Map and Compass

In general, I don’t like being lost. I’m too nervous, too cautious, to appreciate the thrill of disorientation — although on one occasion, I did. I was thirteen, and I was lost in Florence at night. I paced up and down the Arno a few times, before I could muster enough vocabulary, and courage, to ask someone: “Where is the bridge?” It was a futile exercise. I wasn’t sure which bridge I needed, or where it would take me, and in any case, the answer I received was incoherent — effusive, spittle-punctuated, and Italian. So I wandered, and as I traced the riverbank, each new step felt lighter. Direction, destination, purpose — these things are heavy. When at last I found the Ponte Vecchio, I felt more disappointment than relief. Being lost is easy. Staying the course is hard.

David Brooks wrote this week about our attachment to institutions (more thoughts on this later), and opened with a quotation from Harvard’s General Education Report (2007): “The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

Awesome, did Viktor Shklovsky design our new curriculum? That aside, I’m down with those aims. I know I’ve benefited from intellectual disorientation. As a freshman I spent some time mired in postmodernist ambivalence, and then I got over it. The idea that education must steer students into unfamiliar territory — that to be educated is to be confused — is trotted out here with enthusiasm. In the sophomore History tutorial this week, one professor announced with glee, “You’re going to feel disoriented!”


Grayson Perry, “Map of an Englishman”, 2004 (etching, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

It’s exhilarating to be lost — whether in the classroom or on the Arno — but at the same time, we feel anxious about it. Can we afford to be lost? Professors might encourage us to take intellectual detours, but our goal-oriented culture doesn’t permit us to. Harvard’s educational aims are confounded each time the college tries to dictate our next steps — each time the brand-new freshmen are treated to “Orientation Days”, each time the Advising Program hands out “Road Maps to the Sophomore Year”… Cartographic imagery is ubiquitous, and it sends a clear message: Don’t get lost. Take the map.

It’s a kind-hearted gesture. The college does want us to explore, but within known borders, because if we wander too far, we can’t be helped. The professor who was so excited about disorienting me — “We will throw you off balance!” — was speaking, ironically, at the mandatory “Orientation Meeting” for the course. The contradiction is awkward, but probably necessary. The ultimate aim of education, after all, is to reorient students, and for that, we’ll need a compass that works.


P.S. Soundtrack: “Symbols and Maps” and “Should a Cloud Replace a Compass?”, Circulatory System; “Two Dots on a Map”, The Russian Futurists; “Maps”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs; the album The Nature of Maps, Matt Pond PA.



Filed under Caterwauling

3 responses to “Map and Compass

  1. Tony Britt

    Love you, Maia!!! I’m also an institutional studies nerd but it’s all good…

    Also, “Maps” is a great song. Do I get cool points for listening to the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs?

    Keep it up guys.

  2. Maia

    Tony, you define cool points.

  3. Cynthia


    Being lost is easy. Staying the course is hard. Another quote of yours that I can use.

    May I add though that staying the course is easy, but choosing the right course is hard.


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