What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life

“This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College. May 21, 2005.

One of the questions faced these days by anyone giving a commencement address is whether to speak to the graduating seniors in the crowd before you, or whether to speak to the potential millions on YouTube. Many of these potential listeners in all parts of the world may be younger, perhaps just starting college, and your speech could come at just the right time to nudge their life in a slightly different direction—to make them conscious of their education, conscious of something important.

David Foster Wallace tried to speak to both at once. He spoke, to the graduating seniors before him, of the “the day to day trenches of adult existence” they were about to encounter. But he also spoke of the education they had just completed—the education they could not re-do, but could only try to make some sense of. This latter part of his speech is most important to those about to enter college. It is an ideal high school commencement address.

This is one of the paradoxes of Wallace’s commencement address. To have listened to his speech as a graduating senior, and to be told, perhaps for the first time, what my education was really about, would have struck me with a debilitating frustration. To go back and read those books again, and to have all those conversations again, with the knowledge that this all dealt with the most central aspect of existence might’ve put many of those seniors on very different life paths. But here they were being told about the “trenches” of existence, and what “day in day out” really means, perhaps without having ever realised what those four years at college had been for, how they could have limited the time they might spend in those trenches.

I was lucky enough to have been sent Wallace’s speech before entering college—and it was also sent to all students by Yale-NUS College’s Dean of Students the day before classes began in freshman year. This is how Wallace spoke to far more than those seated before him. And for all these people, the millions who listen to his speech online, understanding the meaning of their liberal education before entering college might have some immense effect.

It’s like in those sci-fi stories about an asteroid heading straight towards Earth, threatening human existence. Nudge the asteroid by even half a millimetre early enough (using a missile or something), and it will comfortably miss Earth. But leave it too late, until the asteroid is far closer to Earth, and the force required to knock it off its course might just be too great to be possible.

That’s the time value of experience. That’s also the power of writing and of speaking.

I didn’t properly grasp Wallace’s This is Water speech when I first read it, nor when I was sent it in freshman year. In fact, I’m sure I don’t grasp much of it even now. But from the start it gave me the sense that my education was about something larger. I felt then that it was about more than just a job and a career. It was this sense that let me push back when I was incentivised to connect my dots looking forward, and it has led to a fundamentally different college experience. As Wallace said, it has also let me learn how to give meaning to experiences.

The speech has also provided a reference point with which to understand my education. Each time I read it, I understand a little bit more of what Wallace was trying to get at. And I have no doubt that same will continue to happen for much of my adult life.

The Time Value of Experience

Note: I wrote this in mid 2011, when I was still 16 and in my penultimate year of high school. I might re-write it someday, but I feel the idea is important enough to make it worthwhile re-posting the original. The project I mention at the end, “They Don’t Teach You This In School”, was about creating an archive of life lessons and experiences through one minute videos asking people the question, “What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you had known when you were younger?”

You’ve no doubt heard of the Time Value of Money, a theory that explains how the value of a dollar in your pocket today is more than the value of that dollar if you receive it tomorrow. If you own that dollar right now, you have the opportunity to receive interest on it before tomorrow, which means that the dollar is more valuable to you by the amount of the interest that you receive before tomorrow (and tomorrow can represent any date in the future).

The Time Value of Money theory is the basis of fundamental finance and economics. It explains the core reasoning behind why people act rationally with regard to money and how people make investment decisions. There is no arguing with the importance of this theory in our society.

I propose that there is another theory which is arguably more important than the Time Value of Money. It’s a theory that is relatively obvious, but often forgotten. The theory explains the core reasoning behind how we act, and how we make decisions in life. And because it encompasses much more than money, it’s something that people should be made aware of, so that they don’t forget it.

Let’s call it the Time Value of Experience. It describes how experiences we have are more valuable the earlier that we have them, because those experiences can then be applied to all other parts of our lives in the future. It’s about knowledge and lessons that we’ve learned – so perhaps those terms are interchangeable.

If I make a mistake today – let’s say I screw up a negotiation with someone, or make a bad decision – then the lessons that I’ve learned through this experience are valuable, as they help me to avoid making similar mistakes in the future when perhaps the stakes are higher. By making these mistakes today, that experience is more valuable than if I made the mistake tomorrow because I’ve had a day with which to apply that experience to my life. Later that day, I may have avoided making a similar mistake because I already made the mistake earlier that day.

Therefore, experiences that I have today are more valuable than that same experience tomorrow by the difference of mistakes that I would’ve made before tomorrow if I hadn’t gained that experience today.

