Should You Be a Well-Rounded Student, or a Highly-Focused Specialist?

At my old high school it was always stressed to us that our goal should be to become an “all-round man”. (It’s an all male school). Even today this is a kind of tag line for Scots College and many high schools around the world. “Students at the College”, the website says, “are provided with opportunities in many areas to develop their potential in the areas of academia, sport, culture, service and spirituality.” The “all-round” person excels at all these things. They are the mythical “renaissance” person, the generalist, the jack-of-all-trades, someone who can speak on any subject, a person on whom nothing is ever lost.

At university the goal is the opposite. We are told that we need to become exceptional at something—that we need to focus on our major, get a paper published, get an internship in the field, read all the “literature” on the topic, write our thesis on an even narrower sub-topic. At a liberal arts college we’re encouraged to take classes outside that area, but even then we’re told to draw links back to see how those other fields can inform our area of expertise. At university the model is the distinguished professor—someone who is a recognized international expert in their field, who knows everything there is to be known about their area. The all-rounder is here viewed as the dilettante, the dabbler, someone who has no idea what they want to do with their life and so is delaying the choice. At full research universities rather than liberal arts colleges the model of the expert is even stronger.

If the goal of our education is to become the ideal that the educational institution (and by extension society) holds up, how does it make sense to have two radically opposed ideals at two stages of our education? Which should we become: the generalist or the specialist? Which is better?

The decision relates not just to the kind of student we are or the career we hope to have, but rather what kind of person we are—what we think about and read on, what we can speak about and who we associate with.

     The Origins of the Two Ideals

The two models each have long histories.

The “all-round” ideal that most high schools still follow is derived from the Greek tradition, where the liberal arts model of education was developed and practiced (liberal arts proper, not liberal arts as the term has been corrupted to today). Students took a range of subjects and developed them all, looking up to someone like Aristotle who expounded as comfortably on drama and poetry as he did on science. Aristotle himself in his Nichomachean Ethics wrote that

“We take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.”

The human end, in other words, is to think and to reason well in pursuit of happiness. We contribute by thinking and reasoning and bringing our thought into contact with society. There should be no limits to what our thought encompasses. To limit ourselves to one field of thought (if we can separate fields of knowledge at all) is foolish, in this tradition.

But our colleges and universities have come to follow a very different tradition, one that came about much later than the Greek “all-round” ideal. This is the German “bildung” tradition, or that of personal development, which Anthony Kronman in his latest book has argued led directly to the research (specialist) ideal of the modern university:

“Two features of the Bildung ideal meshed in an especially close and supportive way with the requirements of specialised academic research… The first was an insistence on the one-sidedness of all responsible self-cultivation. Every human being is born with powers he or she shares with other members of the species. But no one person can develop these to full expression. Life is too short for that… To aim at a universal humanity that encompasses the whole of mankind’s powers [the Greek tradition] is not only fruitless, and hence imprudent, but self-indulgent as well. What one must do instead is develop to their fullest the distinctive talents one possesses, leaving it to others to develop theirs in turn.”

So the model of specialization that our universities follow today is derived from a totally different intellectual tradition and foundation to the model of well-roundedness of our high schools. They come from different places, and they encourage us to be different people.

     Which Ideal to Strive For?

I think it’s too simplistic to say that because university is considered “higher” education, we should follow the ideal that it puts forth. One can follow that ideal if one chooses to devote one’s life to scholarship, but the ideal might not make sense if we want something else in life.

For the record, I think “wholeness” and well-roundedness is an ideal to strive for in our personal lives. But I recognise that people go to university for a variety of reasons—and so maybe some more general advice is needed in this case.

My suggestion is that in thinking about high school and then university we should separate in our minds that stage of education from the ideal that they necessarily put forth. Going to university does not require us to become specialists, even if it encourages it; and contrariwise, one can still specialise at a high school committed to developing the “all-round” person.

That each stage of our education puts forth different ideals is as much a result of the chance development of these two kinds of institutions as it is a necessary reality.

If your mind favors thinking broadly and generally, and you push back against the pressure to specialise, then hold onto that. Don’t let the fact that you’re in a university tell you you must specialise.

