The Scholar

It’s that place; that little hostel in Bali that feels like home. There’s something about it. The black and white checkered front stoop, crowded with benches and bean-bag chairs. The stone lobby with lime green walls. The clean, cool, white-tiled dormitory that extends like a corridor, lined with perfect bunks.

This description fails to explain the cordiality that surges through the Fool every time he stays there. He’s comfortable there; happy, motivated, gregarious, and witty. In that place his charm penetrates age and background and gender and sexuality. In him swells a cocktail of sincerity and confidence that pours over every encounter. In that place, the Fool is his best self.

And there the Fool met a Scholar. She was fiercely intelligent. Out of knowledge she’d forged a thick shield against superstition and mysticism, against guile and coercion, against bullshit and idiocy.

Hers was a mind reared in the incubator of American academia. The classroom was her realm, an arena in which she was victor and queen. She thrived in school, scored highly on assignments and tests her entire life, and derived a valid sense of self-worth from the respect her teachers and professors accorded. That esteem drove her to succeed. That success imbued in her a competence, a conviction, and a competitive drive.

She was a Scholar, capable of hefting abstract concepts and wielding critical thought. The Fool breathed in her words like gusts of fresh air. The air of Truth. The air of erudite topics beyond the reach of uneducated minds.

“Traveling is frivolous,” observed the Scholar. The first words he’d heard her spoke; a stinging first impression. In one blithe claim she had denounced a man’s greatest passion. A man may never self-transcend so far that he becomes immune to disparagement that strike so close to his heart. But he can detach himself well enough that a few seconds of silent pause are all required to steady defensive nerves.

A smile curled the Fool’s lips. He relishes the twinge of offense. He recognizes it as a signal to examine a belief.

The Scholar continued. “The trite tours, the easy bus rides, the comfortable hostels, the cheap bars with the same music. It’s fun for a while, but it’s ultimately without value. Traveling is at best a selfish, hedonistic endeavor, at worst a destructive one.”

The Fool knows that travelling has profound value. He has experienced it, grown from it, developed out of it. It was as real and apparent as the way he held himself, the light in his eyes, the effect of his smile, the strength in his heart. The value can’t be seen because it itself is vision. It’s an ear for things silently spoken. A feel for a moment’s potential. The taste for acquiring tastes. A nose to detect intrigue. It’s the difference between sitting out and dancing. It’s the active ingredient in both sinew and intuition.

The value of traveling isn’t tangible, and cannot be weighed, measured, or recorded. It can’t appear on a resume. That is perhaps why the Scholar was blind to it. She came from a world of detailed transcripts, rigid assessments, and progress reports. Her life was a series of parameterized tasks graded with objective finality. Each a brick placed with careful intention according to an established blueprint. Something as amorphous as free-roam travel must have appeared like so much straw, putty, feathers and candle-wax; quaint diversions with no practical applications.

Faced with her blatant denunciation the Fool’s impulse was to obliterate it. To reject her claim as false. To crush her argument with a mountain of evidence. But he paused. Claims are more than what they assert. Never existing in isolation, they always have roots in the experiences that create them. So the Fool asked her where she’d been. What had she seen and done.

The Scholar was on a first venture into Asia, and her misfortune was touring the Southeast subcontinent. The entire region has been swallowed for decades by the flood of tourism. It’s no wonder her impressions of ‘travel’ were so bleak. In her experience she was absolutely correct.

The Fool might have responded with a defensive objection. But he’d taken the time to understand, so he instead swung with a firm counter-position. That difference is all that separates scorched Earth from nascent attraction.

So they clicked; by their intellects and intrepid spirits, on ambition and aptitude. Her underlying pessimism complemented his pathological optimism. Her incessant planning tempered his reckless improvisation. They resolved to travel Java together, so they piled on the back of a motorbike and drove off.

The first night they didn’t sleep. Then at 1:00am they hike until sunrise up the Kawah Ijen volcano. Sleep deprived, starving, exhausted, and freezing, the conversation took on a sublime lucidity. Both their natures were honest and open, so they quickly became familiar.

For three weeks they traveled up volcanoes, and out to wave-breaking beaches, down under the ocean, and below ground, traversing three islands in total. They were lovers for one week, friends another, and inertia held them together as antagonists in the last.

There are no days that escape recollection, and the Fool owned up to them all. He could see clearly the degradation, of whatever it was they shared, as an unavoidable outcome of her and him tossed together in those unnatural circumstances. Thrust into immediate, prolonged cohabitation, they consumed each other to the rind.

The Fool found that perhaps the Scholar’s mind was a full cup. In her was little capacity to recognize the worth of endeavors which departed from academic norms. She had graduated with distinction, earned a rigorous technical degree, found success at the most prestigious university. These accolades cemented a conviction in formal education. And more deeply, in the metrics of success and value outlined therein.

Her entire life had been spent in academia, her identity entwined with it. Years of A+ praise she reciprocated with devotion. In turn she received more commendation, more honor which fueled greater and greater diligence. This cycle bred for decades. So she consequently and necessarily invested an enormous amount of admiration, and respect in the institution.

In academia the Scholar found community, distinction, success, and knowledge. History attests to the link between greatness and education. Wealth correlates strongly with college degrees. The road to competence and accomplishment tracks through halls of education. What else is there? What could possibly exist beyond the establishment of academia?

But the Fool held a unfavorable view on academia. He saw an irredeemable flaw in the profit motive behind academic institutions. He sympathized with high-schoolers wantonly herded into universities, and with the significant proportion of college graduates who wouldn’t make anything of their diplomas. And sure, a little unnecessary knowledge, and a few years spent learning it, wouldn’t be so terrible if it wasn’t accompanied by crippling debt.

And for his part, the Fool had realized a bounty since exiting academia. For starters, his social and emotional intelligence had bloomed. The road is a river of diverse human interactions which flow spontaneously and are expressed as fresh ideas from fresh perspectives. Academia is a stagnant pond by comparison; like-minded people discussing prescribed topics under constrained paradigms. This same argument can be made for emotional challenges.

And however important theory is, it becomes more real, grounded, when an experience demonstrates it. And experiences must be sought outside the classroom.

That dissonance in opinion, along with unrelieved cohabitation, would tear them apart. Without having to state it outright, the Fool’s sentiment must have bled through as a subconscious invalidation of the Scholar’s most cherished environment.

There are a multitude of great advantages academia provides, but it cannot provide them all. The Scholar held faith in academia’s ability to fully cultivate a mind. That everything worthwhile could be learn in school.

In the end the Fool deeply appreciated the Scholar. He thrived on her insight and discourse. He even derived a twisted pleasure from the frustrations. And although the encounter ended poorly, he believed it was a victim of circumstance. In another life, their differences might have complemented, rather than abraded, one another.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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