Obviously, the Time Value of Experience is not as easy to measure as the Time Value of Money. It’s intangible, and non-numerical. But by being aware of this theory, we can attempt to gain as many experiences as we can, as soon as possible.

This theory explains why many entrepreneurs love making mistakes, and look upon mistakes as a huge achievement. By screwing up, you’ve successfully gained experience and knowledge which you can apply to everything you try in the future.

The Time Value of Experience also helps me to explain the importance and value of my project They Don’t Teach You This In School. If people can pass on their knowledge and experiences through TDTYTIS, then young people can learn from that right now and benefit from it into the future. On the other hand, if the only way for someone to learn something is through personal experience, then society is slowed down because everyone is making mistakes that could be avoided.

I believe everyone should bear in mind the Time Value of Experience. You should try do gain as much experience as you can in whatever it is you do every single day, because that experience is more valuable the sooner you gain it.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

Why Do We Take Such Great Risks for Sport?

The crash was bad, but not so bad as to be unusual for bike racing. The speeds were high but not as high as they could have been, and because it was a pile-up many of the riders avoided road rash, the sandpapering of bodies as skin meets tarmac. It happened on a controlled course with barriers, meaning lower risk than if the crash had happened on an alpine descent during the Tour de France. What was frustrating about it, however, was the cause: a motorbike, meant to be leading the race, had stalled right in the middle of the narrow course. The riders at the front who could see further ahead were able to avoid it, but those further back couldn’t see beyond the rider in front to make out the hazard. The video doing the rounds online shows a few close calls, and then another rider tries to dodge the moto at the very last second but can’t avoid it, crashing hard to its left and to the right of the course hoardings. Other riders, with nowhere to go, crash right into him on the ground again and again and again. Another video, this one with sound, gives viewers the full experience of snapping, crunching, cracking carbon and the gasps of horror and fascination from the spectators behind the barriers. I’m talking, for those who haven’t seen the videos, about the recent crash at the 2016 Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn, New York.

The cycling world normally seems to exist entirely separately to the one most people inhabit. (I was tempted to write “the one most of us inhabit”, but a glance down at my shaven legs suggests that wouldn’t be quite honest). Yet ever so often the two worlds meet. Most often this takes the form of skirmishes between cyclists and drivers, both of course having good intentions but viewing roads as serving two different functions. Sometimes these tussles are brutal enough, crazy enough, or sufficiently vitriolic for the media to pay attention. At this point anyone with enough sense to see both sides of the argument would be best to avoid the comments section of any website covering the fracas.

The other time the two worlds meet is when a member of the media happens to be reminded of cyclists’ apparent insanity, and decides to spread the word. Global media recently covered a New Zealand cafe that decided to ban lycra-wearing customers, out of fear of what “unseemly bulges” might do for young patrons. And then, of course, there are the crashes, which beg the obvious question of who in their right mind would race bikes like that? A selection of the global media’s headlines for the Red Hook Crit crash include, for instance, “SEE IT: Brooklyn 30k bike race forced to restart after crazy crash — ‘Bicycle wheels and parts were flying over spectators’ heads’”; “Stalled motorbike causes massive cyclist pile-up”; and “Watch: Stalled motorcyclist causes mass cycling crash”. The headlines are written for the general public and pit cyclists and non-cyclists against one another in a clash of civilisation and sanity. Inclusion of details like “a 30k bike race”, marking the article as clearly written by a non-cyclist, immediately alienate cyclists who know that in that kind of race the distance is almost entirely beside the point.

In any case, as many of my non-cyclist friends have watched the Red Hook video over the past few days I’ve become an object of fascination. Having just come out of a 65kph pileup myself a couple of weeks ago, I’m all too aware of the dangers of the sport and what a crash like that is like.

David Foster Wallace described Federer Moments in tennis, when “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” I’ve never had the cyclist’s equivalent of a Federer Moment and I think that that’s because for us they don’t exist. A win is created throughout a race, never in a single moment as with a match-deciding touch of a ball to a racquet. There are therefore no individual moments that can be replayed on YouTube. To watch a rider crossing the finish line hardly gives a sense of excitement or beauty, as it will demonstrate nothing of how the race was won, the strategy and tactics and struggles that led to the victory.

