The space between

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The world of the student is filled with mechanisms for identifying and rewarding talent. Talent on certain terms, of course, but talent nonetheless. We pack thirty kids into a room and we ask them all to do the same thing. Some will do it better than others. We repeat that dozens of times a day, 180 days a year, thirteen years, and we have a relatively effective means of identifying who can do the things we value.

The ones who do it well—the gold that remains in the pan—get to do it some more, get tasks of higher level, greater focus, more sophistication. The machine winnows yet again for another four or five years, and a few of those participants are invited to continue even further, for another five or more years of the same.

In every case, the machine is designed, like a quiz show, to continually feed its participants challenges that they can identifiably do better or worse at. It is a virtual reality, a protective pod that seems like the whole world but is actually an illusion. We do not know this, because it seems so real—we’re immersed within its structures, it gives us the positive feedback that we crave, it rewards the odd blend of curiosity and obedience that we have cultivated so carefully.

But ultimately, the day comes that we have passed all of those challenges, and there is no more machine feeding us, challenging us, praising us. There is only the vast, incoherent, airless ether of “the market.”

The market rewards what it rewards, in a peculiar, circular, unknowable fashion. There is no conceivable explanation for why more people like Justin Bieber’s music than Kaki King’s, except that it’s true. There is no conceivable explanation for why E. L. James has sold a hundred million copies of shabby, secondhand vampire fiction, except that it’s true. The matrix—the logical, structured system of challenges and rewards—has finished with us, and we have entered an entirely different logic system, one we were never informed of. One that will comfortably dispose of the majority of us.

In the market, the tasks are less structured, the opportunities for challenge are less frequent, the feedback less defined. Instead of a a dozen papers a year to write for professors we’ve come to know, we have cover letters to write for the three jobs a year in our field, written to people who are anonymous to us and who do not themselves know what they want, which will receive no feedback of any sort aside from “no thank you.”

If you manage somehow to cross that wilderness, you will, surprisingly, re-enter the matrix. You will once again be given specific tasks in a reliable sequence—creating and teaching courses, conducting and submitting your research, serving on committees and preparing for promotion. And you will get regular feedback, if you’re paying attention, and thus be able to learn, to re-energize the paired muscles of curiosity and obedience. You will be welcomed back into to the pod, the virtual reality, the loving arms of the mechanical mother. You will, in fact, now help to shape it. And you will forget the terrors of the space between.