How T. S. Eliot Found a Book That Changed His Life

“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being”, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche—“something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else.” Nietzsche’s essay (which I’ve quoted often) is in one sense a paean to Arthur Schopenhauer, who changed his life. In another sense it is a description of the power of a single book and a single thinker to shape us and change the course of our lives, if we are lucky enough to come across them.

I’ve been reading a great deal of T. S. Eliot lately, and in one biography came across a Nietzschean description of how Eliot found his educator.

Where for Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer (a man whose philosophy grew out of an awful first job), for Eliot it is Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who died the year before Eliot was born. In 1908, when Eliot was twenty, he went to the Harvard Union Library, one of his favourite spots for reading. Crawford describes in his biography:

T S Eliot poetry Jules Laforgue Nietzsche educator“There, upstairs, warmly protected from the December weather outside, he (Eliot) was looking through recently received books. Alert University library staff helped stock the Union’s shelves. Tom’s eye was caught by the name of Arthur Symons, and by his book’s title, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a small second edition published earlier that year and just imported from London…”

Much later in his Paris Review Interview Eliot would describe that book by Symons as one that introduced him to Laforgue and therefore changed the course of his life.

Robert Crawford describes in his biography of Eliot how

“Before late 1908, Tom had never heard of Laforgue. By late 1909 he was almost his reincarnation. The experience was like falling in love. A decade later, when his marriage was in trouble, Tom used strikingly erotic language to describe the vital, transformational reading, implying, perhaps, that (though the object of attention was a dead man) it had been better than falling in love. 

Eliot described the process by saying,

“When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person.”

It is a Nietzschean description of a true educator—an experience we should all hope to have. Crawford certainly believes that had Eliot not stumbled across Symons’ book on French symbolist poetry in the Harvard Union, he never would have become the poet he was. This reminds me of a quotation of Mark Greif, who in an essay on his own educator, philosopher Stanley Cavell, said that “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

T. S. Eliot: “The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else”

In 1914 Thomas Stearns Eliot was four years out of Harvard and had completed his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem was not yet published, but he knew it was good, and Ezra Pound had promised to help him get it placed in print (it soon would be). Eliot was living in London and was soon to head to Oxford for a year of study.

T. S. Eliot letters and his careerIt’s easy for us to look at Eliot at that point in his life and see his success as given—to wish that we had a piece of great work behind us, as he did, and to be free from financial worry, as he was, with years of further study ahead of us. But this was not at all Eliot’s state of mind at the time. In a letter of September that year to his good friend and fellow poet from Harvard Conrad Aiken, he was full of worry:

“The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A. P. and writhe in impotence. The stuff I sent you is not good, is very forced in execution, though the idea was right, I think. Sometimes I think—if only I could get back to Paris. But I know I never will, for long. I must learn to talk English.

Anyway, I’m in the worry way now. Too many minor considerations. Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it’s tragic suffering — it takes you away from yourself — and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration.

I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry — three years ago. I sometimes think it would be better to be just a clerk in a post office with nothing to worry about — but the consciousness of having made a failure of one’s life. Or a millionaire, ditto. 

The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else — (I much prefer to say somebody else’s). That is difficult in England, almost impossible in America. — But it may be all right in the long run, (if I can get over it), perhaps tant mieux (so much the better). 

Anyway, I have been living a pleasant and useless life of late, and talking (bad) French too…

 

From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1989—1922. Yale University Press. Pages 62-4.

How Arthur Schopenhauer’s First Job Made Him Pessimistic For Life

Arthur Schopenhauer was not a particularly positive person, if I’m allowed such an understatement. The German philosopher wrote his famous work of metaphysics The World as Will and Representation before he was 30, and then spent the rest of his life writing in order to show how all that is wrong with the world proved his philosophy.

Here’s a taste of Schopenhauer’s view of the world:

Hollingdale on Schopenhauer's pessism, Essays and Aphorisms

“History shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes. In just the same way the life of the individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but also an actual struggle against other people. He discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand.”

