Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thought I'd something more to say

By way of In Socrates' Wake I found Mark Edmundson's essay on how to get the most out of college. He paints a pretty accurate picture, I think, of what college is like. Administrators want to attract and retain students, and to avoid law suits. Professors want to do research to get tenure and promotion, to make a name for themselves, and maybe to get a better job offer somewhere else (either so they can go there or else to get paid more where they are). Students want to have a good time and get a credential that will lead to a lucrative job. In short, no one is focused on education.

This is an exaggeration, of course. Few professors want to spend their lives teaching badly. Few students don't care at all whether they get anything but a good grade from each course they take. Even administrators probably like to think that they are doing more than managing the accounts of a business. But all the material forces are set up to push and pull people away from the business (as in busy-ness, not profit-seeking) of learning. So what Edmundson presents is an exaggeration, not a myth.

Near the middle of his essay, Edmundson writes this:
The quest at the center 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—maybe quiet, maybe, in time, very loud—and I am not exaggerating. For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are, which, in the long run, is killing.
I sympathize, but I don't know whether I agree. There is no guarantee that a liberal arts education will save you from a life of desperation. There might not even be a possibility of its doing so. I don't mean that despair is inevitable, or that reading books and thinking about them is a waste of time. It's more that the problem and the prescription seem to pass each other by. Edmundson's advice, after all, seems to be not to try to be someone else. So: be yourself. But what does that mean? Does being yourself guarantee that you will not live in desperation? And are the liberal arts the recipe for finding out who you are?

Some people see the self as nothing, or next to nothing. Some see the nature of life as suffering. Some believe that if there is a meaning or point to life it certainly does not consist in having a good time. All this suggests a kind of despair to me, although perhaps not desperation. 'Desperation' suggests a lack of resignation in a way that 'despair' does not. Maybe reading the right books could help someone move from desperation to despair.   But you don't need to go to college to read these books. And college-age people are probably too young, at least for the most part, to benefit from books like these.

Others, of course, have a much happier view of life. But does that come from books? I doubt it. Brain chemistry might be more relevant. As might religious faith, friends, family, material well-being, and so on. And you don't need education to have these things.

In the end I'm tempted to say that the point of reading books is reading books. Or pleasure. Be an English major if that's what you want to do because that is what you want to do. Not because it will pay in the long run. If a book is "not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding." Or at any rate: less consequentialism, please.


  1. I ran across Wendell Berry's post 9/11 essay "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear" shortly after reading your post. Here's what Berry says at the end, about education:

    "XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

    "XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy."

    That's saying a little more than "read books to read books," and he's not being "anti-consequentialist" so much as pressing for a radical shift in thinking about what the "good consequences" of education might be--or pointing out that for all the idealistic talk about educating "good citizens," when the rubber hits the road, educational rhetoric shifts to talk about training more scientists and engineers and inventors. More stuff. More growth.

    Berry's essay here.

  2. If anything, I'm more doubtful about Edmundson than even you are, but having thought about it overnight, I felt I had to say something about this:

    I don't mean that despair is inevitable, or that reading books and thinking about them is a waste of time. It's more that the problem and the prescription seem to pass each other by. [...] Maybe reading the right books could help someone move from desperation to despair. But you don't need to go to college to read these books.

    I'd say that for some people the problem and the prescription pass each other by, for others not at all.

    For instance, I myself did need to go to college, and one in the right city, to gain access to what were in many cases the only libraries in this country to hold copies of what "these" books were in my particular case - the books that have done the most to save me from despair in my life up to now. (And in some cases I needed to go to college even to find out about their existence.) Reading something vaguely similar would not have done, any more than it would do to replace a work of art giving rise to aesthetic experience X with a drug that cuts out the work of art by chemically inducing experience X (Wittgenstein's example in the lectures on aesthetics).

    This particular consideration is probably of decreasing importance today, but it was a weighty one less than 20 years ago. In my adolescence, I was very lucky to even live in a university town, but its university did not have a philosophy department at the time, so the philosophy collection in its library, while very much better than nothing, was quite gappy. For instance, it didn't have On Certainty or Culture and Value (both long out of print in Finnish), let alone The Realistic Spirit.

    You also pass over in silence considerations such as getting to know the right people in college, which can be as significant as reading the right books there. It can even be a fairly close combination of the two, where the consequences of the people's availability and the books' availability cannot always be distinguished in retrospect. In many other ways as well, what saves somebody from desperation may well be the positive externalities of the thing they do to escape it, not the thing itself.

  3. Others, of course, have a much happier view of life. But does that come from books? I doubt it. Brain chemistry might be more relevant.

    It's wise of you to hedge your bets here, as a formulation that did not do so would have appeared as merely an instance of what is known in social psychology as the fundamental attribution error.

    Not only do I have a happy view of life, but have been credited by some other people with converting them to one. And since they're not ones to suck up to me in any matters non-philosophical, I even have some reason to believe them. And I'd certainly say that my happy view of life comes largely from - books.

    My own autobiographical memory is filled with recollections of occasions where a single very particular piece of philosophy - whether a lunchtime conversation, a journal article or a book - has fundamentally changed the way I personally conceive of something very fundamental. Reading Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion completely revolutionised my view of both religion itself and its place in culture - and by proxy, much of my basic view of life. Reading Paul Gastwirth's "Concepts of God" (years later incidentally) completely revolutionised my view of religious disagreement - and by proxy, much of my view of philosophical disagreement per se. Reading political philosophers such as Jerry Cohen, Jon Elster, and Philippe Van Parijs completely revolutionised my view of political philosophy - and by proxy, much of my view of politics per se. Reading Cora Diamond's "Eating Meat and Eating People" completely revolutionised my view of vegetarianism - and by proxy, much of my view of social morality per se. And so on, and so on.

    As you of course know, I'm not remotely thrilled about consequentialism. But there is a distinct risk of being so averse to anything that could be construed as consequentialism, no matter how remotely, that the very real and concrete positive consequences which (say) studying academic philosophy of the late 20th century in college can have, are simply discounted. Sometimes it seems in extremis that the denial of consequentialism spills over into a kind of denial of the very existence of consequences themselves. Far from me to claim that this has actually happened here in this post of yours, but it struck me as a case where it might well have happened.

  4. Matt: that's a good point, or set of points. I think I was focusing too much on the kind of books people read in English courses, and on Edmundson's seeming to want to say both that students should read these because they want to and that doing so might lead to fame and fortune. Reading them because you want to seems like a much better reason to me, but, of course, that isn't the only reason to read any books ever.

    I think I've read that Wendell Berry essay before, but I'm sure it's worth a second look. Especially with the anniversary of 9/11 being so close. Thanks.

    Tommi: Thanks, this is a necessary corrective to what I said. I certainly agree that consequences matter. One thing that bothered me about Edmundson's essay, though, was his seeming to sneak an instrumentalist view of the value of literature in at the end. I was largely reacting against that. He also talks about finding oneself through books, and I don't think I have done that. The only courses I have ever taken in college have been in philosophy, politics (to a lesser extent), and economics (to an even lesser extent). I certainly never found myself through reading economics texts. Nor politics. And although philosophy is an enormous part of my life, I don't identify with any of the philosophers I study. Some of them have changed the way I think, but not in any way that I think of as helping me find out who I really am. I'm more likely to 'find myself' in a song or on a walk than in a work of philosophy. But if I suggested that college, books, or the people one meets in college don't matter much then I definitely went too far.