The only moments talked about in cycling are crashes. They are the only events of the sport that can be shared in a brief video or discussed in a moment. All else is detail—the battles taking place over sometimes thousands of kilometres, the knowledge required of inter and intra-team rivalries that give meaning to decisions taken during a 200km stage, and the way that riders can be competing for first and second despite being kilometres apart from one another on the road. Detail is impossible to display on TV, let alone in a thirty second viral video. And yet it is what makes the sport. It is what lets those who have been cyclists for years discover new aspects to their sport every year.

I think the world of difference between games and sports stems from this presence or absence of a single moment to be replayed afterwards. That sentence might strike some as odd—aren’t games sports, too? Yes, but I don’t have a word to describe sports that aren’t games. They are all racing sports, but for me that doesn’t quite encapsulate it. So I shall have to make do with an inaccurate usage of the word “sport”. Games live for the event, sports for the detail. Games can be replayed by the “scoring” of points, the spectacle of tries, touchdowns, goals, shots. Sports must have their results explained, and sometimes this is impossible to do in its entirety, or at the very least could only be done in a full-length book. It strikes me as odd that no such individual word exists for these sports, as it is a crucial line of separation from mere games. “One plays football, or tennis, or hockey. One doesn’t play at cycling”, said Jean de Gribaldy, French cyclist of the 40s and 50s.

Stage 16 from the 2015 Giro d’Italia was my cycling equivalent of a Federer Moment. Or rather, it showed how there can be no such thing as a Federer Moment.

The stage was one of the more mountainous of the whole Giro, with the riders to complete over 4,500m of elevation gain—over half the height of Mt Everest. The weather was fine for the riders on the day of the stage, which had always been a worry after a perilous stage 16 of the 2013 Giro, when race organisers were forced to escort riders on a descent. Alberto Contador—32 year old Spaniard, one of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours (the Italian, French and Spanish), convicted doper—was in the leader’s jersey, the maglia rosa or pink jersey, with a two-minutes and thirty-five second lead over his nearest rival as stage 16 began. By this point the riders had already covered roughly 2,000km of at times mountainous terrain in two weeks, which in Grand Tour terms is when leaders’ exertions can start to catch up with them. Whoever had the best legs after a week of racing may not necessarily have them after two. Contador’s main rival was Fabio Aru, a 24 year old Sardinian riding for ProTeam Astana, the Kazakh team. Just before the Giro, Astana had come close to being stripped of their license to race due to a variety of doping allegations. The riders were there at the race, but had a constantly suspicious eye turned their way, which prompted many to say they were riding to prove themselves. Mikel Landa, Aru’s teammate, was in fourth place on the general classifications standing at the start of stage 16, two minutes and 11 seconds down on Aru and four minutes forty-six seconds down on Contador. He was looking strong, having won the stage the day before, but would be riding to serve his teammate Aru, unable to himself attack or go for the stage win.

After 100km of racing the peloton was still together. And then Contador’s tyre punctured. Here we need to step back a bit. Were I to show you a video of the event of Contador’s tyre getting a puncture you would see nothing of interest. You could hardly see anything, in fact—just Contador slowly coming to a halt and waving his arm up for the team car to deliver him a new wheel. It isn’t even worth watching. But it is what the event represents in the scheme of the day’s racing—and not just the day’s race, but the week’s, and the entire tour’s, and in terms of Contador’s mission to prove himself again after losing his previous Tour title after his doping ban—that makes it so crucial. And we can’t even just look at this Giro. We need to go back to stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France, when Contador was battling Andy Schleck on a hors categorie—literally, beyond classification because it is so steep—climb. The two riders were on their limit, riding mano a mano in one of the duels all cycling fans live to watch, with Schleck in the yellow leader’s jersey but Contador only seconds behind him overall. Schleck’s chain drops off just 3km before the end of the stage, forcing him to dismount his bike to put it back on. Contador accelerates away from him, gaining enough time over the next 3km to take the yellow jersey off Schleck.

After the stage, Schleck was understandably not happy. Contador didn’t show “fair play”, he said: “In the same situation I would not have taken advantage.” Contador for his part denied wrongdoing: “I know it’s delicate situation, I know there are complicated parts, but at the moment I attacked I didn’t know what happened, I knew after, I was already in the lead.” That day stood for the unwritten rules of cycling and the age-old debate about the role of mechanical mishaps—whether they are fair game to be taken advantage of, or whether opponents should slow down in the event that their primary competition is afflicted by an untimely issue out of their control. In this case, anyway, Contador was largely seen to be in the wrong. But that didn’t change the fact that he rolled to the start of the next day’s stage in yellow.

