Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations

     Aria.

“It is held to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.” It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall most probably think when I am yours.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

     1. 

I daresay that if, as he sat in his studio in 1955 and prepared to record his first version of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould had somehow been able to listen to his own recording of Bach’s same composition twenty-six years later, he might not have been able to begin at all. His 1981 recording, completed just a year before his untimely death at 50, is everything that his youthful 23-year-old version of 1955 is not: sombre and calm to the earlier version’s unfolding energy; elongated and unhurried, shorn of the precocious rapid-fire momentum of youth; effortlessly philosophical and reflective, a grandfatherly stroll rather than the young man’s competitive sprint. To listen to Bach’s aria in the 49-year-old Gould’s recording is to glimpse, for a few minutes, the illusions of youth, to see how, as Fitzgerald put it in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, “It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” 

But could a 23-year-old, in his prime and about to be propelled towards all that Fitzgerald’s flowers and gold represent, have been able to continue in his youthful recording had he a premonition of the wisdom of old age—a premonition, that is, of his own present illusions? Can youth maintain its confidence when it sees its own eventual, inevitable demise?

Gould himself, of course, recorded his variations on the Variations not in advance of his own life, but at the speed at which he was living. His recording at age 23 was the self-fulfilling prophecy he needed it to be, leading him to widespread recognition, its barely contained energy pushing him towards the fame he was later to have a conflicted relationship with. The aria is here reflective, as Bach’s melody demands, but Gould’s haste and precocity give it the sense of a young man’s reflectiveness. On the other hand, those of us standing at the same point that Gould stood, age 23, perhaps hear too much. I hear in Gould’s 1955 Variations all the pent up hopes that are my own, and then hear, soon after, their conclusion in the 1981 recording. From one starting point, the Variations (both Bach’s and Gould’s) are the multiform directions that life could take, each variation subtly informing path dependencies of the next, but always back, in the end, to a kind of primordial beginning. To see the inevitable reflectiveness of almost three decades’ time before I’ve even begun, and to see how all life’s variations play out ultimately to lead me to where I am now: this is my personal conclusion from perhaps too many listenings.

     2. 

The difference is thirteen minutes. 38 minutes in 1955; 51 minutes in 1981. Thirteen minutes: how much longer it took Gould to play the Variations in his old age compared to his youth. There are the same number of keystrokes in each recording, only the space between each stroke—the nothingness, the lack of sound—is extended, elongated. 

This fascinates me. It is a paradox: the young man, who has so much time, feels the need to rush, while the old man, with less than a year to live, plays as if he has all the time in the world. I wonder if the paradox can be explained by a respect for nothingness. For the 23-year-old, the time between keystrokes on the piano sounds like time wasted, time never to be recovered or regained, and therefore time best minimised or avoided. But for the 49-year-old inactivity, or the time between actions, can be the most fruitful—it is precisely the aching nothingness of the time between each keystroke in Gould’s 1981 recording that gives the aria and particularly the aria da capo, in which the notes are strung out imperceptibly but so fruitfully, their power and poignancy. 

     3. 

Finished less than a year before his death in 1982, it is unsurprising that Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations has been thought of as premonitory. The reaching pauses in the aria da capo between each perfectly formed, independent keystrokes are pregnant with all the variations of a life that remained unfulfilled: the countries not visited; the mornings wasted in busyness; the youthful dreams long forgotten; the loves not consummated. We are here back at the beginning, this time with no more variations or possibilities to be explored. The pauses ache. The sound of nothingness hurts, because we want existence to continue.

“The implication of the negative in our lives reduces by comparison every other concept that man has toyed with in the history of thought,” Gould explained to a crowd of 23 year olds in a graduation address in the ‘60s, mid-way between his two Goldberg recordings, half-way through his life. “It [nothingness] is the concept which seeks to make us better—to provide us with structures within which our thought can function—while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic.”

Whether Gould’s value-free advice helped any of those 23-year-olds in his audience, I’m not so sure. I can understand his point about nothingness—most of all when I listen to his 1981 Variations—but, still standing in youth, it is intangible philosophy. Knowing what I will likely think and feel in my forties does little to change how I can live my life in the present.

     4. 

Three variations on nothingness:

Ecclesiastes 1: “Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? No, it has already existed, long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”

Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat: “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”

Alan Watts, The State of Nothingness: “If you are aware of a state which you call is – or reality, or life – this implies another state called isn’t – or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is. You can’t know one without the other.”

     5.

My introduction to the variation form in music came, in fact, not through music at all. Throughout my whole life, until very recently, there hung in my family home a painting by the artist Colin McCahon. It is a vertical panel almost two metres high and one metre wide, painted in raw, earthy yellow, brown and blue tones—it depicts, as a whole, an abstracted landscape, with curvaceous forms reminiscent of both the human body and geomorphic landscapes. The lines of the forms, however, could very well be read in musical terms, as if a bass line is rising and falling across a musical score, as is the case with the Goldberg Variations. And indeed McCahon encouraged this reading through his title: ours was panel I from the third series of the Landscape Theme and Variations. 

