Open Access, Elephants, and the Value of Pointless Crap

Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom not unlike our own, I graduated from college. There was only one problem: the College Gods had ascended from the Great Dean’s Office and announced in a thundering voice, “Thou hast walked across the Divine Stage, thou hast heard the wise utterings of our Lord Colbert, but thou shall not receive thine degree until thou hast completed three more hours of class credit!” And so it was that I was forced to face the wrath of summer classes.

Okay, so it wasn’t actually that dramatic. But that’s not the point. The point is that the part about having to take a couple more classes was actually true, and so it was that I was introduced to an online class called Accessing Information in the 21st Century. Sounds like total BS, right? Yep, that’s why I took it. Trouble was, it wasn’t total BS. It was a real class with real assignments and real deadlines.

The class started with this completely heart-wrenching documentary about a guy named Aaron Swartz who fought for this thing called open access but got into some legal trouble and tragically took his own life. I wanted to run right out and tell off all those pretentious assholes who couldn’t see the merit in what Aaron was trying to do and instead punished him for it and pushed him to the brink! That’s how they sucked me in.

Suddenly I cared about something.

I didn’t even know what open access was. I hadn’t even considered the fact that I only had access to all these scholarly journal articles because I was a student and that millions of other people were missing out because they weren’t. Speaking of BS — what kind of screwed up, privileged bullshit is that? And it had never even crossed my mind.

We had this research project for our final in the class, and as badly as I wanted to do something with open access, I couldn’t even formulate a good research question without getting all mad about it. To this day I still can’t even think about how unfair it is that most people don’t have access to all this great stuff. The worst part is most of them don’t even realize they’re being denied their basic human right to knowledge and information — they literally don’t even know what they’re missing!

Though it may seem that way, my purpose here is not to convince the rest of the world to care too (although they really should). I guess what I’m really getting at is that maybe it was a little unfair for me to write off that class as pointless crap before it had even begun. I went to a liberal arts college; we all spent a lot of our time learning about “pointless crap” that was wholly unrelated to our majors, and I think in life we tend to lump pretty much anything that we don’t enjoy doing or get paid to do in the pointless crap category — the junk drawer of life experiences.

You may not realize it when it’s happening, but I don’t think anything is really pointless. One little seemingly pointless seminar you had to attend or team-building exercise you had to do or class you had to take could leave you with little tidbits of thoughts and ideas and emotions that follow you for the rest of your life — butterfly effect and all that.

While we’re talking about animals, here’s the big takeaway:

Learn like an elephant, not a goldfish.

Although the whole rigamarole about goldfish is complete and utter nonsense, we’re going to pretend it’s true for the sake of this analogy (simile, whatever). It’s been said that the memory of a goldfish resets every three seconds; in student terms, the goldfish remembers things just long enough to take the test and then forgets all about it. Elephants, on the other hand, have been found to remember things for over twenty years (hence the belief that they never forget). That means the elephant not only aces the test, but has some pretty cool knowledge stored away for later, too.

So that’s what I mean: learn like an elephant, not a goldfish. Take in the things you learn and stick them in your pocket for a rainy day; don’t just cast them away the minute they cease to be immediately useful — you don’t throw out your umbrella just because it stops raining, do you? You’d be surprised how your perspective shifts when you start living like everything has purpose.

I think sooner or later everyone starts to see that everything has a meaning, whether it be seemingly insignificant or glaringly profound, and whether you realize it or not. My advice is this: make is sooner, not later.

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