Jon Benton: Student stories

Jonathan Benton columnist
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Jonathan Benton columnist Merced Sun-Star

A former roommate used to tell an old story made famous by Jewish historian Ray Vanderlaan. The story details the account of a rabbi who, while traveling to a distant land, came across a gated barrier.

As the rabbi approached the area, the guard at the gate shouted, "Halt! Who are you and what are you doing here?" Startled, the rabbi asks the guard to repeat the question. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" Amazed by the guard's inquiry, the rabbi asked how much money the guard earned to stand there and ask such questions.

The guard was silent for a moment, but eventually replied, "Three denari a week." The rabbi responded, "I will pay you double if you'll stand outside my house and ask me those two questions every morning."

Who are you? What are you doing here? Such questions have plagued the human mind for thousands of years, as man has contemplated who he is and struggled to find how he fits in this universe. Philosophers and laymen alike have wrestled with the concepts of God, morality, the soul and the nature of reality.

Although such questions are common, they are also complex, and such ponderings become deep quickly: How do you define "human goodness"? How do you know that? And how do you know that you know that? Who determines what "goodness" is? And what the heck does being "human" even mean exactly?

Professor Lorraine Barnes thinks some of her students have some insight into these questions. In fact, she's so convinced that she's going to publish a collection of her students' philosophical writings on these exact subjects.

That's right: Merced College will be publishing a compilation of select works written by students. Barnes, who teaches philosophy at the college, wants to "give a voice to (her) more talented, philosophically minded students. It's an opportunity to validate original thought and (her) personal way of saying thank you to all the students who think outside the box of conformity."

Barnes is known for her exuberant faith in Merced College students and the potential amount of human brilliance therein. To flourish, the brilliance needs to be cultivated and appreciated, and that's exactly what Lorraine intends to do.

The selections are being pulled from various assignments given by Barnes, from both the current semester and past classes. Topics include students' beliefs in the soul, the source of human goodness and interpretations of Freidrich Nietzsche's three metamorphoses from "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." The end of the book will feature a section for longer pieces written on a variety of philosophical topics.

But let's be honest: Is there anything enlightening about reading how an 18-year-old defines her soul? And can anything good come from a three-page essay written by some embittered stoner who likes Nine Inch Nails and happened to take an "Introduction to Philosophy" class?

For the most part, probably not.

However, I can think of two reasons why this project is a good idea. First, the proceeds of this project are funding the new Michael Riley Scholarship. Michael Riley was an Afghanistan/Iraq war veteran and honor student at Merced College who was gunned down last fall. He was a student of Barnes, and she has determined to donate all money from this book toward the scholarship.

Second, contrary to what you might expect, some of these writings are actually good. Really good. As a member of the editing board for the project, I've read most of the works being considered for publication. I must admit that I have been impressed and (dare I say it) even inspired by a handful of the students.

Barnes said it best: "I asked them to be real -- and they delivered." Several pieces are filled with genuine doubts, fears and vulnerability. Others are brimming with hope and optimistic speculation. There are short, one-sentence bursts of conjecture about the soul and lengthy, metaphorical dissertations on the nature of reality and belief.

There is already a stir among department heads over the project. Many teachers are excited to see the brilliant minds hiding out at Merced College finally put on display for all to see.

Jon Benton, an active musician, is working on a degree in English at Merced College, with plans to pursue a career in journalism.