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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

About 30 years ago, the Sabine tribe of Mount Elgon in Uganda was approached by the country's government. They were asking if the Sabine could move outside of the new boundaries of the national park. It was a little surprising, as the Ugandan officials were the first human beings they had ever seen other than themselves. The tribe had been isolated so long they literally thought they were the only people on the planet.

You shouldn't be surprised. Pretty much the same thing happens every four years at the University of Florida.

I mention it because it is a prime example of what I will call the Cosmopolitan-Provincial jolt. We experience it in a different way, and it goes like this:

When you came to UF, unless you're from New York City, you came from one particular place to a culture that was really no particular place. That's because one of the main points of any university is not just to teach you, but to "round you out." In a nutshell, the goal is to turn you into a cosmopolitan person - a person of the whole cosmos, literally not restricted to any one country.

It's not a bad goal, because we humans like it. Hence, Cosmopolitan magazine and one of the most clichéd scenes in any romantic work of fiction: the wide-eyed girl listening eagerly to the exotic guy who knows all about Australian aborigines and Italian wine.

So we learn to think both broadly and deeply.

Whatever your major, you get used to Hare Krishnas and alliances of all kinds. Then you graduate, and you learn that no matter how much you've learned about the whole world, you have to live - and make a living - in just one place, a single province with its own small provincial concerns. And it probably doesn't give a rip about epistemology, computer-script elegance or wildlife issues.

This is a jolt - whither the romantic wide-eyed fawners?

Some take this to mean that much of what we learn here is pointless. While some is - my family once knew an education theorist at a university who declared that her ideas had no bearing on reality - I think far more is relevant than we students think.

Every single class you take proves that at least one person finds the subject important enough to devote his or her life to teaching it. And as any climatologist or Arabic linguist can tell you, there's just no way to know when a field will become of the utmost importance.

What's my point?

I challenge UF professors to think of creative ways to help your students see what makes your subject important.

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And students, respect and appreciate what these few years mean. Most people in the world never have the luxury of taking the classes you melodramatically whine about and sometimes sleep through.

And to both students and professors, realize that other than a few dozen cities in the world, few places are as diverse as the university. You should not be shocked, indignant or snobbish at this. Transitioning between a buffet of cultures and just one entrée is a jolt, but wherever life takes you, savor the meal. The Sabine tribe is learning a great deal everyday, but they can teach some as well.

When you leave academia and head out into the "real world," do not forsake what you learned just because it's not riveting at a cocktail party. Certainly don't forsake it now.

Gerald Liles is a history and religion senior. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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