Each of the three series has eight panels. One series was split up, and it was from this series that my grandparents obtained our panel. The other two series remain together in national public collections, and seeing them still complete, the variation form was brought home to me long before I ever heard Bach’s Variations.  

 

Glenn Gould Bach Goldberg Variations McCahon Landscape Theme and Variations

Colin McCahon, Landscape Theme and Variations (Series A), 1963. Copyright McCahon Estate.

There are variations on variations on variations. Each panel contains its own variations on the theme that is ever-present, set in McCahon’s case through any panel you look at, as in Bach’s through the aria (this is the difference between the variation form in painting and music: in the former you can begin anywhere, in the latter you must start at the beginning). Each panel contains its own variations, its own forms that are reconfigurations of the common forms that are present throughout every panel in every series. Then each series has subtle variations: subtly different hues indicating a different mood or time of day, smaller or larger landscape forms suggesting different location. And then there is the possibility of a curator hanging the panels in a different order, introducing another element of variation: the visual artistic equivalent of the creative freedom Gould has in playing the Goldberg Variations.

But, prepared for Bach’s Variations by McCahon’s paintings, I was unprepared for the effects of Gould’s two variations on the Variations. It was through the difference between Gould’s two recordings—the difference between the young man and the middle-aged—that I became obsessed.

     6. 

No matter which recording of the Goldberg Variations I listen to, I always get a fright at the start of the first variation. I now know to expect it: I tense up in the final few notes of the aria in anticipation. The brooding melancholy of the aria then gives way in an instant to a flash of energy. There is suddenly excitement and a freewheeling spirt. I see dresses twirling and shoes quick-stepping. People dancing. Students smiling.

This is Bach, and the first variation is indeed thought to be a take on the Polonaise, a kind of Polish dance performed, often, at graduation parties. There is a carnival-like mood, the carefree weeks or months before graduation and responsibilities. 

Of all Gould’s variations on the Variations, it is perhaps here that I see the greatest difference. In the 1955 recording the energy is unrestrained, our ears barely able to keep up with Gould’s fingers. The carefree nature of the variation is unfettered. But in 1981, the tempo has slowed. Now, it is as if the Polonaise is being recollected through the memory fog of many years—the memory is still there, but tinged with regret for those days having passed. Or, perhaps, it is the Polonaise now transmuted to the music of a regal procession rather than a student prom.

     7.

Cicero’s earliest surviving work is thought to be his youthful De Inventione, written when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two. It is a work of oratorical lessons, the kind of book Cicero might have produced to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject before having to put it into practise. He looks back across time, writing a kind of history of oratory to be used in the present. 

Inventione is rediscovery. Rather than our modern notion of invention as creation, inventione for Cicero was the sense of discovering arguments from the past that might be used in his oratory in the present. He combined the best of what he thought had been argued in the past to write a manual for his future oratory. Only, he soon came to regret the work. Cicero’s later De Oratore was the book he wrote to supersede his youthful treatise. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the more we learn, surely, the more we come to repent for our prior views. 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a work of inventione. From the Polonaise of the first variation to the quodlibet of the last, Bach’s work is a plundering from places and genres and time periods. It is as if through this kind of inventione he can show us the full variety of variations that are possible, and all the ones that have been possible. 

Edward Said’s point in his essay Glenn Gould, The Virtuoso as Intellectual, is to think about the combination of both Bach’s and Gould’s inventione. Gould, he argues, is not just playing Bach’s Variations, but is “inventing” them himself, in that classical meaning of “invention”: “So what Gould seems to be attempting at such moments is a full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated, rather than simply presented, through performance.” And, moreover, it is Gould’s unique choice to focus on the recording studio rather than the concert hall that allowed the full extent of this inventione: “Hence his insistence throughout his career that the very act of performance itself had to be taken out of the concert hall, where it was limited to the implacable chronological sequence and set program of the recital order, and planted in the studio where the essential “take-twoness” of recording technique—one of Gould’s favorite terms—could be submitted to the art of invention—repeated invention, repeated takes—in the fullest rhetorical sense of “invention.”

I wonder, in light of this, what Gould’s own relationship to his two Goldberg Variation recordings was. To even consider doing another recording was he, like Cicero, coming to repent for the inventione of his youth? Was the 1981 recording a final statement, the work he hoped people would henceforth listen to? Or was his relationship to them more complex—was he aware of the multifaceted natures of human beings across time, and see that it was the combination of both recordings that would lead to all manner of discoveries in a twenty-three year old three decades henceforth?