— (From On the Suffering of the World).

Why did Schopenhauer see the world in such a deeply pessimistic way? What led him to believe that all humans can aspire to is the avoidance of pain, and what leads, contrariwise, someone like the Dalai Lama to view people as fundamentally striving for good? Their contrasting philosophies do not stem from nothing, and it is logical to think that our individual development in youth will shape our personal philosophies towards life.

Schopenhauer’s translator and biographer R. J. Hollingdale certainly takes that view of individual philosophical development, and argues that we can understand a thinker by understanding both the problems that he or she is dealing with (how they fit into a tradition of thought), as well as by understanding “those elements in his personality and background which lead him to deal with these problems in just the way he does.” Applied to Schopenhauer, Hollingdale says: “We learn that this extraordinary man has created a new metaphysic… simply in order to understand and justify his own pessimistic disposition.”

Hollingdale points to a number of episodes in Schopenhauer’s life as evidence for why he could only have developed a negative view of the world, but it is one period of his youth, between ages 17-21, that seemed above all else to shape his outlook. I want to quote this section from Hollingdale in full, because it deals not just with Schopenhauer, but with most of us; and because how we reconcile in ourselves a similar set of feelings will determine, as it did with Schopenhauer, our general outlook on the world for our lifetimes.

“This is now the crucial epoch of his [Schopenhauer’s] life. In April his father dies: the death leaves him feeling more rather than less bound to fulfil his promise to become a merchant. But the house of Schopenhauer is sold up, his mother and sister leave for Weimar, and he is left in the office of Jenisch [a trading house where he is a clerk]. And now despair begins to enter his soul. He hates the work of a clerk, and has now come to hate the whole mercantile world; at the same time his very modest education has fitted him for little else. When he is 21 he will get his share of the paternal fortune, assuming his mother has not spent it by then—but as yet he is only 17, and at 17 four years are an unimaginable eternity.

In short, Jenisch’s office becomes Schopenhauer’s blacking factory—with this difference, that Dicken’s experience was that of a little boy unable to analyse his situation and was one now fortunately rare, while Schopenhauer’s is so ordinary as to be called perhaps the common lot of middle-class youth. The capitalist world, and in particular the heart of it, the world of buying and selling, offers almost nothing a young man wants: the instincts of youth are at variance with the demands of business, and especially with those of clerking. What young man is by nature diligent, sober and regular in his habits? Respectful to ‘superiors’ and humble before wealth? Sincerely able to devote himself to what he finds boing?

One in ten thousand, perhaps. But for the great majority a ‘job’ is, depending on temperament, a torment or a tedious irrelevance which has to be endured day after day in order that, during one’s so-called ‘free time’, one will be allowed to get on with living. The situation is the most commonplace in the world. I believe it is the cause of that settled cynicism with which nine out of ten regard the ‘social order’…

This familiar feeling was what now overcame Schopenhauer: the feeling which appears when life, hitherto apparently capable of granting anything, is suddenly revealed as deception, when the colour is drained from it and the whole future seems a single grey. The essence is in the question: Is this all? Is this life?

The intensity with which the question is asked must of course vary: but when we consider that Schopenhauer was in fact a man of genius, we shall not be surprised to discover that in him its intensity was very great.”

From these four years of “greyness”, Hollingdale argues, Schopenhauer built his life’s philosophy. He was so affected by the futility and meaninglessness of his work as a clerk that he needed to find an explanation for how the majority of humans could live their lives that way. Not that he lived the rest of his life with much more colour—he had an identical daily routine that he carried out almost every day of his life, and, as he put it in his early years as a philosopher: “Life is a missliche Sache — a disagreeable thing-: I have determined to spend it in reflecting on it.”

When he eventually does inherit his father’s fortune at 21, he immediately enrols in university and discovers philosophy—and therefore himself. While we would say the rest is history, he would probably say it was merely misery.

