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.

On Repetition, or Why Repeating the Past Won’t Solve Our Present Problems

“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy…”  — Soren Kierkegaard

A year ago I spent time in the south island of New Zealand in a beautiful little town called Wanaka. It was mid-summer and the weather was perfect every day. I was on break from university and had no obligations or demands on my time, so each day I would read, spend time with people important to me, and go for long bike rides around the lake and up the mountains. It was a perfect week.

One day in particular stands out in my mind, and hardly a day goes by without my thinking about it. I woke up early again to a perfect day, got straight into my cycling kit, and headed out the door to ride to Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s most famous towns, which lies about eighty kilometres away from Wanaka over one of the must stunning mountain passes perhaps in the world. There is nothing individually that I can point to to describe what made this day so important for me. It was just the total experience of this long, early-morning bike ride over the Crown Range with no other traffic and no people. Maybe it was a state of flow for almost the entire day. I’m filled with positive feelings and gratitude when I think back on it.

Soren Kierkegaard Repetition — Repeating the past doesn't solve our present problems
View from the top of the Crown Range. This is my frequent repetition memory.

Whatever made the day what it was to me is secondary to its importance in my mind. That day is a yardstick against which I measure up the present.

We all have memories like this, and we all think back on them often. When the present gets tough, we can find ourselves looking back to those perfect times more and more frequently.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the desire to not just remember those times, but to repeat them. To not just think about how nice those days were, but to travel back to the same town, to stay in the same place, to re-travel the same route, eat at the same restaurants and even read the same books.

Merely remembering these times can make us melancholy, since our thinking about them indicates that the present does not live up to them. But repeating them, recreating those perfect moments in the future—would that not make us as happy again? Our desire for repetition is an attempt to reproduce past happiness in the future. The present, in this frame of mind, is merely a link whereby we can plan to link our past with our future.

But repetition does not work. And not only does it not work, but attempting it simultaneously harms us in the present, and harms our original memory of that time that was once perfect. We risk avoiding whatever problems we have in the present, and extrapolating our pasts into our futures endlessly.

1. Our environment does not determine our mental state

We commonly think that our happiness or sadness is caused by the environment we are in. In remembering the wonderful days I had in Queenstown and Wanaka, I draw a connection between those locations and my mental state at the time. This is logical, and indeed there may be a partial connection. But it’s important to realise that our environment does not determine our mental state, and that we do not see all the other factors that contributed to our happiness at that time.

What we eat has an enormous impact on our emotions. So does whether we over or under-exercise. How much we’ve slept. Who we are spending time with, what work we have to do. How satisfied we are with ourselves. These things probably influenced my happiness while I was in Wanaka far more than the fact that was in Wanaka. And yet in the present, it’s far easier to simply look back and point to the location and the environment as the cause of happiness, since it’s the most immediate in our minds.

We can repeat the environment by travelling back to that location that we remember; but we can never repeat all the other factors that contributed to our happiness, the ones that we don’t remember and cannot see. And the irony is that the former was probably not the cause of our mental state, while the latter were. So in seeking repetition, we are merely confusing causes, and seeking to repeat something that was coincidental to our happiness.

2. Desire for repetition stems from dissatisfaction with our present

We can map out the direction of our thoughts when we begin to consider repetition.

When we are satisfied with the present we do not recollect the past. When I was in Wanaka during that perfect week, I was not thinking back to other happy times and wanting to repeat them in the future. Instead I was wholly present.

So, first, we are prompted to remember happy times past by a dissatisfaction with the present. It is not enjoying what we are doing today that encourages thinking about the past.

Next, present dissatisfaction is heightened by our recollection of perfect times. Remembering the best times we’ve had draws an incredibly sharp contrast to our present, making the past memories seem even better, and the present even worse.

Next, in being led to want to repeat those previous happy times in our future, we must assume that our present dissatisfied state will continue into the future. We therefore assume that because we are not happy now, we will not be happy tomorrow or next week, and therefore need to take action to recreate the happiness we felt in our memories.

Last, if we don’t check our desire for repetition, our convictions about present dissatisfaction become so strong that we act on the impulse by booking flights, accomodation, etcetera.

The fallacy in our desire for repetition, then, is that we focus on our prior happiness as a solution to our present dissatisfaction. But because, as I described above, we can never know all the factors that contributed to previous happiness, we will never solve present dissatisfaction by trying to repeat the past.

3. Even if the external environment caused our happiness, it will have changed

In our mind, a given location is fixed. The road that I cycled along is all etched in my mind in a very specific way. Yet it is almost certain that were I to return to cycle that same road, it won’t be the same. There might be roadworks. Maybe the road will simply be a lot busier this time. Maybe they’ll have erected some safety barriers that affect the view. (Maybe this time I don’t eat enough and feel exhausted after ten kilometres). Who knows what it will be—but we can rely on the fact that the physical environment will have changed since we were last there. And in going back to someplace to repeat the past, we’ll only ever be dissatisfied whenever anything does not match entirely. We would not enjoy the present, and we’d harm the original memory we had.

4. Repetition is a recipe for avoiding the present

Say we act on repetition. We travel back to somewhere where we were once happy. Now there are two different chains of thought that can come about:

1. If the repetition worked.

Say, for a moment, that we did become as happy as we were the last time we were here. It lived up to all our expectations. It solved our dissatisfaction. Well, when it comes time to leave and return home where we were dissatisfied, our next thought will be to seek another memory to repeat in order to avoid that dissatisfaction we felt at home. Maybe we’ll start planning our next repetition before we’ve even left the location where we sought the last! In this case, we will avoid ever living in the present, because we are taught that happiness comes from looking at previous positive memories and repeating them in the future. The present, in this scenario, is merely spent in planning the future.

2. If the repetition didn’t work.

But as is far more likely, the repetition won’t work. We’ll just become dissatisfied with how nothing lives up to our memory of the place, and in the process we ruin the original memory we had. What then? We return home to the dissatisfaction that prompted us to seek this repetition; we look for another memory to repeat. Again, we begin living in the past and the future, never stopping to solve our present dissatisfaction which caused our seeking repetition.

5. Maxims

1. Let memories be memories. Be satisfied that you had that experience; it’s something no one can ever take away from you or alter.

2. Think about what in the present is causing you to reflect on past times that were supposedly “better”. Locate the dissatisfaction in the present.

3. Realise that traveling and changing your environment cannot fix the problems in your mind. The Stoics had this right. (Seneca: “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”)

4. Focus on having new experiences in the present that might come to surpass those old memories. This way you’re not measuring up the future against your past, but ensuring entirely new memories will be created, ones that stand on their own terms without reference to the past.

5. You don’t need to travel to re-gain that positive state of mind. A simple walk in the gardens near your house might suffice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and Self-Reliance

On Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

Fareed Zakaria in Defense of a Liberal EducationThat seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

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.”