Rhetorical questions, of course. But here’s the issue. Hearing simultaneously both of Gould’s recordings, I am shown the inevitability of youthful views being superseded. And that’s why I asked, to begin, whether Gould could have gone on with his recording at age 23 had he been able to hear the recording of almost three decades later. Why, too, should I trust my present listening of the Goldberg Variations when, through Gould, I can anticipate a different interpretation in mid-life?

     8. 

At the very beginning of a musical education, I’m left wondering why it is that Bach and his Goldberg Variations seem uniquely capable of leading the mind to these broadest questions of life, ageing, and death—the very fundamentals of our lives, in other words. For hearing a live performance of Shostakovich, or Brahms, or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, as I’ve done in recent weeks, did not lead to the same point. There were visions of human grandeur in these composers—Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, for instance—but not the meditative reflectiveness of Bach’s Variations. In the symphonies I heard Picassoesque visions of humanity, as perhaps in his Guernica—triumph and suffering; in Bach, I hear the sounds of Giacometti’s Walking Man—the solitary awareness of mortality, or nothingness, and all that we have before it, which is life.

I have two variations of an answer, from Edward Said. The first is to do with the nature of counterpoint, exemplified in the Goldberg Variations with the common baseline and varying melody. Said writes: “The contrapuntal mode in music is, it seems, connected to eschatology, not only because Bach’s music is essentially religious or because Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is highly fugal. For the rules of counterpoint are so demanding, so exact in their detail as to seem divinely ordained.” The answer here might be that my lack of understanding of Bach’s counterpoint makes the Variations a mystery to do with life itself. The Variations inject some mystery into the over-explained, technologised world I’ve grown up in. This is not to say that I yet understand Mahler’s symphony either—but the unassuming simplicity of the Goldberg Variations, with Gould sitting alone, hunched over his piano, makes the mystery all the greater. With so many instruments in an orchestra, the mystery appears overtly as mystery.

The second variation of this answer is to do with Gould himself. It is only half an answer, for other, non-Gould recordings of the Variations still lead to, in large part, the same reflectiveness that Gould’s do. But here is Said: “This process of proceeding brilliantly from microcosm to macrocosm and then back again is Gould’s special accomplishment in his first Goldberg: by doing it pianistically he also lets you experience the sort of understanding normally the result of reading and thinking, not simply of playing a musical instrument.” I see no reason why this is not true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in Gould’s later 1981 recording. The microcosm of the theme, the aria, is made multiform in the same way that a human life is: from one starting point, so many possibilities, so many variations, and back, ultimately, to a point somewhat near where one started. The Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy. 

Whether or not the apocryphal origin story of the Goldberg Variations is true—Count Kaiserling stopping in Germany and requesting a composition from Bach, to be played by Goldberg at night to alleviate his insomnia—I can’t help but feel the Variations are early-morning music or late-night music. The unassuming quality of their reflectiveness makes them suited, in my view, to these times of day alone. Leave the symphonies to early evening; Bach alone, for me, at the very beginning and the very end of the day.

     Aria da capo.

“Because I have reached Paris, I am not ashamed of having passed through Newhaven and Dieppe. They were very good places to pass through, and I am none the less at my destination. All my old opinions were only stages on the way to the one I now hold, as itself is only a stage on the way to something else… Here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure consent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

 


 

Thanks to Professor Andrew Hui at Yale-NUS College for giving me the space and time to write this essay, and for all his reading suggestions. 

What Shall We Do Tomorrow?: An Essay On College

“”Well”, he sighed, “I sure am up in the air. I know I’m not a regular fellow, yet I loathe anybody else that isn’t. I can’t decide whether to cultivate my mind and be a great dramatist, or to thumb my nose at the Golden Treasury and be a Princeton slicker.”

“Why decide?”, suggested Kerry. “Better drift, like me. I’m going to sail into prominence on Burne’s coat tails.””

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

 

For the Yale-NUS College class of 2017. 

 

Is youth still wasted on the young?

I ask because for some years now I’ve been told that You Only Live Once; exhorted, time and again, from early youth, to note my own impermanence. But what the millennial adage really means, I still don’t know. Is life long, or is it short? Do we have a lot of time, or very little? Casey Neistat said to Make It Count—but what time can I count on?

For four years the question has followed me like a tedious argument. Insidiously, it seems intent on suggesting two incompatible views of life. The common wisdom, if it can be called that, is: live it up. In liquor and in love and in literature, let what life you have out of its cage. Like a bank account in which dollars are days, the goal is to spend it and use it until at last the day it is depleted is the day it is no longer needed. Putting myself on this side of life, writing a sincere essay about college and some lessons we might have learned seems akin to breaking up the suite party at 11PM so that I can curl once about the house, and fall asleep.

