The list goes on. If you didn’t read de Tocqueville, you probably don’t understand your own country. If you didn’t study Gibbon, you probably lack the vocabulary to describe the rise and fall of cultures and nations.
The wisdom of the ages is your inheritance; it can make your life easier. These resources often fail to get shared because universities are too careerist, or because faculty members are more interested in their academic specialties or politics than in teaching undergraduates, or because of a host of other reasons. But to get through life, you’re going to want to draw on that accumulated wisdom. Today is a good day to figure out where your college left gaps, and to start filling them.
Finally, students, let me say the thing I can’t say to you in front of yourselves.
It’s about your diet. No, I don’t mean your physical diet. Our culture spends an awful lot of time talking about food, celebrity chefs, craft beers, and so on, so I suspect you’re covered when it comes to thinking about your physical diet. Gluttony is the shallowest of the vices and being a gourmet is the most bourgeois of the virtues, and I’m just not that interested.
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I’m talking about your mental diet. What are you putting into your mind? Our culture spends a lot less time worrying about this, and when it does, it goes about it all wrong.
When people do worry about your mental diet, they tend to fret about the junk you’re pouring into your brain—the trashy videos, the cheap horror movies, the degrading reality TV, and all the hours of Tiger King and Love Is Blind you binge-watched when this pandemic started.
I’m not so worried about the dangers of mental junk food. That’s because I’ve found that many of the true intellectuals I’ve met take pleasure in mental junk food too. Having a taste for trashy rom-coms hasn’t rotted their brain or made them incapable of writing great history or doing deep physics.
No, my worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.
The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.
A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.