Want to become a better, more-perfect version of yourself? Master something difficult in 2012.

[I wrote this for FreeTheAnimal.com, but I want to mirror it here, as well, since it’s so much a part of what SplendorQuest.com is for. –GSS]

Want to become a better, more-perfect version of yourself? Master something difficult in 2012.

I always love to read about the outrageously nefarious bad guys who are doing all the things we hate. Doesn’t matter who “we” are, since the bad guys afflicting every “we” are always blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil.

I guess it’s useful to exaggerate your opposition, but here’s the thing:

Everyone I remember from school was a screw-up.

Start with a good solid two-thirds compliant drones, dutifully going through whatever motions seemed to be required. Maybe half of the rest were glib and lazy. Even the straight-A apple-polishers were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade from the glib-and-lazy grown-up teaching the class.

Am I misrepresenting the world of education? Is there anything you can think of that you did in school that you’re truly proud of now. Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life that you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?

Was there any class that you took — ever — where you had to bust ass every day or risk get hopelessly lost? And when you got to that class, was that the end of your forward progress in that discipline?

The kids from the hard side of the quad — the maths, the sciences — know what I’m talking about. The kids from the soft side of the quad — the arts, the social sciences — may be recalling a graceless exit from the maths and sciences.

But the truth is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents. Partly this is our fault: Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy screw-ups. But mostly it was the fault of our teachers — and their teachers.

Were they outrageously nefarious bad guys, hell-bent on depriving us of a decent education? Were they blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil, conspiring to enslave us in a state of perpetual, unsuspected ignorance?

No. They were just cash-greedy glib-and-lazy screw-ups. For a second thing, teachers generally intend to do nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them. But for the first thing, they are themselves glib-and-lazy know-nothing screw-ups skating through life on a frozen river of knowledge a mile wide and a micron thick.

Belay that testy comment, at least for a moment. I absolve myself of nothing in these charges. I know how ignorant I am. I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies. But the fault for that is no one’s but my own.

When our grandparents went to high school — if their families were prosperous enough for them to get that far in school — they were expected to conquer the maths through calculus. It was understood that they would master biology, chemistry and physics. Their curriculum demanded a thorough grounding in the arts, including the ability to play an instrument while sight-reading musical notation. To call themselves educated, to graduate, they had to attain fluency in a foreign language — very often classical Latin or Attic Greek.

To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today. All hail the math gods, but how many of them can play a Beethoven sonata on the piano or violin? How many of that cohort can translate from Seneca? How many people reading this are not quite sure who Seneca was?

But: I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself. To the contrary, I want to show how to feel better about yourself — how to have more self to feel better about.

Yes, you were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself — with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by — you cheated yourself of an education.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone, but the future is yours to make of it what you will.

‘Tis the season for New Year’s Resolutions, and that’s a good thing. Join that book club. Remodel that kitchen. Lose that unwanted weight. But you can make this a landmark year of your life with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult in 2012.

There is no shame in knowing how to say,

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