The other interpretation: live it well. If life is indeed a bank (“though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the means by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”) then what we have is a savings rather than a chequeing account. Deposit your diplomas and in a few years out will come promotion; deposit your dollars and out will come vacations; deposit those, and hoard the Experiences until the account bursts at the seams, your iPhone filled with photos and your eyes full of wisdom. On this side of life I write sincerely so as to make a deposit in my account, and yours. I write to capture, like fragments of poetry found in classes and old books—after the novels, after the coffee cups, after the skirts dropped to the floor—some sense of what all our time here was for… to squeeze these four years into a ball, to roll them towards an overwhelming question…

How shall we live? 

Live it up, or live it well?

 — — — 

Flying here in 2013 I stared out the window as the city lights fell away beneath me and imagined myself living in a New York penthouse, adoring fans looking up from the streets below as I sang, “I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie we’ve got to rise aboooove.” Later, flying over dark and dense forests, a pond just visible in a clearing, I tired of the hectic city life, tired of the torrents of noise and news that chased us down, always telling us nothing but that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough. Seeing a small log cabin, I resolved to live more honestly. Later: as the cabin lights dimmed and the A380’s starry sky appeared above, I had a Parisian Dream, entranced by the image, distant and dim, of that awe-inspiring landscape such as no mortal ever saw. I awoke to otherworldly gardens, crystal domes, misty waterfalls and glossy white towers. The Prime Minister came to give us the keys, and I resolved to be him. 

What will I imagine, flying home after graduation? Imagination seems difficult when held up against the mundanities of resumes and interviews for jobs one does not really want. It struggles, too, when faced with a ticking clock: Kygo tells me, again and again, that I ain’t getting any younger, and Dali’s clocks stretch and drip away from me (but how memory persists!) Most likely I will watch a movie, and fall asleep.

We’ve had almost four years to figure it out: what life do we want? New York penthouse, Concord cabin, Premier House? The life of the soldier, the saint, the sage or the citizen? From so many books and so many Instagram accounts we have seen so many different lives, each of which could be ours if we so chose—and amidst so many possibilities most of us wallowed, for a few years. The World Was Our Oyster, but no one who ever said that also told us that despite the sea of possibility we only in fact get one life. Do we then choose it, arranging all possible lives before us and selecting the reddest apple; or do we let it happen to us while we are busy doing other things? Live it well, or live it up?

The more we read the less sure we are. Each page is a new possibility, and, since You Only Live Once, you must not choose in ignorance. Keep reading, for the answer always lies on the next page.

But read for too long and you forget to live.

Have we read too much or too little?

Yesterday I read of the curator at the Louvre, daily moving masterpieces of our world, and I wanted to be him. Today I re-read a poet I am rather partial to, and have resolved to be a writer. Tomorrow… 

What shall we do tomorrow? 

What shall we ever do?

— — — 

Seneca said to keep death always in mind. Spinoza said that a free person is he or she who never thinks of death. Damien Hirst showed us that, besides, death is a physical impossibility in the mind of someone living.

How shall we live? We first need to know what we think of death. How shall I write? I first need to know what I think of death.

Believe Seneca and I must write it all and write it right now, for what can happen at any moment can happen today. Believe Spinoza and I have all the time in the world, able to take another three years of classes before writing a single word. Believe Hirst and it does not matter either way—whether I write now or I write later, I will regret both.

Do we have time to wait for the interest to accumulate in our accounts—to slowly make deposits until in old age we are rich? Or must we skip the becoming and be, since we never know when our becoming will be tragically cut short?

Do I write badly now, or wait a few years to put it better—but in waiting risk never being able to say it at all?

— — — 

This is education: knowing everything until you one day realise you previously did not know everything, but knowing now that you once again do. 

Robert Louis Stevenson put it better: “A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right.”

The trouble comes when we anticipate our not knowing everything. Known unknowns are far more dangerous to the development of a young mind than are unknown unknowns. The latter are harmless, where the former can paralyse. For why, knowing that one day I should have knowledge requiring me to recant all I now believe, should I now speak? Why speak, when others know more, and why speak, when I will later inevitably contradict myself? Why write, etching into permanence truths that I will later learn to be either truism or untruth? Truly, should I not wait five years, avoiding the embarrassment of stating sincerely something others already knew, or knew to be untrue?

“Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes…” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day…” But even they do not help, for tomorrow I could discover the book that contradicts their hopeful advice; or I could choose a political career, in which heeding the Transcendentalists’ counsel would in later life sting as if I came upon a hornet’s nest.

— — — 

We leave port and set out up the uncharted river in search of promised ivory. We head West to search for the Sanzangjing, or perhaps it is Ithaka. But what if we arrive to find her poor—or if we find, half way there, that Phoenicia was enough after all?

We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

How shall we live? It is impossible to decide. I’ve learned enough to believe in my own ignorance, but not enough to know how to overcome it. I cannot yet lecture Wisdom, and I still do not know whose Wisdom to trust.

And so, tying myself to the mast of this rickety ship, I grasp at both worlds, hoping that, like flipping a coin, I’ll suddenly be shown which one I wanted after all.

