On Photography And The Tragedy Of The Good Student

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I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think I’ve just realized that there was nothing morally wrong with semi-automatic camera modes. Of course, my embarrassment lies less in the realization itself than in the now blatant fact that I apparently thought there was.

For some mysterious reason, I’ve suddenly started using my camera in aperture priority mode. It could be something I ate or the effect of sun exposure on my vitamin D levels. Or, more probably, the higher than usual number of sunny days inspired me to fiddle with my camera and gave me the brilliant idea of listening to some photography podcasts. Needless to say, I’ve had a couple of aha! moments these past few weeks, and after discovering this week’s photo challenge, I had to format my prehistoric 512 MB memory card a number of times. Playing with shallow depth of field is decidedly a lot of fun.

To think that I’ve spent so much time studying physics, including optics, without ever giving photography a serious try – just for the sake of developing some intuition of what a lens does – is in itself regrettable. What is much worse is that once I actually decided to give photography a try for its own sake, I remained stuck with the idea that as long as I didn’t master the full manual mode, there was no point stopping to shoot in automatic. This is what I call the tragedy of the good student.

All the way throughout my long curriculum I’ve been what everyone agreed to call “a good student”. You might very rightly want to point out that this is nothing to complain about, and I am the first to recognize that I was clearly on the right side of the system. Being the daughter of two teachers, I was particularly well equipped, from a very young age, to understand the expectations of the educational institution. I also tend to think that my social origin placed me practically a priori in the category of students – good students – for which the said institution has a particular liking. Some like to call this “cultural reproduction”. I am one of those who think that this is probably the biggest fault of our educational system.

That said, I’m gonna play spoiled child and whine a little about the good student condition. Please bear with me.

I think that in the very way the educational system defines, selects and treats good students, it makes them a great disservice. And if my own mental block with camera modes certainly has causes that appertain to my particular psychology, I tend to think that it is also a symptom of a dysfunction of the educational institution.

I went to school and university in France in the 1990s and 2000s. Good students, like myself, were students who could cope with a large number of hours spent sitting in classrooms without being guilty of too much fidgeting or chattering. And there is really no merit here. It’s easy to sit and listen to a teacher who doesn’t look very different from your mom or dad, when you know what you are doing here – you’re here to learn, your parents told you – and when you’re lucky enough to easily understand whatever you’re being taught.

This is precisely where the problem was. Since you usually understood the lectures, and since understanding per se undeniably brings some satisfaction, you willingly accepted to be deluged with facts without noticing that you were actually never given a chance to want to know something. And in case you did, you didn’t have time anyway. You were too busy taking in one lecture after the next, dutifully doing homework, and perfecting your student file in preparation for a bright future. When it came to course choices, you were told that science would open every door – so, science it was. Who wants to discard opportunities?

While praising curiosity and sharp-mindedness, the school system actually encourages good students to keep or adopt a passive attitude towards knowledge that drains out creativity and encourages a form of submission. And while pretending to open all doors and maximizing choice, it authoritatively puts them on tracks without giving them the chance to protest.

Good students were also those who got it right the first time. It still puts me into a cold sweat to think about the optics tutorials I attended as an undergraduate physics students ten years ago. We had these express tests, which consisted in executing a classical optics calculation in ten minutes sharp. Either you got it right the first time, or you realized that you had made a mistake only to see your paper snatched out of your hands before having time to rectify it. The point was to get it right the first time. This is how you turn good students into submissive, timorous beings who become convinced that they have to know before even trying.

As a PhD student, I would often hear professors complaining about the rising disaffection of students for scientific subjects. “Even the best ones, now, turn to economics and stuff like that”. To some extent, I share this concern. In particular, I deeply regret that the opening of job prospects has to come before sheer curiosity when it comes to course choices. But looking back at my own curriculum, I think it’s also worth wondering what really happens to curiosity as students go through the school system.

It probably wouldn’t do any harm to give all students a break. To let them breathe and experiment. To let them try and fail. To give them plenty of time to really ask themselves questions. To encourage them to play with a camera before they learn optics. Why the hell should anyone want to study optics for its own sake if they’ve never been fascinated with the beauty that light can produce, after all?


other thoughts


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