By Jessica Davis

In a letter to his friend and schoolmate Oskar Pollack on January 27th, 1904, Franz Kafka lists his demands for a book: that it should have the impact of a disaster, hit us with the overwhelmingness of grief, the ping of a stab wound, all to culminate in one of his most famous lines — “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” 

Although it might not have been by a book, I would like to believe that we’ve all experienced, at least once, the feeling that Kafka describes: an axe that chips away at the frozen sea within us — whatever that frozen sea may be — and reminds us of ourselves and our place in the world. The ever-connected world that we face enables endless media consumption, which, in a globalized context, is as equally incredible and uniting as it is isolating and desensitizing. Too often, what we gain from the extraordinary technological advances at our disposal we lose in the way we uncritically interact with them. 

Since Kafka’s time, people have created new ways of sharing information and creating art — we can only imagine what his reaction might be to YouTube or the podcast. In my letter to you, I want to extend Kafka’s demands to our expanding means of knowledge and to ourselves. We are at risk of dysconsciousness, of falling into a habit of uncritical thinking, because we are so comfortable with the routines, the scripts that we’ve been taught. 

This mindless consumption often traces its roots all the way to childhood. The US public education system, for example, is a product of its times: highly segregated, harsh and unforgiving toward students from minority cultures, and unencouraging of children’s incredible observance and curiosity. Intentionally simplified, broadly nationalistic curriculum also fails students. When they are systematically taught that history begins at “Thanksgiving” and Americans are the freest people in the world, the groundwork is laid to prevent the reckonings needed for progress. The stories that we aren’t told are the ones that continue to repeat themselves. 

Bleak as it sounds, our understanding of the world and of ourselves is not inevitably doomed by such a cycle. Through whatever means — reading for the bookworm, watching for the observer, listening for the multi-tasker, or working for the advocate — we have the ability to ask what we learn to break away at that frozen sea of custom within us by asking questions and searching for answers. That is my belief.

As we prepare for the change of season and the start of a new school year, these are the humble suggestions from a Midwestern U.S.A. college student. This is a time to form arguments, grow opinions, and pursue a wealth of knowledge that otherwise … once in the working world you will not have time to pursue. Choose wisely. Appreciate and prosper.

Reading

Listening

“When it comes to U.S. government programs and support earmarked for the benefit of particular racial groups, history is clear. White folks have received most of the goodies.”

“The (High School) Mascot Wars” is part three of a six-part Scene on Radio miniseries about two small towns, one in Idaho, the other in Upstate New York, trying to decide whether to change the nickname of their highschool sports teams: The Redskins. 

“Carlos Doesn’t Remember” is the first in a three-part Revisionist History miniseries taking a critical look at the idea of capitalization—the measure of how well America is making use of its human potential.

Frugal Eats

Thanks for coming to my TED talk

“As a black woman from a tough part of the Bronx who grew up to attain all the markers of academic prestige, Dena Simmons knows that for students of color, success in school sometimes comes at the cost of living authentically. Now and educator herself, Simmons discusses how we might create a classroom that makes all students feel proud of who they are. ‘Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin,’ she says.”

“Why should a good education be exclusive to rich kids? Schools in low-income neighborhoods across the US, specifically in communities of color, lack resources that are standard at wealthier schools — things like musical instruments, new books, healthy school lunches and soccer fields — and this has a real impact on the potential of students. Kandice Sumner sees the disparity every day in her classroom in Boston. In this inspiring talk, she asks us to face facts — and change them.” 

“Coding isn’t just for computer whizzes, says Mitch Resnick of MIT Media Lab — it’s for everyone. In a fun, demo-filed talk Resnick outlines the benefits of teaching kids to code, so they can do more than just use new tech toys but also create them.” 

“Now more than ever, it’s important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias — and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice.”

“Baratunde Thurston explores the phenomenon of white Americans calling the police on black Americans who have committed the crimes of … eating, walking or generally “living while black.” In this profound, thought provoking and often hilarious talk, he reveals the power of language to change stories of trauma into stories of healing — while challenging us all to level up.” 

Jessica Davis is currently a student of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.