On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: A Summary

Note: This is a book review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that I originally published in September of 2011 on this blog. Republishing after being asked by someone for the link. 

A Review/Summary of The Shallows by Nicholas CarrI’ve just finished reading The Shallows, a book by Nicholas Carr. It’s a reasonably technical book that goes in-depth into the workings of our brains to look at how the Internet is affecting the way we “think, read, and remember”.

Carr starts off by explaining how he’s been having trouble focussing recently. He says that he sits down to read a book but finds himself unable to read a page without looking up from the book, and he finds his mind wandering off on tangents quite often. He also says that he has trouble focussing on other tasks, and can’t remember things as well as he used to be able to. I have the same problems, and Carr even says that he reckons most people who use the Internet these days will be suffering the same things.

From there, he goes on to describe in detail why it is that we’re finding ourselves so distracted nowadays. In essence, his thesis is that new media will change the way that our brain works, and there are many side-effects to this. A side effect of the Internet is that we find it harder to focus.

When things like the typewriter was invented, Carr uses the description of how Nietzsche found his writing style change when he used a typewriter. He started using smaller, more choppy sentences, and this was as a direct result of simply changing the medium he used to write.

When the wristwatch was invented, people found themselves more efficient but also a lot more tired as they were now acting by bodily rhythms that other people had set for them, instead of by their natural body clock.

All these technological changes, Carr argues, have side-effects that mostly affect our deep-brain thinking. Here’s a few examples.

Carr comes to the conclusion that there are generally two types of knowledge: deep domain expertise, and knowing where to find relevant information. While the Internet gives us access to all relevant information, it reduces our deep domain expertise as we no longer need to store as much information in our brains.

The Windows operating system was the birth of true multitasking. Before this, people did one thing at a time on computers. They would word process, or they would email. There was no capacity to do both at the same time. Therefore there were no distractions to what people were working on. But with Windows, people suddenly had distractions, as different applications would run at the same time. People thought this would lead to an increase in productivity, but in many ways productivity has decreased because people are now no longer as focussed on what they are working on.

The part of The Shallows that got me thinking most was the very last chapter. Carr describes how new technologies make us lose part of ourselves. Clocks made us lose our natural rhythm. Maps made us lose our spacial recognition capacities. He gives many more examples. But the Internet, unlike most of these other technologies, is perhaps making us lose our touch with the real world. Our brains jump around constantly as if we are browsing websites. We are constantly pressured to be looking at our phones and computers and replying to messages. The end result is that we live more and more inside the Internet, and when we need to leave it, we can’t work as well as we previously could.

It’s not like we can change the course of technology and reverse these negative effects. But it’s worth thinking about how to mitigate them, and to that end, Carr’s The Shallows is an excellent place to start.

What It Means to be Against Everything: A Brief Review of Mark Greif’s Book

“We have no language but health. Those who criticise dieting as unhealthy operate in the same field as those who criticise overweight as unhealthy. Even those who think we overfixate on the health of our food call it an unhealthy fixation. But choosing another reason for living, as things now stand, seems to be choosing death. Is the trouble that there seems to be no other reason for living that isn’t a joke, or that isn’t dangerous for everyone–like the zealot’s will to die for God or the nation? Or is the problem that any other system than this one involves a death-seeking nihilism about knowledge and modernity, a refusal to admit what scientists, or researchers, or nutritionists, or the newest diet faddists, have turned up? As their researches narrow the boundaries of life. 

Health is our model of all things invisible and unfelt. If, in this day and age, we rejected the need to live longer, what would rich Westerners live for instead?”

Greif’s overarching criticism across many of his essays is that we live as if the point of living was to extend life. In Against Exercise he criticises our use of time simply on self-maintenance and self-prolongation, whereby we give up life to supposedly extend it. The same applies to food: we spend our days thinking and worrying about what to eat, restricting what we eat, so that we may be “healthy”, as if health was the point of life rather than its means. As soon as we became secure in our food supply, we began restricting our diets in a kind of confusion of what to do with our newfound freedom.

Individual phenomena are used in Greif’s work as examples of his overarching critique: that we value the wrong things without realising it. “I had to show”, Greif writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Against Everything, “how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. The standards universally supposed might not be “universal.” Or they simply might not suit a universe in which my mother and I could happily live.” ‘Foodieism’ and exercise are where he deconstructs most destructively the ends towards which we direct our lives.

Health—through food, and exercise—is precisely the area where we feel, as a society, that we are making progress. The prevailing narrative is that we’ve seen through the destructiveness and dangers of large-scale food capitalism, and are now aware enough to ‘do the right thing’—buying local and organic, for a start. To critique that improvement can seem curmudgeonly, perhaps rash. We improve ourselves, and try to improve the planet, and yet here Greif is to criticise, to tell us we’re mistaken. Would there ever be a world in which he wouldn’t find something to criticise, even his own utopia?

And yet he manages to criticise gracefully. Tactfully, even, so as to avoid knee-jerk anger at his own naysaying. I read Greif as a countervailing voice, someone who knows (and maybe even hopes) he won’t be taken fully seriously, and yet hopes that by arguing “against everything”, we will be able to find a middle way through our problems, avoiding the worst of the dangers. It is hard to believe he wants to be taken seriously—he is arguing, essentially, that we are all mistaken in our thinking about food, the logical conclusion to which is that we simply should not think about it, eating whatever we want whenever we want. But by reminding of the dangers of the path we are on, we can improve that path and avoid its pitfalls.

Greif acknowledges the endlessness, and even the destructiveness, of being “against everything”. But for him it is not a negative attitude towards modern society; it seems more a state of being where one always maintains the belief that things can be improved. “I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything”, Grief says; “Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness… To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us.”

So when he is against exercise, and against modern food, and against “the concept of experience”, reality television, YouTube and the hipster, Greif at his core merely wants to show that modern life need not be all-encompassing. The ocean of possibility rolls all around, and ultimately, “No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.”

Grief’s essays shed light on that opposite, cutting through prevailing narratives, and showing that the very things life seems to demand of us are what we should be most sceptical of.