By day we put our heads down, listening to Spotify and allowing the music to present images of us ahead of others, others looking at us, us bathed in some kind of glory, and we finish our essays. By night—we watch Netflix, we chill. We recover. We rebel. We rail against the system, regretting having ever believed in secret societies and the Rhodes scholarships. 

We are all of us caught between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom. 

How are we to learn which life is best when the first rehearsal for life is life itself? Kundera told us that we are all merely actors going on cold. 

— — — 

Three years ago we said: There will be time, there will be time… Time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions…

And now we say: Will there be time, will there be time?

What happened to all that time? 

There is no time for indecision.

We cannot turn back and descend the stair.

We came here for many reasons. Our reasons weren’t entirely normal, because part of our mission was to reinvent liberal arts and sciences education. What is certain is that we will leave here next year with doubts and questions, jobs and internships, minor and major crises. 

And maybe there we see, for the first time, that this education didn’t need reinvention after all. Maybe instead of assuming education should be something else, we should simply be happy we’ve had it at all.

 


 

This essay was completed in May 2017.

Journey to Oxford

My own departure from New Zealand was aided by the departure of those before me, those who departed and felt a departure to be worth writing about. That’s how a country builds itself, how it makes itself a country worth writing about when one leaves: one writes and gives meaning to all those who come and go thereafter. 

I departed, or ‘journeyed away’ if I’m to use the terms of those before me, and as I did so I thought of Mulgan’s departure: his teary goodbyes at the wharf, his hours to contemplate the Southern sun setting for the last time for who knows how long (he was never to see it again), and then weeks to contemplate the spirit of the place he was saying goodbye to. By the time Mulgan crossed the equator and weeks later arrived in Oxford he had digested us and spat us back out again. We, a people for whom “loveliness too often goes often unnoticed”. Perhaps he sat in the University Parks on an early autumn afternoon and felt that if he didn’t start the tradition then nobody would. 

I sit in the University Parks on a late summer’s afternoon, and though I want to write about the journey to Oxford I find that there simply wasn’t enough of a journey to write about. Arrivals and departures are as mundane as remembering which day to put the rubbish out, and journeys are for luxury goods companies desperate to sell suitcases. Mine was a “trip” here, a trip like the hundreds I’ve done already (if I hold my boarding passes, which I’ve kept since I was fifteen, the stack is as thick as my thigh), and to want it to have been a journey is to simply be crassly literary about it: it doesn’t change the mundanity of any part of the process.

And yet for all the talk of distance these days being less tyrannical, a New Zealander in Oxford is still a New Zealander a long way from home. A New Zealander in Oxford is still one who thought our borders too small; he or she still thought the long trip and the goodbyes to be worthwhile. My arrival here is in so many ways a failure, because as much as the polite thing to say is that New Zealand’s universities are perfectly good, the fact is that one still leaves for Oxford if given the chance. I know of no one who has turned the chance down. 

“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned?”, John Beaglehole asked upon his return to New Zealand just a few years before Mulgan’s departure. My arrival here is, if not a national failure, then a personal one, because it answers Beaglehole in the affirmative: yes, we must still consider him or her so. The life of the province is rich but it is not yet rich enough; the country communicates life but it does not yet have enough of it. Meanwhile, New Zealanders in Oxford laugh at the British but vow never to return to those “Antipodes” (the British term for isles quaint but not worth knowing about). Beijing, a few of them mention. 

Days after arriving I went to the Sackler, Oxford’s art library, and asked for a book on McCahon (it did not take long for me to miss those hills). Your search returned no results. Rita Angus, then—no results. Perhaps I would re-read Mulgan from a new vantage point, but it wasn’t to be, for I am not a member of Balliol, the only college library to hold a copy, and I did not feel like making an appointment with the college library to “view” the book. See, it is still either there or here, here or there. While home I relish revelling in the culture that is ours, but regret that there is not enough culture that is ours merely by humanity, rather than nationality. Here, the opposite: humanity is just a short walk to the library away, but the Bodleian does not yet know how to categorise New Zealanders’ humanity (in fact, our books are simply not sold here). 

I left intending and planning to return, but a part of me is preternaturally scared that something will prevent it: something like a job. If I am to write, from here I could write to the world—from home I would write to ourselves. If I am to start a business, from here I start one facing outwards first and inwards second, whereas from home it is inwards first and outwards hopefully. Still it is for us a choice, whereas the mark of sufficient cultural life is to eradicate the need for a choice. It is true that “Should I stay or should I go” is still our national song, but for how long? For how long must we keep singing that song? 

 


(I asked someone close to me for their thoughts on this essay, and the reply was that, ironically, an essay such as this would never be read overseas either, precisely because it deals with New Zealand. Of course, I think that is true: which means that we must keep singing that song for at least another generation or two).

