smarter simply through osmosis. People describe a place of continual geekiness, of throwing chemicals into the river and building robots in free time. A magical place for hackers to just enjoy themselves.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my work; it’s just that I feel like I’m getting dumber doing it. Or, at least, that I’m not getting as smart as I should.

This academaphilia isn’t new. It’s clearly what drove magazines like Lingua Franca and makes saying obscure names and words so impressive. But for some reason it feels stronger now. I’ve started downloading class syllabuses off the Web and doing the reading assignments at night; I’ve started thinking about how to sneak into courses and hang out with academics. In Cambridge, this paradise seems so close, so acessible.

And yet, it’s hardly paradise at all. When I was actually there I was turned off by the conformism, the lack of interest in real work, the politics, the pointless assignments. My lunch date is a grad student and he tells me of the internecine squabbles, the overspecialization, the abandonment, the insecurity.

I go back to the W3C’s offices and stand at the balcony. Down below, Tim Berners-Lee discusses details of a project with a group of kids who presumably took this on as summer job. I was once one of those kids, working there, and I think about why I left and why I miss it. I marvel at the pointlessness, the impracticality, the waste.

The sky is overcast now, the crowds of students have thinned out, and those that remain scurry from place to place with their heads down. I’m tired now, I feel sadder, and I wonder how I lost so much so quickly.

I want to feel nostalgic, I want to feel like there’s this place, just a couple subway stops away, where everything will be alright. A better place, a place I should be in, a place I can go back to. But even just visiting it, the facts are plain. It doesn’t exist, it never has. I’m nostalgic for a place that never existed.

You should follow me on twitter here.

July 26, 2006


I’m nostalgic for a place that never existed.

Me too.

I looked forward to college for most of my pre-college years as a place where I would be around a bunch of other people who really wanted to learn new things.

In the end I had built up the idea so well, that I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the reality of the institution I ended up at.

Oh well :-\

posted by Daniel J. Luke on July 26, 2006 #

I think you find yourself doing reading assignments at night simply because you can, and not because you have to.

Discovering things on your own, without being pushed into it, is so much nicer. You’ve got there yourself, and there’s a certain sweetness to it.

I wonder how many get bored when made to read the standard books issued in high school, only to return to them years later and really enjoy them, simply because no-one’s making them read one chapter a night?

posted by Chris Poole on July 26, 2006 #

If you take my advice… Don’t waste your best years in doing something so trivial, so yet-another-thing, so doable! Once you step out of school, you virtually spiral in to life long servitude or continuous struggle for survival of enterprise. And trust me, this servitude and war quickly becomes adictive and unescapable before you know it. Listen to Guy kawasaki (http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/01/hindsights.html). I only wish he gave this lecture when I stepped out of school!

posted by Shital Shah on July 27, 2006 #

Totally interesting … especially like the word “academaphilia” :) I know what you mean … but my college days were lonley, not like yours … something to do with difference between a ivey league and a mass production university like UCLA. I got my nostalgia for a place that never existed from reading Magister Ludi. … ever think of helping to create it yourself?

posted by Seth Russell on July 27, 2006 #

“Pointlessness, impracticality, waste”, those words are the opposite of MIT. “Immaturity, innocence, naivety” perhaps describe those kids better. About 20 years ago, Playboy named MIT one of the top 25 party schools in the nation. In late July, you don’t see many parties and drunken MIT students.

In any case, the essence of an university is to foster the exchange of ideas, especially imaginative new ideas. When you have a family to feed, you don’t have time to imagine.

posted by the MIT guy on July 27, 2006 #

I have felt just the same. Thanks for writing this.

posted by Ethan Herdrick on July 28, 2006 #

University (academia) does exist (and always has). It’s just moved up to (real) “postgraduate” degrees.

University (or college as I think Americans call it) is now just “Tertiary School.”

Long live real academia!

Cheers, Ashley.

posted by Ashley Aitken on August 23, 2006 #

My preferred definition of nostalgia for a long time has been Fernando Savater’s: “Nostalgia is to search oneself where one is no more: and to be painfully surprised of such absence.” Yours is a slightly different kind, the particular instance of which (academ-algia) I deeply share, it’s searching oneself somewhere that never existed: and being painfully surprised of such absence.

Personally, my favorite scholarly mirage is Tarnover, the government school for gifted youngsters described in John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider.

posted by elzr on August 30, 2006 #

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