In reflecting on Schopenhauer’s life and philosophy, I can’t help but feel that to extend one’s youthful pessimism into one’s life work is simply believe in fixity. Even if one grants that life is as Schopenhauer described it—a later version of Hobbes’ “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”—it seems a far more human response to nevertheless hope that one’s own life, and the lives of those around us, might be lived more positively. Schopenhauer’s approach was resignation; his philosophy, a justification of his resignation.

I find it far more effective to describe the world as it could be, rather than as it is. Shakespeare told us (and Montaigne before him) that the world is neither good nor bad, but it is our thinking that makes it so. Hope that we could live more positively than Schopenhauer, even in the face of a job we don’t find meaningful and the “common lot of middle-class youth”, as Hollingdale put it, and we are far more likely to make it so.

T. S. Eliot Defines Stoicism

Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him…”

In 1927 T. S. Eliot sought in an essay to explain the connection between Shakespeare and the Roman playwright and man of letters Seneca. Or rather, by pre-empting the idea that Shakespeare could be explained by Seneca, Eliot mocks the growing number of voices in literary history seeking to explain Shakespeare’s thought in terms of one thinker or another. (Recent attempts had been made to explain him in terms of Montaigne and Machiavelli).

In the midst of the essay Eliot passingly defines stoicism:

“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him; it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up. Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up. The stoical attitude is the reverse of Christian humility.”
It’s a remarkable definition for its unexpectedness. One imagines stoics undertaking a much deeper struggle than merely “cheering oneself up”, and yet Eliot shows us that in such a philosophy that is all we really attempt to find.
I also think it worth quoting Eliot’s not so favourable review of Seneca’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (or Letters from a Stoic) just for interest’s sake:

“I think it quite unlikely that Shakespeare knew anything of that extraordinarily dull and uninteresting body of Seneca’s prose, which was translated by Loge and printed in 1612.”

 

 

Montaigne Says We Should Be Better Learned, Not More Learned

Montaigne reminds us in his essay Of Pedantry of the difference between wisdom and knowledge, and laments the fact that we naturally favour the former:

“In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgement and virtue, little news. Exclaim to our people about a passer-by “Oh, what a learned man!” and about another “Oh, what a good man!” They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect towards the first. There should be a third exclamation: “Oh, what blockheads!” We are eager to inquire: “Does he know Greek or Latin? Does he write in verse or in prose?” But whether he has become better or wiser, which would be the main thing, that is left out. We should have asked who is better learned, not who is more learned.”

To be better learned is to have learned also to apply one’s knowledge to one’s life; to be more learned is to be a walking encyclopaedia. The latter, however, is more easily measured and more easily observed, for we can always recite facts. Wisdom must be demonstrated over time, and often requires certain circumstances to be seen.

But always our aim should be to become better learned. That alone is what helps one to live.

What Books Should We Read?: The Ones We Need, No Matter Where We Find Them

The popular blog Farnam Street, run by Shane Parrish, recently published a post arguing that we should try our best to read the books that other people are not reading:

What books should we read? Shane Parrish, Farnam Street, Haruki Murakami
I disagree.

“Most of us read the wrong things. As Haruki Murakami put it, reading what everyone else reads means you’re probably going to think what everyone else thinks. All those books from high-school? Everyone else has read them too. The best-sellers? Same

That’s not to say these books aren’t valuable. They are. They’re just not going to help you get unique insights, see problems in a different way than others, or even help you solve more problems. They will however make you sound like you’re smart because you can talk about the things everyone else is talking about. However, there is an old adage that when you do what everyone else is doing you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else gets.”

Most of what Parrish writes is useful and insightful, but this was one of those things that I felt missed the mark. It takes a short-sighted view of reading, one that I think diminishes the reasons why we read, and encourages a zero-sum approach to books.

Do you remember the books you read in high school? Do you remember how you were changed by them, what insights they offered you in your life? I’m guessing most of us don’t; and if we do remember the books, the insights we gleaned at age 18 or younger probably aren’t those that we would glean today. We most likely focussed on themes in a book that we could recite in an essay, or sections that a teacher encouraged us to focus on.

