What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?
Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.
That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.
Some criticize this kind of self-reflection as narcissistic, but you argue that it’s actually “the most practical thing in the world.”
I just hate it when people talk about how self reflection is somehow self indulgent—as if the things that students were being invited to do were not, like making themselves rich and powerful. How is that not self-indulgent? But I would say, aside from all the personal, intellectual, spiritual benefits of self-awareness—I can’t believe we even have to argue this—the main point is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want. And maybe you’ll end up saying that I do need a certain level of wealth, but you will know it because you will have come to know yourself. And you will be acting on your own initiative instead of having unconsciously absorbed the messages that have been instilled in you unconsciously.
Gaining self-knowledge isn’t a simple or predictable process. Are there certain things that can only be learned outside the classroom?
There are certainly limits to formal institutional education. As you say, gaining self-knowledge is going to happen when it’s going to happen. But it’s certainly not going to happen if kids don’t have the tools to do it. So that’s the first thing that an education can do—help kids develop the means of reflection, and then, maybe it’ll happen the next year, or the next summer. A book you read in 12th grade or as a sophomore in college might suddenly click five years later. So yes, it happens throughout your life. But you’ve got to start, and I think you’ve got to start when you’re young. Developmentally, adolescence and the early 20s are precisely the time to ask these questions because you are engaged in making the transition from childhood certainty to adult conviction.
Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll. We need to create a situation where kids feel like they don’t have to be “on” all the time. Given the chance, adolescents tend to engage in very intense conversation, and a lot of life learning happens laterally, happens peer to peer. But if they're constantly busy, there's literally no time. It’s crazy. We’ve taken adolescence away from adolescents. School must not take away your opportunities to self-reflect on your own.
When I taught humanities classes, I never talked about self-reflection, and I never invited students to talk about their feelings or their backgrounds or their experiences. I would sometimes do it with students one on one, if they wanted to, but it’s an indirect process. The books are designed to make you think about your life. You can just talk about Achilles, or Elizabeth Bennett, it doesn’t matter if you leave the personal stuff out of the conversation. The books do the work of getting the soul in motion.
One good thing that they do at Lawrence University is have a course where freshmen can read great books and at the same time think about what an education is for. You don’t have to talk too personally there, but at least you’re still preparing yourself to understand your college education in an appropriate way.
What was your own college experience like?
I got to college in ’81, so the system was nowhere near as hysterical as it is now. But it was still basically the same system. My dad was an immigrant, a college professor, a scientist, and he had very specific expectations. I decided on my major—science—literally before classes even started, and it wasn’t a good decision. I love science but I never gave myself a chance to discover other things, and by the middle of college I realized that I should have been an English major because that’s what I really loved. I drifted for two or three years after college until I reached a cinematic moment in my life when I realized I needed to go and study English, whatever it takes, because I wouldn’t be happy until I did. So finally, four years after college, I went back and started a Ph.D. program.
I’ve continued to struggle with the psychological stuff—the cycle of grandiosity and depression, the constant comparisons. Once it gets implanted, you will always struggle with it, and you just get better, hopefully, at dealing with it. But the take home message is that everyone has to liberate themselves from this system. Education should be an act of liberation. We need to make a better system but ultimately everybody has to claim their freedom for themselves.