If you have a deep passion for a single field and want to devote yourself to that, then specialise, regardless of any pressure you feel to broaden. (A word of caution here, however: When we are very young it is difficult to tell where else we might find passions and interests. Enforced general study at high school does make sense in many ways, because we are told that we are not yet ready to make lifelong decisions about what to devote ourselves to. But as with everything, it is an individual decision.)

At the very least, it pays to remember that the ideals we are shown daily are not ones we need to follow. It is far more important to find out who we are as individuals, and then find an ideal to match that.

What Is the Point of College and University?

It depends what you’re here for.

There are many different ends that a college or university education can help you work towards. But no one draws the distinctions for us while we’re at university; no one tells us it’s okay to want something different from your education than the person next to you. Universities offer a one-size-fits-all education. It’s up to us to determine the ends we want, and to spend our time here differently as a result.

Professors assume we are here to become professors, too.

The careers office assumes we are here to land as high a paying job as possible, probably in consulting or finance.

Our friends assume we’re here to have fun with them.

Our parents assume we’re here because of course we were meant to go to college.

But what’s the real point of college?

All of those ends are legitimate. College can help you to become a professor, to get a high-paying job, to have fun and make friends, to satisfy demanding parents.

College can also help you to live a meaningful life. It can help you discover the kind of life you’d like to live. It can help you to become the person you are, as Nietzsche put it. It can help you avoid being a “slave to your head”, as David Foster Wallace said.

Different people will require different ends. Maybe a majority, these days, just want the job at the end of it. But their wanting that doesn’t diminish our demand for a real education, one that helps us to live meaningful and responsible lives, whatever job we decide to pursue.

It’s important to know what the point of college is for us. Our friends might want something different out of their time here, and that’s ok. We’ll be pressured by career offices into taking the first consulting job that comes up—and that’s ok, too. It’s ok, because no one else can change what we decide to get out of our time here. Smile at those who tell you what you should be doing with your time here, politely decline their suggestions, and get on with getting the education you’re here for.

We speak of the purpose of college as if there were a single answer. When really, the only answer is that it’s up to you to decide, and then to strive towards that purpose no matter what those around you are striving for.

The education you end up getting moulds itself to what you decide the point of college is for you. Work towards the end you want, and university will become that for you. These are remarkably malleable places, since their essence is a library full of books, and there is always the book we need.

What Thoreau said about life equally applies to our education:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

There are, ultimately, as many reasons to go to college as there are books in the library.

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

What Is a Liberal Arts Education? Or, How to Build a Meaningful Life

The idea of the liberal arts is one of the most important ideas in education. It is also one of the most misunderstood. A liberal education—that is, an education that teaches the liberal arts—is to my mind a real education, one that teaches us not just how to do something, but what exactly we should do and what we should want in our lives. It is an antidote to the sense of meaninglessness and exhaustion that plagues so many students on campus, and follows us throughout our lives. But the problem is, universities themselves have forgotten what the liberal arts really are, and there seem very few people today who still understand what a real education is and how it can help us live meaningful lives.

With this article I want to give an historical and a philosophical account of what liberal education always was, and what it can be, if students choose. This isn’t—cannot be—exhaustive. Yet it is the article I wish I’d read about the liberal arts before I started college and university.

1. Liberal, Servile and Instrumental Arts

The “liberal arts” (or artes liberales)  always stood opposed to what were called the “servile arts” (artes serviles). “Arts” mean, essentially, ways of doing or thinking things, and “liberal” was originally used in the sense of “free”. So liberal arts were ways of doing or thinking things that were appropriate to people who are free. “Servile”, on the other hand, was used in the ancient Greek context to refer to the ways of doing or thinking things that were used by people who were not free—in other words, slaves. The liberal arts only existed with reference to arts that were not liberal.