When we read a book we read it with a certain lens on. Any great book has too many important revelations and insights on human nature for us to interpret or remember them all. We need a set of lenses in order to make sense of what we read, and to be able to ever finish a book. But those lenses themselves change over time. Shane reads with a productivity lens on; I read with an education/humanities lens on. At different periods in our lives we might try to find insights on relationships and love, careers and work, money and envy, old age and death. Our reading of a book would be different from one day to the next, let alone if spaced out by a year or more.

That’s why we will underline different passages in a book on our second reading to the first. With each additional reading, we gain different things from it. We are changed in different ways.

And we can never read every book in the world. Far better to re-read ten times the book that spoke to us in a fundamentally meaningful way (even if it’s a book everyone else is reading), than to read ten other books that may not change us at all, even if they are obscure and not being read by anyone.

The other reality is that most people don’t read properly. They read to finish a book; and they read to discover the passage that they heard quoted beforehand. But just because one passage is often-quoted does not mean it is the part of a book that will be most useful to you. I’ve often read up to a very frequently quoted section of a book and not even remembered that I’d heard the quote somewhere before; it just didn’t match what I needed from a book at this time.

Read a book slowly, and it will seem as if you read a different book to the person who read it quickly. Read it in a certain location, even, and you will get something else entirely out of it. Books are different for each person, no matter how many people read them.

It does not matter if you find a book on the bestseller list, or if it is the book that everyone else is reading. What matters is that it is the book that speaks to you, and helps you live your life. To worry, like Shane Parrish does in his post, that you are reading something that others are also reading is to miss some of the best that has ever been written. It is to read to be different, rather than reading to live a better life.

It doesn’t matter what books you read—it could be the same as everyone else—if you read it properly, read it with a certain focus, and look for what parts of the book are not the most often quoted, but are the most useful to your life.

This reminds me of a quote by one of my favourite essayists, Mark Greif:

“What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

That seems to me to be perennially true. The best thing we can do is read for ourselves, and not at all worry about what others are reading.

Marcus Aurelius explains why wanting a quiet spot in the woods won’t solve any of our problems

If only I had a quiet spot in a cabin in the woods or in the mountains where I could live for a while to write and to read, I often think to myself. (By the sea would be okay too). If I had that, everything would become clear. I’d be productive like I cannot be anywhere else. I’d focus on what is important, and I’d learn about myself and the world. I’d be re-energised, refreshed, ready once again to fulfil all my hopes and dreams. If only!

It’s a common lament. Few of us follow through. Some try. I only know of one to have succeeded.

Cabin Porn inspiration for your quiet place somewhere — Marcus Aurelius against travel and escapismPerhaps it’s becoming more common, too, as life appears to be getting more hectic and stressful. Cities compound the desire for escape to someplace quiet. Look at this Tumblr blog and I guarantee you’ll feel some pull towards what the site calls “Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere.” Check out this startup that helps stressed-out New Yorker-millennials escape to the woods for a few days.

But the pull towards somewhere quiet in the woods, the mountains or by the sea is also not at all new. Marcus Aurelius described it almost two thousand years ago—and in his Meditations, a series of notes to himself on how to and how not to behave, he also described to himself the foolishness of the ideal of “someplace quiet.”

“Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains—a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosophers, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind— the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. 

Marcus Aurelius reminds us, whenever that pull gets too strong, that we cannot expect our internal state of mind to be fixed immediately by simply going somewhere quiet in the woods. Too often we will be stressed and won’t be able to go anywhere else. We need to work out how to find peace of mind in exactly the place we are in right now—and we can find that in our own minds, if we try.

I suppose Aurelius would have thoroughly disagreed with Thoreau—he is, essentially, calling his going to live in the woods “unworthy of a philosopher.” Thoreau wished to see if he could live “deliberately”, and maybe for that he needed to go to the woods. For the rest of us, though, Aurelius poses the question: do you really need to travel to find peace of mind? Are you making an external excuse for what is an internal problem?

