As I was sitting in my Political Science 101 lecture this past Tuesday, an activity came up that asked us each to describe ourselves. It was a graph, with the x-axis stretching from disciplined to impulsive, and the y-axis: conformist to individualist. I immediately labeled myself as an extremely disciplined individualist. However, my decision was soon challenged. Students were asked to volunteer to do double-unders with a jump robe or demonstrate the popular “Friends” character, Phoebe, running, both of which I would be completely embarrassed about. Although not a life changing opportunity, I was one of all but five who decided to sit back. It seemed as though I was maybe a conformist. Then, our lecture moved on to the experiments of living, which John Mill discusses in Chapter 3 of his book, On Liberty (1869).
Mill describes an experiment of living as an action that goes against the tyranny of the majority, or not acting the same as everyone else. When the professor listed some examples, I was immediately drawn in. One of them was learning Latin. Seems pretty mundane, right? But for me, I enrolled in Latin 101 this semester. Why? I wanted to learn a language, while not the most common in modern day society, that would be interesting, and at the same time, be of use to me in my career later on. But now that I think about it, Latin is an individualistic move because it fits two ideas that Mill discusses.
1. “Human improvement requires freedom and a variety of situations”-I took Spanish throughout high school because I was told it was the most common and the most likely to be used than any of the other offered languages. However, when I had the opportunity to enroll in Latin this fall, I jumped on it. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed Spanish. I was just really curious about Latin and thought there is no better place to experiment than at college. I know that there is a 99.9% chance I will never converse in the language, but the point is: society is improved by those who go against status quo. Mill encourages us all to try different things so we can learn from others. He says that the value of these experiments of living exists in the fact that both the performer and observer learn something new. Obviously, I, the Latin student, boost by vocabulary of the language everyday. However, situations may arise, where because of my skills, I can help someone else. For example, in a reading for this class earlier in the term, a phrase in Latin appeared without a translation. I was able to provide the translation and maybe it helped my classmate better understand the reading. Or, maybe it frustrated them and made them dislike the roadblock the language was creating in the assignment. Either way, because I have the freedom to create my own experience, it influences others and progresses society one step at a time.
2. “Freedom to experiment, but duty to cultivate ourselves”-I live in a country and attend a university that allows me to craft my education with my very own hands. By taking an individualistic approach and learning Latin, I have the “duty to cultivate,” or in other words, plant and foster my own seeds of knowledge. It is because of this opportunity that I can not only learn a second language, but teach myself self-discipline, like that of John Knox, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Since I am doing something out of the ordinary, I am relying on my courage and skill to keep me from conforming to others. Some may not approve of my individualism and tell me I am wrong. That is where my “duty to cultivate” comes in. If I weed out, per se, the negative energy, I am still able to perform the actions that make me an individual. Along the way, I run into the first point I discussed. Some will jump on the bandwagon and think it is cool. Others will turn their nose and go back to their daily life, certain they will never pick up my trait. If I just keep my focus on doing something unique, I am able to contribute to the variety of situations necessary for learning.
No matter if we are Latin students or stellar jump ropers, it is clear that experiments of living not only teach us more, but also influence others’ decisions as well. Next time I learn something from someone, good or bad, I know I will now appreciate their individuality and the fact they chose not to just sit back and conform.