Often in cycling you must choose between winning and being a good human being. What do you decide when you are on your limits? What do you decide when you aren’t able to think clearly, when all strategy has been thrown out, and you are left with a single second to decide what to do? Racing lets you see yourself more clearly than in everyday life, and it lets you learn about human nature and the relationship between ambition and morality. Contador gave his answer, just as his opponents in the Giro are about to give theirs.

Back to the Giro. Contador had just flatted. And as he waits for his team car to get him on another bike and back into the race, we see teams Katusha and Astana speed up. Was their decision to push the pace just coincidental timing? Maybe, maybe not. Just as with Contador in the 2010 Tour, actions usually speak louder than words. But the parallel to Contador’s own decision to accelerate in the face of another’s misfortune was readily visible, meaning he couldn’t easily appeal to the court of public opinion. By the time Contador is back on his bike with his team in full damage-control mode, pacing him back to the bunch, he is over 50 seconds behind his main rivals, Aru and Landa. A gap like that alone at the finish line would have threatened Contador’s lead, leaving him vulnerable in future stages, but with a climb as difficult as the infamous Mortirolo still to come on the day’s stage, 50 seconds could easily have blown out to minutes. Not only was Contador not in the running for the stage win, but he risked losing the maglia rosa. He risked losing the Giro, and therefore not even getting the chance to compete for his stated goal of the GiroTour de France ‘double’.

Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team paces him well to the bottom of the Mortirolo climb, but they’re not moving nearly fast enough to catch him up to Aru and Landa during it. Contador has to decide: conserve energy by sticking with his teammates but risk not ever catching the others, or go it alone in an all-out effort? He has to think not only of whether he will have enough energy to catch Aru and Landa and stay with them on today’s stage, but also how his efforts might cost him on the next four stages before the end of the Giro. He reaches the bottom of the climb and accelerates away from his own teammates. He puts his head down, looking frequently at his power meter to ensure he doesn’t consume too much energy too early and burn out before the top. He eats a gel, takes a drink. Contador is majestic to watch, thrusting each side of his body up and away from the pedal one after another, his elbows close to his body and his feet literally dancing on his pedals. He sits down occasionally to recuperate, but he prefers to ride out of the saddle, seeming most comfortable when weaving his front wheel in and out across the road in time with the motions of his body. He passes practically the whole peloton on the way up, giving them no thought. A fellow Spaniard in a different team takes a few minutes to lead him up and let him gain any rest he can.

All this is playing out on a vast mountain in the Italian alps, the largest stadium in the world with fans lining the roadside the entire way up. Fans run alongside the riders, able to keep up easily because the road is so steep, offering words of encouragement. Contador occasionally offers a nod of thanks.

And then he can see them. Around just one corner they’re visible—Aru, Landa, and Steven Kruijswijk of team LottoNL-Jumbo. It has been thirty minutes or so of Contador in ‘time trial mode’, himself against the clock and his own numbers to try to reach his rivals. Even keen cyclists rarely watch thirty minutes of a five hour race, and even if they did it would likely be the final 30 kilometres—not, as here, almost 50 from the time Contador reached the base of the climb, or closer to 75 from the time he punctured. And yet all of this time is necessary to understand what’s really at stake in the race, how this manifestation of the sport is actually playing out.

But before Contador reaches Aru and Landa, there’s another battle going on. This one is less visible, because it technically shouldn’t happen. Aru is meant to have it easy, with his domestique Landa pacing him up the climb—all he has to do is sit behind Landa’s wheel, with Landa taking care of measuring their pace relative to power and a whole combination of other factors. But what’s becoming apparent is that Aru is struggling. At points Aru cannot even hold onto his teammate’s wheel, dropping back a few wheel lengths and then fighting desperately to get back. He starts weaving around the road, his mouth wide open to suck in more oxygen, all the while Landa looks perfectly measured, his face still calm and his mouth remaining closed. With Landa having won the stage the day before, people were starting to wonder: should Astana have picked Landa instead of Aru to lead the team? In other words, should it be Aru serving Landa rather than the other way around?

As Contador rounds a corner and catches the three riders these many details come to intersect all at once. Contador testing himself up the climb; Contador trying to catch those who took advantage of his mechanical; Contador versus Aru today; Contador versus Aru overall in the Giro; Tinkoff versus Astana; Aru’s battle with his own teammate Landa; Kruijswijk’s desire to crest the climb first to gain King of the Mountains classification points. These contests are all nested in one another, and are being played out between every rider and every team in the race. Nothing shown in a replay on TV can capture its complexity, or the beauty in the nested dilemmas of the sport.

