American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/17/87: Genesis, “Land of Confusion”

I’ve got stuff I want to say today—two very different strands of thought—but am having trouble gaining traction with either of them. Maybe trying to be briefer than I originally intended will help cut through some of the fog.

The first step in demonstrating one was up to the rigors of pursuing a doctorate in math at Illinois was passing a set of four written qualifying exams that covered advanced undergraduate material in algebra and analysis. I took my first crack at them in January 87, just before classes resumed. I passed exactly zero of them, and deservedly so. This was the first indication that just maybe relying on short-term memory for test-taking, a practice which had served me well for quite a while, wasn’t that good an idea anymore. (The second indication came later that semester, when I had to drop a class after completely bombing an important test.)  I didn’t ever give the memorization thing up completely, but eventually I think I became a better student. I did pass the algebra quals in May and the analysis quals in August, allowing me to stay beyond the master’s. As I wrote recently, two years later I’d do battle with another set of exams, this time oral.

I have a college friend who teaches at a Big 10 university. One of her responsibilities is to evaluate applicants to their graduate program; she noted in an email to me last week, “(t)here’s a lot (like motivation) that is essential for success but difficult to know from applications.” My own experience as a grad student jibes with this. Even though I finished my degree, I came to understand I did not possess the drive to be a high- (or even mid-) level theoretical mathematician.  I went to Illinois largely because I had received an attractive fellowship offer from them—it’s true that my undergraduate performance and GRE Subject Test scores all looked good, at least superficially.  At some point, maybe even during my first year there, they had to be regretting their selection for the fellowship. It’s completely a result of my internal motor or lack thereof, but it turned out I was a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect, and that couldn’t have been sussed from the paper record I had to that point.

I heard “Land of Confusion” (#8; it’d peak at #4) on the radio a couple of weeks ago, on my way to the car dealership for an oil change, and its final verse stood out in a way it never had before: “I won’t be coming home tonight/My generation will put it right/We’re not just making promises that we know we’ll never keep.” Collins and company were hardly the first to say “the world’s a real mess” in a song, but the vow to fix things sure looks like hubris now.  Of course, I’m just a baker’s dozen of years younger than Phil—am I part of that generation, too?

I can’t imagine a song today could have a video such as this, poking fun at/criticizing the policies of the current occupant of the White House, without resulting in calls for boycotts, incredible vitriol, etc.  Maybe that happened to Genesis back then, but if so, I’ve forgotten about it.



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