Here is John Mulgan’s fragmentary essay on his own journey to Oxford that sparked these reflections, edited by Victoria University of Wellington professor Peter Whiteford who himself journeyed to Oxford (but did, to our benefit, return).

A Liberal Education is a Self-Reflexive Education: Defining the Liberal Arts

Many terms are thrown around to define a liberal education. The most common one, I’ve found—at least within universities—is to contrast the “artes liberales” (the liberal arts, or those studies done for their own sake) with the “artes serviles” (‘servile’ arts, or those done out of necessity), as Rome passed the distinction down to us.

I don’t think that definition does much good, and in many cases it might be actively harmful. The single greatest contributor to the education that students receive and which faculty aim to impart is the way that our education is described and discussed; this, because when so many ends of an education are presented to us, we will gravitate towards those talked about most often. So when we define liberal education with reference to that liberal-servile dichotomy, we introduce all sorts of out-dated and anachronistic implications for education today—not least the idea that liberal arts students should not ‘taint’ themselves with ‘worldly’ or ‘servile’ concerns. This definition for the most part simply does not apply to liberal education in the twenty-first century.

The other common definition given is in some ways the opposite of the liberal-servile distinction, and it is to talk about some unique characteristics of liberal arts colleges: “small class sizes”, “residential colleges”, “learning how to think”, “breadth and depth”, and so on. In some ways this definition works, because it does conjure in our minds the idea of what makes a liberal arts college distinct to large research universities, for instance. But on the whole the definition is useless, because it gives students nothing to aim at in our education, and gives faculty nothing to impart: a liberal education is simply defined, here, by institutional structures. Even more than that, the definition is time-limited and in many cases geographically limited too—not all of these aspects are unique to a liberal education. They are by and large the distinct aspects of American liberal arts colleges from the mid twentieth century to the present day.

So where are we left? Is liberal education left forever in the realm of the undefinable, with every new book presenting a different definition? Besides, would clarity through a neat definition reduce what liberal education could mean to different students, somehow limiting us?

A Self-Reflexive Education

I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures (it shows, too, how a liberal education does not require an institution to be achieved). It is a definition that works not by negating other forms of education, as in the liberal-servile distinction, and nor does it refer to specificities of a liberal arts college in its definition. Here, liberal education is separated from the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges; and, most importantly, understanding liberal education as a self-reflexive education gives students and educators alike something to aim at—it gives us a bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view of ourselves even while we are in the midst of our education.

What does self-reflexivity really mean in relation to a liberal education? What makes a liberal education unique is that one has the freedom to critique and question one’s education even while in the middle of it. Instead of a unidirectional transfer of knowledge, liberal education always has a cycle embedded within, whereby students try to understand what we are learning from broader systems and structures, even if that means questioning and trying to understand the very system of education of which we are a part. It could mean something as small as discussing with a professor a given book or reading to understand its broader context (in which case one is self-reflexive about what else there is to learn and understand); or, at its broadest level, it might mean reading and writing intensely on education itself, seeking to understand what structures shape our education as a whole.

The latter aspect of the self-reflexivity of a liberal education can be seen clearly at almost all liberal arts colleges by the fact that the educational institution itself is one of the most frequent topics of conversation among students and faculty. In my experience, we students always want to see and understand clearly the institution of which we are a part, and then quite often to change it, which means we believe in the power to change the circumstances of our own education. This is the self-reflexivity in action: seeing education at its broadest level, and attempting to see one’s present situation within it—and then, quite often, setting out to alter that situation in order to improve what we’re learning and, ultimately, to improve ourselves.

For Example

Taking rigorous notes in a seminar or a lecture, going away later to study them and then remembering them during an exam is not a liberal education. Reflecting on why we have lectures, seminars and exams, how they help us to learn, and what other systems we might have is a liberal education.

Reading a book because a professor assigned it is not a liberal education. Asking why your professor assigned it, and what else they might have assigned instead, is.

Criticising your professor or your university for assigning a given book (perhaps one that reinforces old or dangerous stereotypes) is not a liberal education. Discussing openly in class the value and harms of reading and discussing such a book is.

Writing an essay that you don’t want to write for no other reason than that the syllabus says you need to is not a liberal education. Talking to your professor about what essay you do want to write, and why you should be allowed to write it, is fit for a liberal education.

Thinking your education ends when you graduate may indeed mean you have had an education, but it doesn’t mean you’ve had a liberal education. You’ve only had a liberal education when your high school and college years are seen as the foundations of a life of learning. (Yale’s famous report of 1828 put this: “The Object is not to finish (the student’s) education, but to lay the foundation and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure as the short period of (their) residence here will admit.”