But that distinction is long outdated. It draws upon a difference between people that, thank goodness, has not existed for quite some time. In its place, however, a new distinction has come about.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his book The Voice of Liberal Learning contrasts the liberal arts to “instrumental” arts. Instrumental as in, used to achieve something else. The liberal arts in this distinction are done for their own sake, not in order to achieve other ends, while the instrumental arts are done to achieve specific ends. These ends that the instrumental arts pursue, Oakeshott says, are “exploiting the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants”:

“To be human, to have wants and to try to satisfy them, is, then, to have the use of particular skills, instrumental practices and relationships. There is no action which is not a subscription to some art, and utterance is impossible without a language. These skills, practices and relationships have to be learned. Since this learning, so far as it goes, is genuine and may be extensive, it is no surprise that there should be special places devoted to it, each concerned to initiate learners into some particular instrumental art or practice and often equipped with the opportunity of “learning on the job”, as it is called: medical schools, law schools, language schools, schools of journalism or photography, schools where one may learn to cook, to drive an automobile or to run a bassoon factory, and even polytechnics where a variety of such instrumental skills may be learned.”

As Oakeshott describes, the instrumental arts are learned at specific schools like medical schools, law schools, language schools, polytechnics and so on. The learning done at these schools is concerned with a very specific end—being a lawyer or a doctor, practising those skills in a career, earning an income.

But the instrumental arts are, on their own, never sufficient if one is to be a complete human who pursues ends that are responsible and meaningful. As Oakeshott says, “It is never enough to say of a human want: “I know how to satisfy it and I have the power to do so.” There is always something else to consider.”

That something else is this: is a given want worth satisfying? What, precisely, should I want in life?

Those are the questions of a liberal education. They do not deal with satisfying specific human wants, but in determining what it is that we should want. For Oakeshott, these are “liberal” arts because they are “liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants.”

Cardinal John Henry Newman in his important book The Idea of a University described the distinction similarly:

“That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”

And Josef Pieper in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, said that the question posed by the liberal arts is,

“Is there a sphere of human activity, one might even say of human existence, that does not need to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization?”

The instrumental arts—science and technology—allowed humans to build nuclear and chemical weapons. They were insufficient to ask the prior, and far more important question, “Should these be made?”

The instrumental arts studied at a school of law or medicine help a prodigious and ambitious young person to become a successful lawyer or doctor, well-respected and well-paid. They are insufficient for asking the prior—and necessary—questions of, “Should I be a lawyer? What kind of life would that be? What, ultimately, am I living for?”

It is the liberal arts that teach us to be responsible humans who live meaningful lives. We can and should learn instrumental arts, too—but these are best learned after one has figured out what is worth wanting.

2. The Point of a Liberal Arts Education

The first universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge), and the first colleges in the United States (Harvard and Yale)—as well as those places of learning in India and China—were all concerned with the liberal arts. They taught nothing else. They existed to be separate from the world of work and the satisfaction of wants.

At these liberal arts colleges, one did nothing for four years but read, write, and consider the important questions of human existence. One did not go to college in order to set oneself up for a good job after graduation. Students did not choose colleges based on their expected “return on investment.” They went because it was widely recognised that a young person needed time and space—four years to be precise—to figure out what it is that is worth wanting, before learning how to pursue that.

Reading literature, philosophy, and history opens students’ minds to the range of different lives that could be lived—and listening to a piece of music or observing an artwork can inspire someone to a better life. They are not read in order to become a professor of literature or philosophy, but merely to discover the full range of human existence. And this is why a liberal education is focussed on the humanities: because these alone deal with human existence.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, in a rare recent explanation of the point of college, described the reading we do at a liberal arts college by saying:

“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and 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?…

You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, pointed to the question of “Who Are You?” as at the heart of an education at a liberal arts college:

“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.”

Anthony Kronman, former Dean of the Yale Law School, says in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, that

“The goal of every undergraduate liberal arts program is to provide its students with an opportunity of this kind… All rest on the assumption that one important aim of undergraduate education is to afford the young men and women who are its beneficiaries an opportunity to reflect on the curious and inspiring adventure of life before they have gone too far in it and lost the time and perhaps the nerve for such reflections.”

Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, in his book College: What It Was, Is and Should Be quotes Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, who described college as being about

What is a liberal arts education?“Making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

And David Foster Wallace in his commencement address at Kenyon College said that the “real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education” is about

“How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

All these explanations of liberal education have in common the idea that going to college should be about answering the fundamental questions of one’s life before it’s too late to ask them. If we do not take time from roughly ages 18-22 to do this serious thinking, it’s likely we’ll never be able to—and will live lives that are less meaningful and responsible than they could have been.

