Why T. S. Eliot Considered Himself a “Victim” of College Elective Courses

During his time at Harvard the twentieth century’s most famous poet, T. S. Eliot, was the epitome of a liberal arts student. He studied almost everything, from art history and Greek philosophy to logic, German language, Pali and Buddhism. All of this would later combine to make his poetry an eclectic mix of global philosophies and ideas.

But twenty years after graduating, Eliot thought that the elective system at Harvard, common to all liberal arts colleges today, had let him down. In a letter to his mother he wrote:

“I was one of the victims of the “elective system”. I have always regretted that as an undergraduate I did not stick to Latin and Greek, and some mathematics, and leave alone all the things I dabbled in year after year…

I had been so interested in many things that I did nothing thoroughly, and was always thinking about new subjects that I wanted to study, instead of following out any one.”

His comment speaks to the division between American colleges and undergraduate programs in other countries—in the former dabbling is encouraged, even required, while at the latter it is made extremely difficult.

Each system has its advantages, though I’ve long come down on the side of supporting intellectual exploration in one’s undergraduate years. It was interesting to come across this very different perspective.


From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4T S Eliot letters liberal arts college electives

Friedrich Schiller on How Art and the Humanities Respond to the Necessities of Our Minds

“By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely, the deep civic function of the arts and humanities”, wrote Mark Slouka, “we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens.” For many of us, this may seem obvious: the arts are essential in the development of vibrant, informed individuals, and free societies. For others, it will seem misguided. But why exactly does art contribute to a vibrant civic life? And why, these days, do there seem to be so many for whom that idea appears mistaken, and who are intent on reducing whatever funding and attention is still directed in the way of the arts?

The downsizing of the arts and the loss of their prominent role in public life is not a new phenomenon: it is precisely what Friedrich Schiller, German poet, philosopher, and playwright, set about answering in 1795 in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man. The book, first published as Weber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, is written as a series of letters to a patron who is concerned with the role that beauty and art play in the functioning of society.

Schiller writes in his second letter of the relationship that art has to free individuals:

Schiller, Slouka and Kronman on Art in an Age of Science, and How Art Responds to the Necessities of Our Minds“Art has to leave the realm of reality, and with proper audacity elevate itself above simple need; for art is a daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds.

“To elevate itself above simple need” implies that art must do something for our inner lives, not just our outer ones; that it must speak to our need for self-actualisation, to use Maslow’s term from his hierarchy of needs. Art responds to the “necessity in our minds”, the kind of meaning and fulfilment that we require. And yet, Schiller writes, that was impossible in his time:

“For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage.”

Need and utility, the key terms of Schiller’s age—and our own, two hundred-odd years later. Mark Slouka quotes an article in the Times describing how our education system is failing “to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy.” “Might there be another reason”, Slouka wonders in response, “for seeking to develop fluent writers? Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking…?” But that is a mere micro-example of the broader reality that GDP is the structuring metric of our societies, and utility is how everything is forced to serve the need of the economy—never mind that our minds, and our planet, have their own necessities. 

Schiller concluded of his age, and it is equally applicable to ours, that,

“On this crude scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century. The spirit of philosophical enquiry strips the power of imagination from one province after another; the borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.”

The “tumultuous market of our century”, and the way that the “borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.” Who would have thought our own time would be best diagnosed from two hundred years ago? Perhaps former dean of the Yale Law School Anthony Kronman had Schiller’s passage in mind when writing a chapter titled “Spirit in an Age of Science” in his new book Education’s End: How Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. 

There, Kronman writes that “Science is today the greatest authority in our lives—greater than any political or religious ideal, any cultural tradition, any legal system. We depend on science and defer to it as we do to nothing else.” On the other hand, “We do not need the humanities for technology. They cannot satisfy our desire to understand with the same decisive clarity as the natural and social sciences. What, then, do we need them for? What can their purpose and value be?”

Kronman’s answer is Schiller’s answer is Slouka’s answer: we need art and the humanities, and we need to pay close attention to them, because they alone give spirit to our inner lives. Where science forces arational beings into rational boxes, leaving gaping holes, art instead fills the “necessity of our minds.” And what is more important?

I recommend reading through Mark Slouka’s Harper’s Magazine archive, and even more than that, reading his collection Essays from the Nick of Time.  His essay Dehumanized, from which I quoted above, can be found in both.

The edition of Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man that I’ve quoted from is the 2016 Penguin Classics edition translated by Keith Tribe.

Captivated by Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre

I came across the Maison de Verre recently, while reading a book on furniture design. Designed by Pierre Chareau, a French architect forced to flee France to the United States during the Second World War, the “Glass House”, as its name translates, has captivated me since. This was the photo printed in the book on furniture design which I couldn’t pull my eyes away from:

Pierre Chareau Maison de Verre and architecture

Maison de Verre was designed in the late 1920s and completed in the early 30s by Chareau for a wealthy obstetrician and his wife. Two interesting limitations were placed on the design of the house, where otherwise Chareau was given almost a blank slate to design the perfect house:

  1. The house had to include the doctor’s working spaces, including offices, an examination room and a waiting room.
  2. The house was to be built in place of an older house, however the upper storey of the old house was rented long-term and the tenant refused to move out. Therefore the house had to be built below the top storey, keeping it intact.

In 2007 the house changed ownership for the first time since it was built, being bought by the former US Secretary to the Treasury Robert Rubin. Rubin has a history of collecting and restoring old cars, and he also owns one of Jean Prouve’s Maison Tropicales. (Rubin is also the guy who Rustin Silverstein wrote about in an article on the prestige paradox for the Harvard Crimson, which I wrote about here).

