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 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 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.

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.

How to Succeed at College and University

I think the first course we ever take should be “College 101” or “University 101”; in other words, how to get the most out of our time here. Four years is a long time, and without guidance on how we should be approaching it all, it’s all too easy for our college years to disappear and to be regretting later in life that we didn’t make the most of them.

These are the four things I wish someone had told me on day one.

1. The trick is to be curricular

“One of the secrets of a modern American college”, writes Mark Greif, one of my favourite essayists, “is that before undergraduates take up “extracurriculars,” or if they choose not to take up any (as I didn’t), studying is itself the passion and the activity. The challenge is to be curricular—to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.”

For all the talk of extracurricular life being the heart of university, that’s not the reason we’re here. It can seem strange to say, but the best way to transform your life while at college is to stick as closely as possible to your reading. (Obama did). To not only read the pages assigned, but to devour the books whole. To wake up early for no other reason than to get a seat by the window in the library and read the book from start to finish, mulling over every thought and comparing it to your own life and your own understanding of the world.

Going to college is like stepping foot into a room where the most important conversation of humanity is taking place. Perhaps unwittingly we’ve opened the door and walked through, but now inside, the best thing we can do is listen. Listen to every important thought ever put down by humanity, the disagreements between different thinkers across the ages, and judge the thoughts against our own lives.

If we’re “curricular” enough, by the end of college we should have built ourselves solid foundations upon which to shape our lives. We will have learned about love and death; how to waste a life; how to live simply; how to cope with loss; and so on for all topics that matter to us as humans— and our goal should be to find ourselves in our final year able for the first time to chime into the conversation with our own thoughts. Don’t rush it during the first few years—be content to recite what each author is saying in the conversation. Only in our final year should we take those first bold steps towards stating our own views, now that we know what has been said before.

2. We’re not here in order to get a job

And if you are, there’s something far more important you should be doing with your time.

Throughout your time at university various people will try to pressure you into thinking that the point of your time here is to get a job once you graduate. Perhaps some professors, instead of assigning an essay (which is simply a way for you to engage in that great conversation of humanity) will assign something like an infographic, because “that’s a skill employers want these days.” Perhaps your university’s career office will invite you to a meeting in which they’ll box you into a career path and encourage you to take classes related to the job you think you might want later in life. Maybe even your friends, as they start to worry about their own futures, will push you into majoring in something “practical”.

But the reality is that college is a remarkably inefficient way to get a job. That’s what all the discussion at the moment is about, with commentators lamenting the declining “return on investment” on a college degree; it gets more expensive, and it’s harder to get a job. Let’s be clear: college is not an investment. It is simply a purchase. What is it we are purchasing? Oh, nothing less than four years with which to become a real, thinking human being. It is the best purchase we will ever make, and maybe it will even come with a job at the end of it! But to think of college as being a “return on investment” before we’ve even begun will mean we look for all the wrong things while there, passing up the real value that an education offers us.

The moment college is thought of as an investment, it has become a bad one indeed, for in that thought you’ve precluded gaining the real thing that college offers.

The goal of college is to build solid foundations with which we can live the rest of our lives. It is to become a real human being, one who thinks, feels, and judges, using our capacities to the full in everything we do, from contributing in a job to building a healthy, happy family.

Always remember: you can build a career on these solid foundations of your life, but you cannot build the foundations of your life upon a career.

3. Try to discover the kind of life you want to live

“To be admitted”, says Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, “you had to exude confidence about what Americans… call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it.” Finally, someone said it.

Instead, Lilla argues, students should be “far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” And that latter—figuring out what is worth wanting in life—is what a liberal education affords us.

Every book we ever read shows us different possible lives we could lead. Even something as dry and seemingly lifeless as an economics textbook can at least show us what life might be like as an economics professor. Literature is filled with characters, and if it does nothing else, it gives us the ability to empathise with different people, putting ourselves in their shoes, so to speak—wondering what their lives might be like, whether we might like to be them.

When we read books, Lilla argues,

“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.”

We can never try out a thousand different lives with the single life we have, so taking four years while at college to question all these different lives and decide on which one(s) might be for us is perhaps the most valuable time we will ever spend. There’s a reason that we go to university at this point in our lives, and that is because we need to figure out our definition of success now, before too much time has gotten away from us.

4. If you’re constantly stressed and too busy to sleep, you’re doing it wrong

So many of us seem to live in a state of latent exhaustion. The irony is that the exhaustion is a status symbol—“I’m just so busy, let’s get lunch sometime”, says the acquaintance, rushing off into the distance, not to be heard from until the next time you pass them outside class (I’m sure I’m guilty)—but the exhaustion cannot be truly admitted. To admit that the exhaustion is a problem is to admit weakness, and that’s not something that we who got into these colleges can easily do.

