The Weight of the Stone

By MATTHEW S HOFFMAN on November 13, 2012

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The last two weeks have been a proverbial Dante’s inferno as far as academic work goes. Multiple papers and tests have left me indisposed; however, the Center has been a place of reprieve. I’ve become good friends with the assistant director, Sarah Lyall-Combs, graduate assistant Jeff Resta and the other two interns, Sara and Mary. We all work together efficiently and productively without issue. Sometimes I get up early and go into the CGS office just to do work and be in that comfortable environment. The free coffee doesn’t hurt either. Being able to work face to face also has its benefits. Whenever I’m in the office, I try to be as proactive as possible and always ask Mrs. Combs what she needs help with.

I find I am more productive there, too. This week I came into the office to gather a list of social studies teachers throughout many school districts in the area. Also in my hometown Lancaster to help spread the word about the headscarf workshop. Up until this point, I never had much interest in outreach and involvement in the community. That sounds contrary to politics, since it of course is based so much on people. Now though, because of my internship, I am in the midst of coordinating plans and interacting with all sorts of people with different backgrounds. And it involves global issues, such as the headscarf banning controversy. I am also proud that the internship I am a part of is generating such opportunities.

Writing for the newsletter is a boon to my day as well. Being able to use my knowledge and understanding, cultivated by my education at Penn State, to write about such historians as Dr. Juan Cole or the great experiences at the fall festival is putting my education into actual practice. I don’t believe in over complicating subjects, even if they’re complex political theories. I believe people are smart enough to grasp difficult concepts if they are presented in a manner that isn’t belittling, patronizing or pretentious. I’ve read enough articles in these four years of college to know that academia often has a fetish for the Byzantine. And some professors inundate students with so many esoteric concepts that it’s a race just to memorize enough to pass the test. These are simply my own criticisms. I understand there is a need for higher level academics to extrapolate and analyze events and circumstances in a dry manner. Not always by choice, but by necessity to support hypotheses soundly. It’s all in the presentation, I think. Or a good professor.

Nevertheless, one of my goals in life is to interact with people from all backgrounds and share my knowledge in a tactful and genuine manner to try and, in some way, create an opportunity for contemplation. I don’t think I can change anyone’s mind, or that I should even. Dr. Cunning and I discussed a lot about the difference between debating to learn and debating with the intent to change. I think the former is the better route. That meeting with her has left a permanent, positive mark on my character.


 When I worked years in construction as an insulator, or in a warehouse that supplied the construction industry with insulation, I always strive to engage in dialogue in a non-confrontational way. This was pre-college even, as I hadn’t started that career until I was 23.

Later, after attending school, I was able to discuss politics and economics with union and non-union workers alike in a less narrow way. They were aware of my enrollment at Penn State and international politics – they always ask what this means and I never have a good answer – except that I should strive to know everything about everything. Sometimes they would ask me blunt questions about politics and where I stand ideologically, but I usually spent the time explaining the reasons based on theories and paradigms I’ve learned. that better illustrate the overall gamut of politics.

Sometimes I would speak Spanish with workers and would get to know them. Find out where they come from and such things, while other workers, usually white, would complain that they spoke in another language. I wasn’t afraid to challenge them on why they chose not to learn another language and sometimes the results would be threatening, but other times we would break into a discussion of geography and politics. Maybe after that they’ll remember our conversation and they’ll approach it differently next time. People do what they think is right, I’m not sure what to expect from that, but at least I made an attempt to introduce a new constellation illustrating a different side of the human condition we’re all party to. Politics can cloud and separate that fact. I’m not sure separating certain aspects of life into divisive spheres is how I want to go about living.

I don’t believe education and its byproducts should remain inside the institutions. In some environments, antagonisms against the way academia conducts itself are legitimate. I come from some of them. We write pages of homework and research papers, turn them in, and receive our grades. Then it never really turns into anything of importance outside of the myopic fetish of the GPA. I rebel against this. There is no reason for me to take on a task, project or paper without actually having a stake in its development and conclusion. Busy work, which school work feels like it devolves into, puts me a right existential crisis. I didn’t write about the Greek financial crisis because I didn’t care about the astronomical suicide rates, parents giving up their children, schools having no electricity or teachers and people starving to death on the streets.


 On the contrary, if John Donne is to be believed, and I most certainly subscribe to his conclusions, that no man or woman is an island, then everything does affect me in some way. And outside the classrooms and professor’s offices, I can introduce my feelings that are now substantiated with evidence to people I interact with in the streets. After all, they’re the people, my own family members and friends, who are most affected by concepts and theories that are discussed in courses. Unfortunately, too often it is in the abstract where people’s true stories are lost into models and statistical deviations.

I understand educational institutions are not all structured in the ways I’ve described, but I don’t necessarily believe it’s the exception either. As I’ve watched, in my own 27 year life span, the disparity in wealth and education increase within society, it is important to remember the privilege of attending school even if I’ve been condemned to living like a peasant because of the costs. However, I remain critical of my surroundings, always skeptical (mistaken for cynicism), and try to recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.


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