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Piñata Diplomacy: What Matt Damon teaches us about education

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”

– Albert Einstein

Throughout the year, this column has repeatedly defended worthless, tasteless, obscene, ugly, and otherwise thoroughly contemptible persons in the name of fighting off a more threatening and popular groupthink. But in this, my penultimate piece, it is necessary to defend such characters once more, and publicly admit that there actually is a Matt Damon film that I enjoy.

Naturally, I feel disinclined to admit that I am a massive fan of Good Will Hunting, for I can’t stand the three main actors: Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams. So why, against all odds, am I such an admirer of that movie?

First, I guess I’m old-fashioned in that I think all effective male university professors should have thick, Rasputin-like beards that exude confidence and connote wisdom. Second, absolutely nothing brings tears to these baby hazels with such unavoidable consistency like a wrong-side-of-the-tracks/metaphorical-rags-to-riches/carpe diem feel-good narrative.

But most of all, I like the educational philosophy espoused by Damon’s character, Will Hunting. I’m thinking of that scene in the Harvard bar in which Matt Damon completely schools the Michael Bolton look-a-like by showing that he’s really the more well-read and original thinker of the two, even though he’s paid only $1.50 in public library late fees compared to the Harvard student’s $150,000 tuition. (And Damon got the cute girl’s number.)

Beneath all the unrealistically witty Gilmore Girls-style dialogue, so grating to my ears, there is a pertinent message: formal university education is, more or less, contrived bourgeois bullshit. If all these books that we liberal arts majors read here at McGill are available at any local library, what, really, is the point? Where is the value added? In only my first year I’ve already taken a handful of classes in which the intellectual apex of my week is reached while reading the texts rather than in the conferences or lectures, some of which are little more than PowerPoint-generated distillations of the week’s readings. Some Arts professors are merely unenergetic curators of content for unreflective slack-jawed students.

The value added, as alleged by Mr. Hunting and proudly admitted by his Harvard adversary, is in the middle-class prestige that accompanies the leather-sheathed diploma. It is a ticket to success that costs me, as an international student here at McGill, roughly $60,000, and says, “This kid is not only good-looking but also passably informed. Hire him, if you can tolerate the scathing wit and casual misanthropy.”

This seems ridiculous. Why should a candidate’s fitness for a job be predicated on how and where he received his knowledge rather than what knowledge he received?

Even the concept of receiving knowledge wrongly implies that one needs to pay someone more learned for the service of providing the knowledge, a sophistical notion that Socrates, Wikipedia, and I stand firmly against.

With Matt Damon’s beneficent guidance, we should affect a dramatic shift in our philosophy of higher education. One possibility is to substitute meaningless diplomas for agreed-upon certification tests that would assess a candidate’s abilities rather than the brand recognition of the university printed on his or her or her mother’s bumper sticker. A good example of this process is that which public accountants must go through to become certified in their profession.

Of course, I’m preaching what I’m too much of a coward to practice: unfortunately for my opponents who constantly (and rather disturbingly) meditate in these pages on how much they’d like to pop my piñata, I’m not going anywhere, because I’m a sucker.

Leaving my personal flaws aside, surely any reader who has lived through a year in residence will agree that not every undergraduate at McGill is quite temperamentally cut out for pursuing a four-year degree. The societal overemphasis on attaining one is unhealthy and thoroughly counterproductive.

If anyone needs more evidence that a prestigious degree does not necessarily equate to an competent grasp of the material, I urge you to note that former President George W. Bush – a bicycling Bartlett’s of blunder and an utter failure at every attempted business venture, including the presidential – earned degrees in history from Yale and in business from Harvard.

[i]Ricky’s got one left. How do you like them apples? Tell him that it’s not your fault at [/i]