A Metaphor for the Self-Reflexivity of Liberal Education

Las Meninas Liberal Education Self-Reflexive Education

In the first ever lecture I attended at Yale-NUS College (a lecture itself on the nature of a liberal education, during orientation week) my professor spoke about Velásquez’ painting Las Meninas. Typically of an education, four years on I now feel the description was largely lost on me at the time. But it must have done some good to still remain with me now. I remember Professor Rajeev Patke speaking about Modernity, and the rise of self-reflexivity in art and literature: the focus, in Velásquez seventeenth century, gradually moved away from faithful representation of the world as we see it and towards representation of subjective experience. In Las Meninas, Velásquez depicts himself standing before a large canvas which he is painting, but we cannot see what he is depicting; to the figure’s right is a mirror upon the wall, which reflects two figures (themselves outside the scene depicted). Las Meninas becomes an image of self-reflexivity: the painter stands both within and without the canvas he is painting; he gazes forward at his work as his hand creates it, but upon seeing himself reflected there is led to an inevitable and a perpetual reflection about the very nature of the activity he is engaged in. Much like an education—and especially like the process of a liberal education.

But why then should you pursue a liberal education?

The definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education should by now hopefully be clear, but the question remains: why should you pursue it?

You should pursue a liberal education because it provides you with, to use the Yale report’s term, the “superstructure” of lifelong learning. It furnishes you with the “discipline and furniture” of the mind, so that almost nothing throughout life is beyond your intellectual powers. It gives you the freedom to know you can come to know everything, most of all yourself.

You should pursue a liberal education because it allows you to understand not just any one thing, but rather what is common to all things. It gives you a bird’s eye view from which to see the world and any activity you’re engaged in.

Pragmatically, it changes your time at high school or university. When you have the mindset of seeking a liberal education, there are very few things you must do. Rather, you start to see how you can twist every assignment and every class to get exactly what you feel you need out of them.

Far from seeing your education as something to get through, when you pursue a liberal education you start to see your education as something enabling you to get to something else. Your four years at college or university are just the beginning of a life of being able to learn anything and everything you want to learn.

Should I mention grades? Well, only to say that it will likely do your grades no harm to be reflexive about your education and to go about it as an adventure. Professors surely prefer to teach students who are engaged and who know what they want to learn, students who write essays not because they have to write them but because there are ideas they want to test and to figure out.

Do you need to go to a liberal arts college to get a liberal education?

In short: no. I maintain that you can get a liberal education from within any institution, or even through self-learning alone. What matters is merely that you desire an education, and that you are self-reflective about the process of going about it, seeking always what you know you need to get out of it.

But, in saying that, I firmly believe going to a liberal arts college will make it much easier, and will offer aspects of an education that you simply cannot gain elsewhere. A professor who has helped me more than anyone else to understand the nature of a liberal education describes the experience of being at a liberal arts college by using Emile Durkheim’s term: “collective effervescence”. The experience of being in a “living and learning community” with hundreds of other students and professors all committed to exactly the same end is unlike anything else. You’ve all read the same key books, so can discuss with anyone, during any mealtime, any idea you happen to be thinking about. And, if you’re all equally self-reflexive about your education, a depth of insight is enabled. There’s an emotional and an intellectual seriousness which I believe comes from being a part of such a living and learning community.

Why the definition matters

Does the definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education merely restrict what an education could be? Might it hinder more than it helps, or might it miss too many facets of a liberal education to prove useful?

I believe the definition is valuable because it restores education to being about the individual. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then, by definition, only you can get yourself an education, and only I can get myself one. The definition allows us to escape whatever we might dislike about the institution of which we are a part, and to escape even many of the outdated strictures of national education systems which encourage mindless conformity more than anything else. It makes an education all about us, as individuals: and it pushes us to continually challenge ourselves, seeking always a deeper and a greater understanding of our own lives and the world around us. A self-reflexive education is, after all, one that encourages above all the Greek dictum to “know thyself”.

The definition does a number of other valuable things, such as:

  • Avoiding reductive dichotomies between a ‘worldly’ education for your career, and one for self-cultivation, for your inner life. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then what matters more than whether what you learn serves your career or your soul is whether you are reflective about what you’re wanting out of your education, and how there might be other ends to it.
  • It links us back in a long tradition to most of the key philosophers and theorists of education: to Plato, to Cicero, to Augustine, to Kongzi and Ibn Tufayl, to Newman and Mill, Humboldt and Dewey. Not all of these thinkers wrote about ‘liberal education’, but they did all deal with how we can understand the process of education, its ends, and how we can pursue it.
  • It gives us a means of determining the kinds of activities within an education that are appropriate to the kind of education called ‘liberal’. For instance, pure training in a skill or a book is not appropriate to a liberal education unless it reflects on the ends of learning that skill or reading that book. Merely rote-learning for an exam may have educational value, but unless we are reflexive about that process as part of our education, it doesn’t have value as a liberal education.

Implications of a self-reflexive education

Most of all, understanding a liberal education as a self-reflexive education allows us to ignore those aspects of our education done for tradition and institutional requirements alone, and to restore the focus to our own individual experience of an education. Nothing matters but this: that we get out of our education what we need. This applies both to students, and to educators.