As Seneca pointed out before him, “your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

Emerson, Self-Reliance and Education: Learning to Be Yourself

Yesterday morning I sat down to write but my mind was elsewhere. It was a sunny, windless day, and that morning freshness still hung on the trees around my house. I closed my laptop, put on walking shoes, and drove to the base of a walk I’ve been wanting to do for a while, the Red Rocks and Tip Track loop in Wellington. I took a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays with me and sat down on the grass just before the peak to read his essay Self-Reliance.

It seemed a fitting place to read the essay, somehow disconnected from the city and from other people. I’d been walking for a couple of hours and had not seen a single other person, nor could I see any of the city from where I sat. We hear ourselves best in solitude, Emerson says: “Do not seek yourself outside yourself”. Listen to what your mind tells you when free of influence, and then take those thoughts unchanged to the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Self-Reliance and education
Sat here for an hour or so reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Self-Reliance is said to be the essay that expounded a uniquely American philosophy. It encapsulates a pioneer spirit, the idea that you can be or do anything if you believe it in your mind. (Obama recently cited it as an important book for him.) The essay is not usually spoken of as an educational essay, but read in this light, Self-Reliance presents an ideal view of what education should help us to be and to do. It is a yardstick against which we can measure the extent to which we live up to education’s promise; it is a goal for self-aware students to strive towards in our own education.

Emerson begins Self-Reliance by commenting on real genius, and noting that success follows from believing your own mind:

“To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought it rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement.”

We spend too much time obscuring our own thoughts and beliefs in order to please others. School, for the most part, is social acclimatisation. We learn what we should and should not say implicitly, before we understand why we should or should not say it. We become used to norms of speech and hide anything that we think and which we have not heard someone else say.

Now of all times, with a Mr. Trump in the White House, is perhaps the time to note that Emerson’s argument is not a license to be vitriolic or offensive merely because you believe it; decency and morality still apply. But we should not be afraid of saying something merely because it is not normally said, or because it might put us one rung lower on the social ladder.

The kind of thought that Emerson is talking about is individuality and intelligence—reflections on the world and on being which we have but think we should not speak of. What made people like Moses, Plato and Milton great, Emerson says, is that

“They set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. 

In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humoured inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

When we hold an opinion contrary to the majority we should not dismiss it simply because it is not the norm. This is, in a sense, the paradox of eminence: you do not become great by saying what everyone else was saying, but to say something great that no one else was saying requires bravery against the opinions of the majority. Emerson is telling us to listen to our own minds even when they say things that others are not. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense”—trust your judgement, because the majority hold the majority opinion merely because it is easy and comfortable.

“These are the voices [those of our own genius] which we hear in solitude”, Emerson says:

“But they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.”

In thinking of our own education we can’t help but see the joint-stock company Emerson speaks of. We are taught—and have taught ourselves—to conform. Conformity pays dividends, to continue the company analogy. We get good grades, we get praise, we get a good job, we make good money, and so on. Self-reliance—or speaking our own genuine thoughts—will merely put us at odds with the majority of people, or even put us in difficulty in the task of earning a living.

But the educational ideal is self-reliance, helping every person to become who he or she is capable of becoming. Socrates’ exhortation that the unexamined life is not worth living is itself a kind of self-reliance; to rely on ourselves, we must know ourselves. Socrates was even put to death for speaking his mind, for being self-reliant. And Plato, who told us of Socrates, is where a tradition of genuinely liberal education stems from.

We have that ideal of self-examination and self-reliance (the two go together), but we have the reality of conformity and consistency. For many of us, college is a process of unlearning the conformity we’ve been taught up until this point; for others, it is a consolidation of conformity, planning one’s life out along those lines. We cannot expect to become independently thinking people by merely taking the education we’re given; we need to fight to educate ourselves if we are to learn to be self-reliant.