College mottos—Yale’s “lux et veritas”, for instance, or “light and truth”—hint at both the religious foundations of colleges, as well as this devotion to learning at its most fundamental.

What is inescapable is that a liberal education is an enormous privilege. It is an opportunity few are afforded—but once afforded, should be taken full advantage of.

3. Liberal Arts Colleges Today

Clearly liberal arts colleges today offer something quite different. I strongly believe that they still offer the liberal education I’ve described above—but that one has to fight for that, rather than being given it as the default.

One would expect that whatever one studies at a liberal arts college will then be a “liberal art”, and will help us work out what we should want. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Liberal arts” as the way most colleges and universities intend them today, including the Ivy Leagues, is used as nothing more than a synonym for breadth in one’s education. The term merely implies that students intend—or are encouraged—to take a variety of subjects not immediately related to one’s major or area of focus.

Breadth may well be a part of a liberal education, but it comes nowhere close to defining it. And so when we look at colleges, or are admitted and look through the course selection booklet, there is nothing to distinguish between colleges themselves, subjects, classes or professors that may allow us an “adventure in human self-understanding”, as Oakeshott called it, versus those that teach how to “exploit the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants.”

Colleges have also radically expanded the range of majors we can study, many of which are pre-professional and therefore instrumental. These majors deal with teaching students how to be or do something, rather than asking the prior questions of whether they should be or do those things. Students can go through an entire four years at a liberal arts college merely preparing for their first job, rather than undertaking a proper liberal education.

This is not the place for me to get into the reasons for this change, or its effects. Suffice it to say that the education today offered at most liberal arts colleges is not a liberal education as it was always conceived—and to better understand this, I recommend Andrew Delbanco and Anthony Kronmans’ books.

4. How to get a proper liberal education

I take it for granted that the professionalisation of our liberal arts colleges is inevitable and irrevocable. The majority of students, parents and professors demand an instrumental education even at a liberal arts college, and nothing can be done to reverse that corruption in terms. I do not complain about it—so long as students who want a liberal education are still able to get one.

The problem, however, is that because the distinction between the liberal and instrumental arts has been diminished or lost by our institutions, we simply aren’t aware of how the small decisions we make about our learning can come to radically affect the kind of education we think we can have. Most students do not know that they can have an education that deals with their lives as a whole, rather than one that deals with their first job. Everything said to us by institutions, professors, parents and classmates pushes us to receive an instrumental education, rather than a properly liberal one.

And again, I repeat—an instrumental education is necessary, because we must participate in the world towards instrumental ends. But it is best done after a truly liberal education, which first lets someone work out what ends are worth wanting.

That’s why it’s so critical we understand these distinctions that all come under the broad banner of “education”, because without an ability to discern between the liberal and instrumental arts we are blind to the way that our decisions about what to learn and when we learn them will shape our life opportunities. But more importantly, if we aren’t aware of the distinctions, we might simply miss entirely the opportunity to build the meaning into our lives that a liberal education offers.

Most students will continue to spend their time at college in the normal way, seeking instrumental ends before figuring out what ends to want. But to those who want an education of the “high old way”—to those students who think there must be more to an education than expanding one’s resume—know that it’s possible, and that it can be truly transformative. Know that there are others who also want a real education, who are likewise disappointed by what college and university has become. And know that throughout history, most of those who wrote books that we can read today understood the value and the need for a truly liberal education. They’re our guides, even if we are guided away by current university administrators from what we want in our education.

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.

Barack Obama on How Books Helped Him “Rebuild Himself”

Obama has spoken often enough about his college years, and how he spent his time at Columbia in New York “living like a monk”. He has said, “I don’t think that the more serious side of me sprang up overnight. I think it had been building. It just took longer to manifest in me than it might have in some other kids.” Yet Obama gives, in a recent interview with the New York Times just days before he leaves office, an astonishing picture of how books shaped him.