Contador catches them, takes a couple of minutes to catch his breath, and then attacks again, speeding past Aru and Landa. As he passes Aru he looks back for a split second with a stare that says everything: you took advantage of my misfortune but you gave me the willpower to do this. Do you have what it takes? Aru cracks—he simply cannot respond. And that stare speaks both for Contador’s battle with Aru, as well as Aru’s battle with Landa. Aru knows his leadership of the Astana team is on the line in this moment. Next second we see Landa accelerating away from Aru to catch Contador—his directeur sportif had told him over race radio that he was free to ride for himself, to stop serving Aru and go after the win. Aru from here seems at times to be tearful while dragging himself up the mountain alone, and the rest of his race is a battle against himself to limit his time loss not against Contador, but against his own teammate. I’ll cut the story short here. These are the most prominent narratives of detail running throughout this stage, but every rider and every team will have equally fascinating and complex stories to tell.

A criterium, or ‘crit’, is a style of racing that almost seems invented to create cycling moments. In other words, crashes. Unlike a road race which takes place usually over hundreds of kilometres of open road, a criterium involves a set number of laps of a short course with tight corners, very often a city block. ‘Prime’ laps (pronounced “preem”) are announced by the ringing of a bell, informing riders that the person to pass through the finish line next will win additional points and sometimes a cash prize. Overall honours for a crit are awarded to the first three to cross the line after the full number of laps are completed. It is not the distance that makes these races what they are, but the sheer speed and the constant acceleration required as riders come out of the frequent corners. Looking at a rider’s heart rate or power data from a crit will show they were using their maximum capacity for the duration.

You can tell what kind of racing a cyclist will be good at by just one look at them. Crit riders are usually taller and heavier, denoting bigger muscles. They can put immense power down for relatively short periods of time. By contrast, a good climber in a road race will be shorter and leaner, with muscles that bulge less, aside from the upper part of the calf. They have a better ‘power to weight ratio’. On the flat roads of a crit, weight is relatively unimportant. What matters most is that riders have an ability to put down large amounts of power, which means bigger muscles, which means higher weight. But when the road starts to slope upwards, gravity starts to matter, and here what is more important than objective strength is how a rider’s strength relates to their weight. Climbers won’t be able to put down anywhere near as much power as a ‘200lb crit monster’, as they are sometimes called, but the relationship of the power they can put out relative to their own weight means they will reach the top of the hill significantly faster. The steeper the gradient, the more this matters, which is why riders like the five-foot-five Colombian Nairo Quintana excels in the steepest mountain stages of the Grand Tours.

The incidence of crashes in criteriums is higher than in road races because of the speeds, continual tight corners, and usually narrow course. The crash at the Red Hook Crit wasn’t particularly unusual aside from the involvement of a motorbike, which are more of a hazard during road races where they often need to pass riders. The video looked devastating, and my non-cyclist friends could hardly believe their eyes. The question was always why, why, why? Why would you enter a race knowing that a crash like that is likely? It’s a legitimate question, one I’ve asked myself many times after crashing in a similarly bad pile-up. But ultimately, the question probably misses the point.

Loving a sport means you see something where others see nothing. Where we cyclists see and speak of litheness and souplesse, others see emaciation and someone riding their bike. Racing a bike can look easy, but where some see a group of riders going for a spin through some beautiful French countryside or around a course in Brooklyn, I see humans struggling to overcome what their bodies are telling them they cannot do. I see a group humans at the foot of an immense mountain and can feel scared for them, knowing the burning pain about to wash its way through their bodies, knowing the way their minds will one second say ‘you can’t’ and the next will say ‘you must’, all the way up the mountain. I see the irony in a spectator yelling “move up” to a rider in a crit, while their body is on fire, wanting to get off the bike rather than exert even more. Even the grimaces on their faces cannot describe the pain they are going through, and I feel uplifted for seeing the way Contador rode up that mountain alone, overcoming every bit of that “you can’t” in his head—and I can feel Aru’s humiliation, Landa’s veiled pleasure, the year’s worth of emotion coming out in mere minutes.

But pain of an impact is something everyone can feel. The universal horror of seeing the Red Hook Crit crash shows how this kind of empathy is automatic, where empathy for the pain of riders as they climb a mountain isn’t. Even cyclists recoil from a phone screen after watching the video, and can wonder why they race bikes when the risks are so high. But that question of why, why, why would you race your bike is not unique to cycling. Why would someone scale a rock face without a harness? Why would someone throw themselves out of a plane? Why would someone snowboard down a mountain and do backflips on the way? I don’t understand anything of what drives people to take risks for those sports, yet I go and race my bike in a crit and watch people crash all around me, even to be taken out myself. There is something universal here in the psychology of what drives athletes.