If you want to be self-reliant and trust your own mind, not participating in the vanities of society, you’ll simply have to put up with discomfort—“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” What we need to do, according to Emerson, is

“All that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Indeed it all seemed clear to me in solitude on the top of a peak overlooking the sea and mountains. But we do not live in solitude. And our real task in educating ourselves (as opposed to being educated, which seems incompatible with self-reliance) is to come to terms with how we might trust our own minds and yet live with others. Emerson’s self-reliance is one extreme; he was “whipped” for it by society indeed, being widely criticised for many of his lectures at Harvard. The absolute conformity of others simply wanting what is easy and comfortable is the other extreme. But most philosophies of living are about finding a middle-way, “a compromise between”, as Seneca said, “the ideal and the popular morality.”

Our own self-reliance does not require Emerson’s extreme self-reliance; it is about our own self and being reliant upon it, not merely following his extreme interpretation. But total conformity does not involve the self at all. And so we must discover our own way of relying upon our selves.

Taking a long walk in the wilderness, as I found, was a good place to start with that end in mind. It can clear the head, give us perspective, allowing us to return to others not shut off from the world, but more sure of where we stand in it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and Self-Reliance

What is College for?: On Bill Deresiewicz and His Excellent Sheep

Willam Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep, What Is College For?I read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

 

Who Are You?: Mark Edmundson On How College Can Help Us Find Ourselves

Mark Edmundson Who Are You? Why Teach?“To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be.” So declares Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book of essays Why Teach?, among numerous others. In an essay in that book titled simply Who Are You?”, Edmundson takes up the question of what exactly a real education is, and how it can help students discover who we really are.

Edmundson thinks we’ll have to fight the institutions we find ourselves in because most students, professors, and the wider university staff all have their own interests, and those interests are decidedly not about helping you discover a sense of purpose in life. Most students come simply to get the degree, Edmundson says; most faculty, too, aim simply “to get on”, focussing on their research:

“So if you want an education, the odds aren’t with you: The professors are off doing what they call their own work; the other students, who’ve doped out the way the place runs, are busy leaving their professors alone and getting themselves in position for bright and shining futures; the student-services people are trying to keep everyone content, offering plenty of entertainment and building another sate-of-the-art workout facility every few months…

No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.”

Edmundson turns to the idea of a real education, arguing that it should help us, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “become who we are”:

“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…

You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.

For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.

This brings to mind Mark Lilla’s speech to an audience of students at Columbia, where he said that genuine students are “less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” When we read books, Lilla says, we are “almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…”

Books are the answer for Edmundson, too, and he also sees right through the argument that we should read to be ‘cultured’:

“The real reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts following back to you with an “alienated majesty.”

When we find books that speak to us in this way, we can start to formulate who we might like to be not solely out of the possibilities that have been given to us by our families, say, but by all the possibilities that exist. We ask deeper questions of ourselves—not banker or lawyer, but how do I want to spend my days, what kind of person do I want to be with, and what work fulfils me?

Ultimately, Edmundson reminds us, we shouldn’t expect a real education to be nice and easy. We will certainly have a more difficult time grappling with ourselves, and may face some tougher decisions. But if we are to live lives that are ours, not someone else’s, we just have to take that:

“The whole business is scary, of course. What if you arrive at college devoted to premed, sure that nothing will make you and your family happier than life as a physician, only to discover that elementary schoolteaching is where your heart is?

You might learn that you’re not meant to be a doctor at all. Of course, given your intellect and discipline, you can still probably be one. You can pound your round peg through the very square hole of medical school, then go off into the profession. And society will help you. Society has a cornucopia of resources to encourage you in doing what society needs done but that you don’t much like doing and are not cut out to do…

Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play—work you do so easily that it restores you as you go… And having found whats best for you to do, you may be surprised by how far you rise, how prosperous, even against your own projections, you become.”

I urge a reading of the essay in full, and if the essay leaves you wanting more, read Edmundson’s whole book. He is one of those unique voices inside higher education who is able to see college and university for what it is, as well as explain succinctly what it can be.