Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out: Discovering the Difference Between Knowledge and Understanding
““Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change”. ~ Timothy Leary, as explained in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks.
“How was Africa?” is the well-intentioned start of most of my conversations in these first few weeks after my return from a nine month gap year spent mostly in northern Senegal. The usual follow-up question is, “Was it fun?”. As I stutter at the first, immense question that begs for a pithy answer, my go-to response has become “It was an incredible experience and I learned a lot” not only because the phrase satisfies that polite social obligation of answering most mildly interested acquaintances but more importantly because it opens the door to the more intimate, albeit time-consuming conversations that characterized my first year of college spent unconventionally in a small town in West Africa. I took a gap year with Global Citizen Year and Eugene Lang College; it was an incredible experience and I learned a lot. In fact because I participated in both programs I learned a lot more than if I had chosen only one. The sum of my intense learning experience was the direct result of two complementary and educational parts.
In the 1960s a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out”. Though often misinterpreted, Leary has clarified his words to be essentially the life motto of any gap year student. Through my experience in Senegal, I turned on my enthusiasm for learning and experiencing the world around me for what it is. I tuned in to the workings of another culture, I learned a new language, I worked hard to integrate into a community other than my own. In doing so, I naturally dropped out of the traditional educational conveyor belt that would have otherwise swept me directly off to college after my high school graduation. To say that I dropped out of the school system for a year may have very negative connotations in the opinion of the mainstream media. A drop-out is often associated with failure, laziness, disregard for one’s social responsibility to be an educated member of society. However, as Michael Parenti so lucidly puts it, “sometimes media opinionmakers are quite blatant in their partisan expressions” (Parenti 67). Indeed, in a society so centered around the possession and exchange of money it is revolutionary that youth might take action to possess critical knowledge in areas outside of the classroom. However my gap year was unique in that not only did I choose to spend a year outside of the classroom learning through experiences, but the program I chose also involved traditional educational components like essays and assigned readings. This mixture of first-hand experience combined with a more structured curriculum provided me with an opportunity to expand both my knowledge of the world and my understanding of it.
A lot of what I learned, however, was not fun to experience. As often as not the most poignant lessons came from intense, difficult situations. For instance, in the first month of living with my host family in Ross Bethio, Senegal I witnessed a spectacular row between my host mother and eighteen year-old host sister. My host mother came home one evening to find that her daughter had failed to prepare a dinner for me, the only one dining that night. This discovery elicited a bout of hair-pulling, screaming, and beating with a broomstick. Such a totally unexpected and unsettling display of violence left me struggling to reconsider the fundamental difference in cultural values between my Anglo-American upbringing and the Wolof way of life. For the communal Wolof culture, not preparing a meal for the family, no matter how few people are present, is a violation of one’s duty to the community; a serious offense. My understanding of this specific aspect of Senegalese culture was heightened in addition to a general awareness that the societal rules governing my life in America are not universal laws of nature. Every culture has adapted its way of living to flourish in its own given environment. Understanding that this difference is essential to survival is key to understanding the global world.
Another valuable insight I gained from this experience is that maturity is a choice. There are no clear lines that delineate a victim. Initially it would seem that my host sister was the victim of her mother’s violence. However, a few weeks later I would witness the very same host sister kick her little sister in the gut for not giving her a photograph she asked to look at. Throughout my seven month stay with this host family I would witness the eighteen year-old girl hit her younger cousins and beat a neighbour’s goat to death for no good reason. Thus when it came down to it, my host sister chose to act in ways that defied my categorization of her as a victim. She continually, intentionally refused to behave in a manner consistent with the maturity level expected of a teenager in her culture and paid the consequences while simultaneously becoming the perpetrator of violence on others. Her mother, too, failed to behave like a mature adult when she beat her own daughter instead of finding a more responsible solution to the problem. This experience showed me quite vividly that maturity doesn’t just come instantly after turning a certain age. Maturity is a choice and it’s up to me to live a conscientious, responsible life.
As we sat in the sandy common area of the local high school after teaching an English class every Monday, a fellow volunteer and I would exchange ideas and share experiences from our daily lives. Our winding conversations often touched on large themes about the relevance of European education in a small agrarian African town, the challenges of being a foreigner in a foreign place, and the un-cynical truth behind many clichés. On weekly runs, we pushed each other harder to improve and successfully completed a rigorous workout program over the last three months in country. We learned about dedication, determination, accountability, and achievement.
In doing things like teaching a class of forty seventh-graders how to greet each other in English, figuring out how to use a public transportation system that doesn’t have timetables, and cutting onions without a cutting board I have learned that learning itself is an act. In reading world-class creative literature and analyzing non-fictional essays I expanded my knowledge of the complex issues that weave together to form the history of humanity. Units on colonization and ethnicity introduced a new layer of knowledge to my understanding of the Senegalese. Their diets involve so much groundnuts because during colonial times the cashew and peanut crops were heavily subsidised by the French government to supply high demand in Europe. Colonialism destroyed traditional farming practices and resulted in the desertification of the delicate Sahel soil and a devastating famine in the late twentieth century (Kloby 103). In her powerful examination of the clash between European and African concepts of beauty, “Everything Counts”, Ama Ata Aidoo touches on a theme prevalent in Ghana, where her story is set, and also in Senegal where I saw discarded weaves litter the streets and little girls play dress up with wigs and skin bleaching lotion. Often after reading a short story I would draw connections between characters in my coursework and host family members in real life. In “Exile” by Rose Moss, however this connection was between the protagonist, Stephen, a South African exile living in New York City and me. One of the most powerful moments of my gap year was when I read the following passage, “Now he must live in a world that his childhood had never guessed existed” (Moss 59). For although I had undoubtedly tried to imagine and conceptualize the distant lives of northern Senegalese or Wolof people or tried to understand their way of life as if it were my own, the only way I could have ever truly both known about the historical facts of the Senegalese and also understood the nuances of their culture was to have learned through both study and experience.
Last summer, I made a choice to pack up my bags and leave behind everything that was comfortable and familiar to go on a nine month experience that I’m sure I will be learning from for the rest of my life. Now I understand more about the world and how it works, I feel more prepared to move into the next phase of my adult life, and I know the value of learning. It took both books and host brothers, essays and teaching a classroom of twelve year-olds by myself to show that a true education comes from a balance between knowledge and understanding.