Talking about what made him want to become a writer, Obama says that he “loved books as a kid, partly because I was traveling so much”; but then “I became a teenager and wasn’t reading that much other than what was assigned in school, and playing basketball and chasing girls, and imbibing things that weren’t very healthy.”

Obama on the power of books and rebuilding the selfBut then, he says, “I think I rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself, a process I write about in ‘Dreams From My Father’.”

The idea of using books to “rebuild” oneself is profound. I take “rebuilding” to mean breaking out of the people we are as kids, when our identities and the structures of our lives are largely given to us, to instead determine exactly who we would like to be. It means asking deep questions of oneself; not merely whether I want to be a writer or a politician, as in Obama’s case, but how I want to live each day, what community I want to be a part of, even how I want to make meaning of the colour of my skin. Rather than choosing between false dichotomies that can be set up for us—banker or consultant, politician or policymaker?—, rebuilding oneself and answering deep questions means going back to look at all possible lives and determining which one we might like to live.

Obama goes on to describe how

“I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.”

“To sort through this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.” That exactly what we all need to do, but what is most difficult to do. College gives us time where the “swirl of events” seems even sped up, since we live at such close quarters with so many other people. But it also gives us in books the materials where we can make sense of the swirl of events. Books are the collated wisdom of every generation, and in them we can find the challenges others have faced and how they chose to resolve them. We shouldn’t be surprised that Obama went through this transformation in his first or second year of college.

We considered Obama someone who is very balanced and measured in everything he does. He acknowledges this about himself, and also explains how he thinks it came about:

“People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.”

The interview is remarkable in its entirety for how the President (I can still say that for four more days) explains the value of books to individuals without diminishing them by economic descriptors. Too often public figures explain the value of reading only with reference to how it can increase your job prospects (even Obama fell for that), which simultaneously diminishes the chance that people can get out of reading the things that are most important.

It will be exciting to see what Obama will do post-presidency, and he has already indicated he hopes to be involved with education and the arts. Better explaining to people the value of reading, and the value of a liberal education, should be a critical part of that.

This Is Water: Why David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech is the Best Explanation of Liberal Arts Education

What are the liberal arts? It’s a question to which most thinkers and educationalists seem to have taken a stab at one point or other. And yet answers vary wildly: some focus on the liberal arts as opposed to the servile or instrumental arts in the ancient Greek conception, while others suggest liberal education concerns a general receptiveness to knowledge and wisdom rather than a discrete category of education.

I’ve always thought that the dilemma of explaining liberal education is that its real value is felt rather than understood. And maybe, for that very reason, I think David Foster Wallace—perhaps the writer of the 1990s and 2000s—came closest to giving a proper explanation, and he did so by giving what could be the most general and incomprehensible description of all.

David Foster Wallace This Is Water Kenyon College Commencement Address on Liberal Arts EducationIn 2005 Foster Wallace gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College in Ohio. The speech, titled “This Is Water”, is incredible in its entirety. But in one passage in particular, Foster Wallace describes what he sees as the real point of having a liberal arts education.

“I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

A liberal education will involve studying philosophy, literature, history, and so on—all subjects that deal with humanity and what it means to be human. It teaches, therefore, a kind of empathy. For to know about how other humans have lived is to learn to understand ways of being and thinking different from one’s own.

What Foster Wallace puts so viscerally is that a liberal education is about learning how to live: how to live with boredom and the “trenches” of day to day existence, how to live with the kind of loneliness that affronts one in a metropolis.

Sure, we need to learn how to be lawyers, or engineers, or doctors, and so on. Those kinds of education are clearly important. But what a liberal arts education does that no other kind of education can is teach us how to live productively and meaningfully on this planet with other people who can so often seem to us merely to be getting in our way. Without that education, the practical and technical skills we have may never be put to their best use. We need to learn to live before we can learn to be specialists.

And that’s why Foster Wallace gets closest to explaining the real value of the liberal arts, despite giving an abstract definition. Because humans defy definition, and the liberal arts deal most fundamentally with humans.

It remains to be seen whether anyone can ever get closer to describing the unique power of an education that will always exist, and will always be central to our societies.