Should institutions choose to adopt this understanding of liberal education I believe it would provide much-needed clarity on what ends, subjects, and activities are appropriate to such an education. It may also give, at a time when liberal education’s value is often questioned, a way of responding to critics by escaping dangerous dichotomies like the liberal-servile one.

But ultimately, understanding the self-reflexivity of a liberal education is about you and me, and our own place within an educational institution. Whatever the institution does or does not do then matters far less in the process of getting out of an education what we need from it.

My Capstone Thesis: Liberal Education Between Self-Cultivation and Citizenship

Today I completed my senior ‘capstone’ thesis at Yale-NUS College. My topic was liberal education—a rather broad and ill-defined topic, but then again part of my project was to uncover what exactly is meant by the term, and what exactly constitutes the education I have supposedly received over the past four years. Supervised by Professor Pericles Lewis, the inaugural president of Yale-NUS, my essay attempted to shed light on the implicit means and ends of a liberal education, all the while moving beyond the kinds of platitudes one might find on a college website.

Two starting points of liberal education, and education in general, as I see them:

  1. A liberal education is a self-reflexive education, defined by how one can question and critique one’s education from within (as I was doing with my thesis, for instance). Other forms of education do not feature this self-reflexivity, but are primarily a unidirectional transfer of knowledge.
  2. The education that students ultimately receive and which faculty aim to impart is determined first and foremost by the way that liberal education is described, explained and discussed. This is because, stuck inside our education, we view as its end whatever ends are most visible to us.

These are ideas which have defined my approach to my own education. Perhaps they come as a result of having attended so many educational institutions, where one by necessity begins to see education from a broad perspective. And they are ideas that I tried to demonstrate and shed light on through the capstone, albeit indirectly: by focussing on assessing key rhetorics of liberal education in history, I hoped that both the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ultimate ends would be reflected out of the project. The metaphor for it is best demonstrated by Velásquez’ Las Meninas, where the painter stands before the canvas he paints, and yet sees there himself, and his own reflection: the work is the beginning of a continual questioning and critiquing. My project was both a reflection on liberal education, and a reflection of one.

I end the paper with a call for a modern notion of Bildung, or self-cultivation, as Wilhelm von Humboldt and many of the German Romantics used the term. One of the key dichotomies in education today is how it must be both a private, selfish, individual education, undertaken for no other reason than one’s own personal development; but that at the same time we must educate ourselves to be societally useful, that is, to be useful as citizens. The tension is a defining one for the rhetoric of many educational institutions, and in the daily lives of many students: we want our education to be inwardly-focussed, but know we must contribute through our later work.

The genius of the notion of Bildung is that it links the one notion to the other: that by educating ourselves as individuals, we enable ourselves as citizens. It is therefore no longer either/or—either self-cultivation or citizenship—but one before the other (I have argued this in slightly different terms before). Bildung must be drawn out and untethered from its nineteenth century Romantic roots, but from it, I argue in my capstone, we can develop an institutional rhetoric that escapes the dichotomy. And of course, here we return to the two notions I started with—the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ends achieved through discourse—for institutional rhetoric has the power to shape the education that we as students seek, and which faculty aim to impart to us.

Perhaps I will publish the thesis here at some point. At the very least, it has been interesting to build upon, in an academic way, many of the ideas that seem to have been floating around this blog since my high school years.

 

“We need to rediscover the public good ethos of education”

“There is a certain ‘follow the money’ culture that has been promoted over the past decade that has narrowed some of the wider debate around the overall value of participating in education. It’s not just a private good, it’s a public good. We need to rediscover that ethos.”

Brilliantly put by new Minister for Education Chris Hipkins in a Stuff.co.nz article published today.  And there’s even more:

“A university education is not just about making yourself more employable,” he says. “If you talk to employers about the skills and dispositions they want a graduate to have, they want critical thinkers, people who can digest large volumes of information and make sense of it, who can be analytical. They are talking about the profile of a graduate across a huge breadth of programmes.

“I think we go down a very dangerous path if we say that a university degree is preparation for a particular job. We know that university graduates tend to be pretty adaptable and flexible.”

There are initial statistics to back up the new government’s free tertiary education policy, too: University of Canterbury reported a 20% spike in arts-subject enrolments for next year over 2016 figures. It might be too early to tell if this is a direct response to the Government’s policy, but that high a figure gives a certain indication. And it makes sense: when you’re choosing what to study, not being forced into the “return on investment” logic will lead students naturally to where they can contribute most, and that might just not be in STEM subjects.

This is incredibly promising, and heartening to see the new Labour-NZ First Government straight away attempting to change the fundamental narratives of education, not just policy. I’ve written my own thoughts on the need for a narrative, or “ethos”, shift here; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m so excited about this kind of interview with Hipkins.