How Nature Educates Us: John Cowper Powys on the Cultural Power of Nature

Nature is perhaps the ultimate educational tool, and yet we do everything we can to obscure it from students, who for the most part spend their days in inner-city buildings. The lucky might do a week-long school trip to the countryside once a year, and maybe some choose to go to college or university away from a city. But education and nature seem most of the time to be opposed; the former is for rigorous work, the latter for playtime.

John Cowper Powys (who the Atlantic honoured with a profile titled “An Irresistible Long-winded Bore”) took up the challenge of trying to explain nature’s relationship to education. More specifically, he writes about “culture”, an anachronistic phrase getting at the idea of a real education. His book The Meaning of Culture tries to explain how philosophy, literature, art, poetry, nature and religion might work together to produce a deeply educated person. In his chapter on “Culture and Nature”, he writes:

“No refining of one’s taste in matters or art of literature, no sharpening of one’s powers of insight in matters of science or psychology, can ever take the place of one’s sensitiveness to the life of the earth. This is the beginning and the end of a person’s true education. 

It is nature, for Powys, that incites in us the sense that there is a great deal to understand, and that without attempting such an understanding we are to live in ignorance. He goes on to talk about the process of becoming “sensitised” to nature:

“The cultivation in one’s inmost being of a thrilling sensitiveness to Nature is a slow and very gradual process. The first conscious beginnings of it in early childhood are precious beyond words as the origin of dominant memories; but the more deliberately we discipline our sensitive grasp of these things, the deeper our pleasure in them grows.

And in what we might push back against as a high-brow interpretation of culture from a man who considered himself to live at its pinnacle, Powys tries to explain the difference in receptivity to nature between a “cultured” and an “uncultured” person. He attempts a description of how as we become educated we require less to be stimulated into thought:

“The difference between cultured people and uncultured people, in regard to their response to Nature, is that the former make a lot of a little, whereas the latter make little of a lot. By this I mean that the less cultured you are the more you require from Nature before you can be roused to reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentous signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades upon a little flat stone, or by a single dock-leaf growing under the railings of some city square.

This brings to mind Walt Whitman’s famous lines in his Song of Myself, “I loafe and invite my soul /I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Whitman’s receptivity and awareness of nature was so great that observing a single spear of grass allowed him to reflect on his body, his parents, his health, death, education, nature, and so on, opening up a world of thought in which to live and to reflect. His poem is in many ways an educational text, one that shows how by being aware of nature there is nothing we cannot at least attempt to think about and to understand. In a similar way, John Dewey’s educational philosophy focusses on “experience”, and there are perhaps no deeper experiences we can have than those in nature.

And perhaps the best thing about being educated by nature is that the reverse happens simultaneously: we are inevitably educated about nature. That is a first step towards solving the climate crisis, for unless we all understand nature and feel connected to it in some way, it is almost impossible to create an impetus for change.

Sleep as a Political Issue

“Not long ago, at the kind of dinner party I rarely attend, I made the mis­take of admitting that I not only liked to sleep but liked to get at least eight hours a night whenever possible, and that nine would be better still. The reaction – a complex Pinot Noir of nervous laughter displaced by expres­sions of disbelief and condescension – suggested that my transgression had been, on some level, a political one. I was reminded of the time I’d confessed to Roger Angell that I did not much care for baseball.

My comment was immediately rebutted by testimonials to sleeplessness: two of the nine guests confessed to being insomniacs; a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters claimed indignantly that she couldn’t re­member when she had ever gotten eight hours of sleep; two other guests de­clared themselves grateful for five or six. It mattered little that I’d arranged my life differently, and accepted the sacrifices that arrangement entailed. Eight hours! There was something willful about it. Arrogant, even. Suitably chastened, I held my tongue, and escaped alone to tell Thee.
— Mark Slouka, Quitting the Paint Factory (Harper’s, November 2004). Version available without paywall here. The whole essay is thoroughly worth reading, I’ve just been thinking a lot about sleep recently, so thought I’d post this section.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sandals and Simplicity: G. K. Chesterton’s Case Against Minimalism

Lately I’ve been reading some of the work of the modern minimalism movement, or what was earlier called simple living. Minimalism is one of those ideas that seems to strike a nerve every few decades, pointing to deep fears of clutteredness, perpetual busyness, out-of-control consumerism and the sense that our lives are running away from us. It is not at all new, and modern incarnations largely repackage ideas that have been around awhile—much from Buddhism, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s late-nineteenth century search for a meaningful existence. But the ideas strike deeply at our fears and hopes, and simple living’s enduringness is a sign of its power.

Most people today discover minimalism through blogs like The Minimalists, Joshua Becker’s Becoming Minimalist, Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits, and Mindful. Usually we come across them because we’ve been looking for something like it. We didn’t have a word for minimalism or simple living, we didn’t know how to make sense of the draw we had towards that kind of life, but we knew we wanted something like it. Discovering one of these blogs can then be exciting, freeing, and is accompanied by a manic attempt to read every article on each blog.

But because we were already looking for something like it, it can be difficult to look at the minimalist lifestyle with a clear eye. It’s all too easy to think immediately, this is it, dismissing any alternative lifestyles as misguided. Many of the blogs above also propose immediately getting rid of many of your physical possessions, a drastic first step to take, albeit one easily taken in the excitement of discovery.

I think there’s a great deal of wisdom in minimalism and simple living, and I don’t write this post in outright disagreement with the philosophy. Minimalism will suit different people to varying degrees, and as with any philosophy, lifestyle or religion, everyone needs to work out what suits their own needs in life and what doesn’t. But also as with any philosophy, I think it’s necessary to look at a range of different perspectives to ensure we’re seeing it clearly. So I’ve spent some time looking for arguments against minimalism and simple living, in order that we can form a more nuanced, balanced view, understanding where it succeeds and where it doesn’t.

G. K. Chesterton Against Minimalism and Simple Living
G. K. Chesterton. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English writer, poet, philosopher (to name just a few of the things he could be called), wrote an essay in 1905 titled “On Sandals and Simplicity.” Taking as his starting point the simple living being advocated by followers of Tolstoy, whose philosophy focussed especially on Christianity, vegetarianism and pacifism, Chesterton argues that minimalists have their priorities wrong:

“If a perpetual talking about one’s own robustness leads to being less robust, it is even more true that a perpetual talking about one’s own simplicity leads to being less simple.”

Chesterton’s account flips much of the minimalist philosophy on its head, as though minimalists have been distracted by the outward signs of simplicity, forgetting that the outward signs ultimately do very little for one’s inward state of mind. Certainly the original simple living philosophy is often corrupted or altered into a specific type of aestheticism: Instagram posts of minimalist meals on pastel-coloured plates, houses stripped to their construction materials and wardrobes filled with just one of each item of clothing (even President Obama admitted to at one point living like this!) Yet, of course, aestheticism is not asceticism. Being consumed with talking about one’s minimalism can do much to undermine exactly that in oneself.

Chesterton goes on, continuing his argument against anyone advocating a simple, minimalistic lifestyle:

“The complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter—that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter—in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection. 

Ultimately, for Chesterton, “It does not matter so very much whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind.” Or, to put the rather strange metaphor slightly differently, what matters is not what one’s home looks like or what one eats, but one’s state of mind about each of these things.

“The only simplicity that matters”, Chesterton concludes, “is the simplicity of the heart.” And what we need is “a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society; and if we were living eagerly and angrily in the enthusiasm of those things, we should, ipso facto, be living simply in the genuine and spiritual sense.”

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:

Barack Obama on His College Education and How He “Lived Like a Monk”

President Obama was recently interviewed by his former adviser David Axelrod for a CNN podcast. The podcast got a lot of discussion online, because in it Obama stated that he thinks he could’ve beaten Trump had he been running against him. But a different section of the interview was to me far more interesting; Obama gave a unique glimpse into his personal development while at college, and how he became a serious student.

Axelrod asks Obama, “How is it that you sort of just made the decision in the middle of your years in college that you were going to sort of transform yourself from a guy who enjoyed a party and was kind of a goof-off at Occidental College to kind of becoming an ascetic at Columbia with a much more purposeful view of life…?”

Various biographies have previously discussed Obama’s college years, but it is unique to hear Obama’s own depiction, with years of hindsight, of this period of his life. His account gives a glimpse of a few transformational years for the future president, and hints that a few years of taking oneself far too seriously are almost an inevitable part of growing up.

Obama begins by noting that “Some of this, I think, is just a kid growing up, and it turns out — and I see this in my own daughters. People go at their own pace, right?” But he gets far more specific:

“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. This may be an area where the lack of structure during my high school years because my mom wasn’t always around, my grandparents, they’re older, they’re not as strict and paying attention. I’m sort of raising myself…”

Obama College Years
Occidental College, where Obama spent two years. Photo from

Asked whether there was a single transformative event that made Obama grow up and become essentially ascetic for a period, Obama says there wasn’t; “It was just sort of gradual.” He points to two things that happened during his time at Occidental College (notably, one of the first liberal arts colleges to exist on the West Coast of the United States). First, he says, he “became more socially conscious at Occidental even though I was partying”, and second, “I start thinking about what it means to be not just a man, but a black man in America.”

Obama does, however, discuss his father’s death, which seems to have acted as an impetus for changing his life suddenly. It prompted Obama to move colleges, and to radically change his lifestyle. Speaking of his father, Obama said that “What does start happening is the awareness that I don’t know him, and so I’m not going to get that much direction from him but I start needing to understand better my genesis, where’d I come from… all these things just made me brood a little bit more. And so, physically I remove myself from my old life, I go to New York.”

In New York, Obama says,

“It’s true, I live like a monk for three or four years, take myself way too seriously… Huge overcompensation, I’m humourless, and you know, have one plate and one towel and, you know—fasting on Sundays… Friends start noticing that I’m begging off going out, you know, at night because I have to read Sartre or something.

“So in retrospect, wildly pretentious. And when I read back old journals from that time… or letters that I’ve written to, you know, girls you’re courting or something, they’re impenetrable. I mean, I don’t understand what I’m saying! There’s all kinds of references to Foucault, and Franz Fanon, and I’m like, what are you talking about?”

The description of Obama’s ascetic existence brings to mind the ancient Stoic idea that one should fast each week so that one can handle anything, Thoreau’s simple and minimalist existence while in the woods, as well as many modern Minimalist movements. Obama has elsewhere talked about reading Nietzsche and Saint Augustine during this period of his life.

It’s exciting to hear someone so balanced, so in control, and so ordered in his thinking discuss a transformative period in his education. Obama seemed during those years to live by the maxim that we shouldn’t let our education get in the way of our learning. He practised different kinds of wisdom he found in books, testing them out, and in time came back from his “overcompensation” to the point of balanced wisdom that we have been able to observe since.

The full podcast is worth listening to in its entirety, and the section of the discussion I’ve quoted from here begins at 25 minutes in the dialogue.