You wanna know what burns my bagels?

It’s hearing someone mention a controversial event they didn’t know about, and then say in self-righteous indignation: “Why didn’t they teach me that in school?” This is a popular post on Facebook, almost as popular as fetal sonograms, unfocused photos of family reunions, and useless crap that can be yours if you pick it up.

Well, if you wanna know why they didn’t teach you something, I’ll tell ya.

First, class material is limited by the syllabus and the course books. So maybe is wasn’t taught because it wasn’t in the syllabus (which is often mandated by the school or the state).

Second, it may have been taught, and you may have even learned it. But after six months, unless constantly reviewed, sophisticated information is as lost as the crew of the Mary Celeste.

Third, it could’ve been taught in your class, but you were otherwise gainfully occupied, surreptitiously reading a comic book or carving your name in the desk (or if of the recent generation, texting your pal in the desk next to you).

The sad truth is the only education is self-education. So if you don’t know something, it’s probably because you’ve been too busy watching reality shows and sports or making love to your iPhone to have studied much of anything.

Besides, the purpose of schools isn’t to teach you everything about everything — or even a lot about a lot. Instead, it’s to give you enough literacy and critical thinking skills to learn on your own. How could it be anything else, since you’ll spend at least 60 years more out of school than you ever spent in it?

The best example of the value of self-education vs. the silliness of academic formality is my pal Russ Shefrin’s odyssey into graduate school.

From calculations … to the couch

As a child, Russ was an odd duckling. While the rest of us wanted to be spacemen or women, jungle explorers, cowboys, lion tamers, mind readers, pirates and the rest, he had only one ambition: Russ wanted to be a chemist.

He was, you might say, a Lavoisier du manque from the get-go and he pursued that vision with a single-mindedness that’d put a Zen monk to shame. He was the only kid I ever heard of who used his Gilbert chemistry set to carry out experiments in the instruction booklet. The rest of Authentic American Boyhood, of course, used it to try to blow up stuff or set it on fire.

He graduated from college with a degree in chemistry and then became an officer in This Man’s Navy. And that’s when his life plans went sideways.

One Great Truth of Life is the military changes everyone. And it changed Russ thusly: From a guy who’d happily spent his whole life with his snot locker buried in an Erlenmeyer flask and wanted to keep it buried there, he became a man who wanted to spend his life helping people.

As a junior officer, he commanded young enlisted guys. This meant he had to learn work with them, listen to them, direct them, give them sage advice and so on. And when he did that, he found he enjoyed it — even more than inhaling fluffy fumes of sulfurous effluvia and watching precipitates settle to the bottom of test tubes.

Gone was his hardcore scientific persona. Gone was his fascination with the Periodic Table of the Elements. Gone was his detached, objective approach to life and living things. Now, with the Milk of Human Kindness flowing through his veins and a smile of Hebraic charity spread ‘cross his face, he decided to make his greatest contribution to humankind: He’d become a psychologist.

It was an uphill battle all the way. Because he had taken only three undergrad psych courses, there was no way he’d do well on the psych Grad Records, so didn’t take them. In short, the only thing he could offer a graduate program was his smarts (as shown by his undergrad grades) and a sincere and burning desire to soothe troubled psyches, lift up the downtrodden, and turn the country, and perhaps even the world, into an Eden of healthy hearts and minds. Maybe he wasn’t trippin’ through the Haight, with bare feet and beads, handing out flowers and “I love you’s” to one and all, but he now truly understood the motives that lay behind it, and their motives were his.

He applied to 15 Ph.D. programs and within short order got rejected by 14 of them. And then, much to his surprise, he got a phone call from the fifteenth school telling him he’d been accepted! Not only did they not want him to take the GRE’s; they didn’t even want him to come in for an interview.

He concluded the only thing he could: They knew something about him he himself didn’t know. As it turned out, he knew something about himself they didn’t know. This came to light at the first graduate faculty-new grad students reception.

Taking for granted, and getting taken for a ride

Ah yes, faculty receptions — those confabs of conviviality. Often called “Meet and Greets,” I always dubbed them “Grips and Grimaces.” Generally, the good teachers avoided them, while the freeloaders, self-promoters and egomaniacs swarmed in like flies on offal.

Of course all the students show up, naively thinking it’s entre’ into The Big Time rather than the Bastion of Bloviation it inevitably is. And there was Russ, faint smile on face, name tag on blazer, glass of plonk in hand, ready to mingle. But before he could, he felt a meaty hand on his shoulder and turned to face the Big Kahuna himself — the dean of the psych department.

“Ah, Shefrin, let me be the first to extend my greetings,” he said. “Or should I say, ‘Welcome aboard.'”

“Oh,” said Russ, “were you in the Navy?”

“No,” said the dean. “I wanted to serve. But after I thought it through I realized soldiers are expendable, dime a dozen, if you will. But a Ph.D. is far more vital to a war effort, don’t you agree?’

“Um, uh…never thought of it that way,” said Russ.

“Not relevant to the here and now anyway,” said the dean. “But I’ll tell you what is relevant.”

“What’s that?” said Russ.

“You and your presence in our program,” said the dean. “Relevant and as vital as Ph.D’s to the war effort.”

“I am?” said Russ, gobsmacked.

“That you are, m’boy,” said the dean.

“How?” said Russ.

The dean scanned the room, then leaned close to Russ.

“It’s your undergraduate degree,” he said in sotto voce. “It makes you just the man we need here.”

“It is?” said Russ. “Why?”

“The psychology department has become a bloody haven for every do-gooder on God’s green earth,” he said. “All these new students want to do, other than wear ripped jeans and sandals and not bathe, is save every lost soul and heal all the downtrodden. Which is why I wanted you in the program.”

Russ said nothing, because he had no idea what to say. The dean went on.

“What we need here isn’t a bunch of muddle-headed Gandhi wannabes,” he said. “What we need is scientists, people with objective thought and killer instinct. Scientists, Shefrin, scientists. Psychology is a science, not a division of the damned Salvation Army.”

Then he added, “And you, Shefrin, are a scientist!”

Of course, being a scientist was the last thing The New Russ defined himself as. And while he was a button-down guy on the outside, on the inside he was now as much a soft-hearted, altruistic idealist as the other students. The dean would’ve known that if he’d scheduled an interview, but — not doing his homework — he didn’t.

The dean then stiff-wristed the rest of his wine and looked over at the buffet table, making sure the box wine hadn’t run out, which it hadn’t.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, holding up his empty cup. “Can’t fly with one wing, you know.”

Then, after a manly handshake and conspiratorial wink, he made his way to the trough.

When Russ told me the story, I asked him if he ever told the dean that he actually saw himself as a humanist rather than a scientist, that he was no different from his classmates.

He told me he hadn’t.

Quick study that he is, Russ figured out the secret of success in grad school.

Which is this: You’ll do fine as long as you keep nodding your head … and keep the truth to yourself.


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