I’ve read basically everything about the Glass House that I’ve been able to get my hands on since. One place to start is a story done in the Times about the house’s history and its recent change in ownership. Another good primer is this one.

Even better for understanding the house was a lecture given by Rubin himself about the restoration process he’s been leading the house through. And I loved this video for all the different shots of the house, as well as wonderful descriptions of its technical aspects:

Don’t Be Distracted By the Minimalist Aesthetic

“This is not something, however, to which mere surroundings are conducive, unless the mind is at its own disposal, able at will to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments.”

— Seneca, Letter CIV of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

When our lives aren’t in order it’s very tempting to look for external explanations and external fixes.

For instance, so many of us today have the sense that we are too busy, too distracted, too rushed and hurried. We wake up feeling that way and the day only makes it worse. We can’t think properly, we can’t read properly. There’s always a demand on our time to distract us from what’s important.

So when we come across a solution we’re likely to grab at it. For instance:

Minimalist House and minimalist aesthetic
Minimalist House in Okinawa, Japan. Photo from Deezen.

An image like this makes a promise, and embedded within that promise is a cause and effect.

It says: if you have an uncluttered physical space, your mind will be uncluttered too. Or, the reverse: your mind is cluttered because your surroundings are cluttered.

Solutions like this are so compelling because they tell us directly what we should do, and promise salvation. Just declutter your house, and you’ll declutter your mind!

They’re also compelling because of their aestheticism. We are wired to enjoy and to seek beauty in our lives, and we are naturally drawn to certain aesthetics.

There is a link between our lives and our desire for a certain aesthetic—but unfortunately it may not be the link we hoped for.

We are drawn to a minimalist aesthetic because of the clutteredness of our minds. Our desire for this aesthetic is a response to dissatisfaction with our lives.

But we cannot rely upon a minimalist aesthetic to solve the problems inside our minds. The problems are internal not external. As the quote from Seneca above shows, it’s an age-old temptation to look to external solutions for internal problems (he wrote around two thousand years ago).

At best the aesthetic is a kind of band-aid. It distracts us from our problems. Ironic, since it is meant to clear our lives of distraction.

Band-aids help. So too might a minimalist aesthetic in our lives. But let’s not expect it to solve our problems.

An internal problem requires internal solutions. (I know in saying that that I’ll lose most readers right there. It’s not the “change your life right here and right now!” advice that most blogs give).

An uncluttered mind will take uncluttering our minds, not just our houses. It’s not easy. It takes practise. It might just take a lifetime.

Prestige Is Especially Dangerous to the Ambitious: Paul Graham on How to Escape the Prestige Paradox

Prestige is one of those aspects of society that we understand implicitly from a young age. We don’t think about it, but it’s always there in conversations and at the back of our minds when we make life decisions. The fact that it operates subconsciously is dangerous, because we aren’t even aware of the ways that it limits the choices we let ourselves consider or how it guides the decisions we make.

Paul Graham, one of the co-founders of startup incubator Y-Combinator, writes essays in his spare time. His online archive is a treasure trove of thinking that goes back to fundamentals, and gets us to think about our lives from different angles. Embedded in an article on the not-so-trivial topic of “How to do what you love”, Graham makes some vital comments about what I think of as the Prestige Paradox:

“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”
That’s one element of the Prestige Paradox—the idea that prestige as a reward is only necessary when a task or job wouldn’t otherwise be desirable.

I think there are some jobs, especially those including elements of public service, where prestige may be more a function of the service nature of the work. But many other jobs are the opposite of service—their incentives are necessarily self-serving in order to entice people to the work. Money, power and prestige are the three primary incentives given.

Graham continues:

“Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.”
The advice not only applies to decisions about work, but decisions about college too. We are blinded by prestige when deeper reasons may guide us to alternative decisions.

Read Graham’s full article here, which also deals with the problems with seeking money, how we confuse work with something unenjoyable, and what we can do to get out of these traps. And for another perspective on prestige, read about how “At Harvard, it’s hard to resist becoming a rat.”

Introducing the Liberal Arts Blog

What must we learn in order to live meaningful lives in the twenty-first century?

That’s the question the guides Liberal Arts Blog. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of how we should understand and think about education, how we should structure and live our lives, and how we can best meet the specific challenges of our century.

We’ve become too used to seeing education as merely a necessary credential to be gained before we can get on with our lives. Education stands as a hurdle to leap over; we try to jump higher, to get good grades, to get into a prestigious university, to get on with and do well in our lives.

Most people recognise at some point or other that spending almost a quarter of our lives in formal education merely so we can begin our lives proper is not a particularly intelligent use of time. Many also recognise that education is about far more than a credential—that, in Seneca’s words, “We learn not for school, but for life.” Yet our institutions and our societies disincentivise such a view. Focus on the credential, we’re told. Get back to work.

In my second to last year of high school I started a website called They Don’t Teach You This In School. Frustrated by how everything I was learning was useful only in the classroom, and was not going to help me in my life, I wanted to collect the experiences and advice of those who were wise, and to make this knowledge accessible to all. That, it seemed to me, was the real point of an education: learning how to live a meaningful life by hearing others’ wisdom. While the website didn’t work out in the end, I’ve long since thought that there should be a space online to explore what a real education is. A space not to dictate what it should be, but to have a conversation about what a meaningful education in the twenty-first century should encompass. Now in my final year of college, I’ve decided to have a go at it, picking up here where my formal education leaves off.

The “liberal arts” come the closest to describing what I hope this blog can be. The term has been diminished of late, as colleges and universities have confused their missions, but a liberal education always stood for what Michael Oakeshott called an “adventure in human self-understanding.” This blog is one person’s attempt at a liberal arts education.

Liberal Arts Blog