But with every all-nighter to finish a paper there comes a decreased chance that we’ll get out of college what we came here for. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for anyone else. Less sleep = more stress. More stress = worse work. Worse work = less sleep + more stress. And so on. Negativity can start affecting everything and everyone around you, and we know that mental health on university campuses is a severe issue.

The reality is that professors are on our side. They don’t want us pulling all-nighters. They don’t want us struggling. Once we realise that they are in their jobs because they want to help us learn, to get out of college what we came for, assignments can be seen as opportunities instead of struggles. If you’re given an essay topic and have simply zero interest in it, or think you won’t learn anything from doing the work, go talk to your professor and propose a new topic. They’ll allow it. And once we’re doing work that we’re interested in, everything else can often fall into place—time management, sleep, thinking positively, and working out what kind of a life we’d like to lead after university.

Remember that to be busy is a choice; and to be busy without first having done the difficult work of discovering what one believes in and wishes to work towards is to have merely, in the words of one novelist, a sense of “motion without movement”, and, in the words of another, to strive for ends that may be “chimerical or hurtful.”

Don’t fall into that trap of exhaustion. Just because everyone around us is living like that doesn’t mean we need to. Be zen.

And if other people keep you up too late—get earplugs. (I don’t have that problem thanks to a heroic best friend who silences everyone coming into the suite after 11. Thanks as always, Maria!).

John Keats and the Vale of Soul-Making

The writer Anna Quindlen has said that “People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit.” I’ve always shied away from terms like “soul” and “spirit”, and perhaps that’s part of the point. A resume seems solid and certain, whereas the soul seems fluffy and vague. But we know implicitly that the latter is lasting and meaningful—important to who we are—whereas the former is fleeting. How then to think about the “soul” or “spirit”?

Two years before he died tragically of tuberculosis at age 25, John Keats wrote a letter to his brother and sister-in-law describing his philosophy of “spirit creation”.

John Keats and the Vale of Soul Making
John Keats. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”… I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. 

The soul, for Keats, is what makes us us. Maybe it can also be called our “identity” though that doesn’t seem to capture all of it. We all have intelligence, the ability to reason, but a soul is refined, developed; we don’t automatically have “spirit”. The world is what develops our soul—if we let it. “How then are Souls to be made?”, Keats asks, and goes on to explain:

“This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

The three “materials” of the intelligence, the heart, and the world all combine together to let us develop as people. Things in the world happen to us—loved ones die, or we fall in love; we succeed at some things, fail at others; we fall ill, or crash our bicycle. Through the heart and the intelligence we then make sense of what happens to us in the world. The process of all this is what gives us souls—we are changed by the world, and change our responses to the world in turn.

Keats uses the metaphor of a school to show how the combination of the three “materials” make us into complete people—but that everything that happens to us, both good and bad, contributes equally to our development:

“I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

The bad that happens to us can affect us as much if not more than the good; it is in many ways necessary for our development. Keats felt this from personal experience as he would suffer over the next two years before dying in 1821.

I think this also explains why colleges and universities are such great places for developing our “selves”, our identities. They put us at close quarters with other people, creating a mini “world” upon which our intelligence and our hearts can act and combine together. A college is the world sped-up, and the four years that we spend there can be thought of equally as a vale of soul-making.

What’s the Point of College?: Mark Lilla on The Soldier, The Saint, The Sage and the Citizen

What is the point of college and university? There seem to be as many answers to that question as there are students and faculty, but here’s one explanation I find particularly important.

In April 2010 Mark Lilla (a professor of humanities, though a political scientist by training) delivered a lecture to all first-year undergraduates at Columbia University. Columbia is known for its “core” curriculum, a series of classes that all students at the college must take. The event was the final lecture of the students’ first year at college, and Lilla’s goal was to go back over all the texts that they’d read that year, drawing out common links between them.

Lilla’s lecture was broader than just that, for he reflected at the start on the reason why we go to college, and the reason we read all these books. College is not really about preparing for a specific career, or to maximise our potential post-graduation earnings. If that was the aim, attending college and studying the humanities is certainly not an efficient way to do it.

Instead, Lilla argues, we go to college because we have questions about what to do with our lives, and we need to explore all the ways we could live. He begins, however, by noting:

“Of course, that’s not at all what you told the admissions office on your application. You figured, correctly, that to be admitted you had to exude confidence about what Americans—and only Americans—call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it. The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and powerpoint presentations.

Talking to my students, I have discovered that they’re far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.

But in our reading of so many books at university, we cannot help thinking about and exploring lives that we had never considered, and never even knew were possible:

“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.”

What could be more important? And there’s a reason that college and university come at a very specific time in our lives, roughly between the ages of 18 and 22, when we need to determine what kind of life we find worth living before we get too caught up in the world of work.

Lilla’s description of college gets straight to the heart of the matter, and by bearing it in mind, no book at college should ever be boring—for every book presents lives that we could make our own, if we wished. His lecture in its entirety is worth watching: