We Need Educators, Not Teachers

“There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anaesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded…”, wrote Nietzsche in 1873: “but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.”

Nietzsche goes on in his essay to describe how Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who had died thirteen years prior, was his “one teacher and master-discipliner” who had taught him how to “reshape the whole human being into a living, moving solar and planetary system and to identify the law governing its higher mechanics.”

Compare that description to most of the teachers we encounter in schools and universities, who don’t inspire so much as dull our senses. It’s not that any teacher means badly—it just points to the fundamental distinction between a teacher and an educator, and the fact that the latter are so rare and so valuable.

Hardly anyone draws this distinction between teachers and educators. The terms are most often used interchangeably, with some teachers trying on the title of “educator” on their Twitter profile. But the difference goes to the heart of the influence a teacher has on students’ lives, and it’s one that both students and teachers must pay attention to.

Educators versus teachers

“Let my guide remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of Carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.”

— Michel de Montaigne, On the Education of Children

Teachers teach facts, educators use facts to inspire.

Teachers teach the dates of a war, educators use the war to reflect on human morality.

Teachers teach the names and birth dates of characters in history, educators tell of the character of those characters.

Teachers teach facts; educators teach character.

Teachers teach how to find an answer, educators show why the answer matters.

Teachers teach that 1+1=2, educators show the significance of maths in our lives.

Teachers teach material for the upcoming test; educators tell us why we have tests in the first place.

Teachers teach how to write a sentence; educators know that there are no rules for good writing.

Teachers teach Hamlet; educators show us how we are all like Hamlet.

Teachers teach others’ material, but educators know that their own lives are the only true material.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach; educators use that only as their starting point.

Teachers teach what others believe, but educators know that “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Teachers teach classes; educators teach students.

Teachers think books are their material; educators know that the whole world is a “vale of soul-making.”

Teachers have a job. Educators have a calling.

Teachers teach the syllabus; educators see in students what we most need to see in ourselves, and know just how to liberate us from behind that frosted window that is youth.

Teachers teach for school. Educators, for life.

Most of us can teach. Only someone special can educate.

Most of us have teachers. Let us students all look for—hope for—an educator. And let all teachers aspire to—strive to—educate.

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.

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

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

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

1. Liberal, Servile and Instrumental Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Point of a Liberal Arts Education

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

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

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

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

“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and we are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…

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

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

“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…

You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.

For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Liberal Arts Colleges Today

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

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

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

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

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

4. How to get a proper liberal education

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

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

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

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

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

What is College for?: On Bill Deresiewicz and His Excellent Sheep

Willam Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep, What Is College For?I read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

 

Who Are You?: Mark Edmundson On How College Can Help Us Find Ourselves

Mark Edmundson Who Are You? Why Teach?“To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be.” So declares Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book of essays Why Teach?, among numerous others. In an essay in that book titled simply Who Are You?”, Edmundson takes up the question of what exactly a real education is, and how it can help students discover who we really are.

Edmundson thinks we’ll have to fight the institutions we find ourselves in because most students, professors, and the wider university staff all have their own interests, and those interests are decidedly not about helping you discover a sense of purpose in life. Most students come simply to get the degree, Edmundson says; most faculty, too, aim simply “to get on”, focussing on their research:

“So if you want an education, the odds aren’t with you: The professors are off doing what they call their own work; the other students, who’ve doped out the way the place runs, are busy leaving their professors alone and getting themselves in position for bright and shining futures; the student-services people are trying to keep everyone content, offering plenty of entertainment and building another sate-of-the-art workout facility every few months…

No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.”

Edmundson turns to the idea of a real education, arguing that it should help us, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “become who we are”:

“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…

You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.

For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.

This brings to mind Mark Lilla’s speech to an audience of students at Columbia, where he said that genuine students are “less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” When we read books, Lilla says, we are “almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…”

Books are the answer for Edmundson, too, and he also sees right through the argument that we should read to be ‘cultured’:

“The real reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts following back to you with an “alienated majesty.”

When we find books that speak to us in this way, we can start to formulate who we might like to be not solely out of the possibilities that have been given to us by our families, say, but by all the possibilities that exist. We ask deeper questions of ourselves—not banker or lawyer, but how do I want to spend my days, what kind of person do I want to be with, and what work fulfils me?

Ultimately, Edmundson reminds us, we shouldn’t expect a real education to be nice and easy. We will certainly have a more difficult time grappling with ourselves, and may face some tougher decisions. But if we are to live lives that are ours, not someone else’s, we just have to take that:

“The whole business is scary, of course. What if you arrive at college devoted to premed, sure that nothing will make you and your family happier than life as a physician, only to discover that elementary schoolteaching is where your heart is?

You might learn that you’re not meant to be a doctor at all. Of course, given your intellect and discipline, you can still probably be one. You can pound your round peg through the very square hole of medical school, then go off into the profession. And society will help you. Society has a cornucopia of resources to encourage you in doing what society needs done but that you don’t much like doing and are not cut out to do…

Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play—work you do so easily that it restores you as you go… And having found whats best for you to do, you may be surprised by how far you rise, how prosperous, even against your own projections, you become.”

I urge a reading of the essay in full, and if the essay leaves you wanting more, read Edmundson’s whole book. He is one of those unique voices inside higher education who is able to see college and university for what it is, as well as explain succinctly what it can be.

How to Succeed at College and University

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

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

1. The trick is to be curricular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we read books, Lilla argues,

“We are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?… You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Oxy.edu.

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.