David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on Federer that “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war… It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

I think we all reconcile with that in different ways. For me it has been coming to realise that my physical body has a counterpart to the years of mental growth through my education. I’ve come to realise that in the physical world, nothing can be rushed. In the physical world time plays its own part. Quit your job and train at cycling or running or whatever sport you wish every day for a year and you will still never be as good as if you trained methodically over two years. More than any intensive training it is simply miles, or “time in the chamois”, that leads to the physical changes needed to improve as a cyclist. I still notice my legs changing shape as months go by, my upper body diminishing to make me more efficient on the bike, the quantity of food I need to consume adjusting as my gut is also made more efficient. And I know that time will also play its part to eventually take all this away from me. I see older men on recumbents in the gym, still intent on spinning their legs but no longer with the ability to ride upright. Their legs still bear the remaining signs of decades spent shaping muscles to ride a bicycle, but each year will continue to take that away.

The risk of sport is an integral part of this reconciliation with having bodies. Bodies are fragile. Flesh can be scraped off, bones break. Bodies also heal. Risk in sport is not desirable, but it is an unavoidable part. And those of us who have a sport are willing to take the risks we do because it shows us that although our bodies can do all sorts of amazing things, they mustn’t be taken for granted. If youth is wasted on the young, sport might go some way towards alleviating that waste through the individual recognition that bodies aren’t uniform and nor are they infinite. A misjudgement of the mind has consequences for the body.

The beauty I see in cycling lies in part in physical aesthetic, in aerodynamic bicycles, glistening muscles, perfect roads and snow-capped mountains. It is also in part the beauty of mental battles, the metaphor of struggling and overcoming. Sport is so much more than a body doing what bodies should not be able to do. It is not just about physical perfection so great that it plays out on the court or field as transcendence. It is all of that, but that is not it. What a bike crash shows us is that whatever beauty we find in sport, and however that sport leads us to reconcile with our having bodies, is different for all of us. Through sport bodies become both mortal and immortal. The attempt to reduce a group of athletes to being seen as suicidal idiots must be resisted for precisely the reason that watching Federer can come to be seen as a religious experience.

An event like the Red Hook Crit crash is, on the one hand, entirely insignificant. The riders involved are faceless, the whole thing over in just a few seconds. Its details, though, are timeless. To see beautiful and powerful bodies made vulnerable to the whims of a stalled motorbike is to feel fearful and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific

Which country wouldn’t want to be a Pacific nation these days? It was a sign of the times when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared during a visit to New Zealand on May 1st that “I also come as a neighbour, as France is also a nation of the Pacific!” One could almost picture the notes his aides had prepared on the flight over, suggesting, one suspects, that Mr Valls emphasise France’s deep ties and connections to the Asia Pacific. His visit to New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand comes at a time when many countries are dispatching leaders to the South Pacific to strengthen economic and political ties with friendly countries in the region.

France does indeed have colonial-era ties to the Pacific. New Caledonia, an archipelago roughly 1,000km from Australia’s eastern coast, remains a “special collectivity” of France. France also counts as possessions the islands collectively making up French Polynesia in the central South Pacific, as well as the tiny Wallis and Futuna. Yet this, too, is changing. Part of the reason for Mr Valls’ visit to the Pacific was to discuss with New Caledonia’s leaders details of the islands’ 2018 referendum on independence. As a vote nears, France looks to be seeking continued influence. While in Noumea, Mr Valls announced a $240 million loan to help Societe Le Nickel, a New Caledonian producer that has been struggling with low nickel prices.

But Mr Valls’ need to quite literally exclaim his country’s ties to the Pacific seemed to emphasise the insecurity behind the statement. He is not the first world leader to emphasise the ties. In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As with France, the statement is not untruthful. But the circular logic in proclaiming a “new focus” with reference to a “fundamental truth” of history does show the urgency with which these pivots to the Pacific are being undertaken.

These declarations of Pacific identity may nevertheless help to give the impression of friendliness, which is useful for countries hoping to tap into economic opportunity in the Pacific. Much to Japan and Germany’s dismay, Australia announced on April 26th that it had chosen France to build its new fleet of submarines. The A$50 billion ($38 billion) contract was highly prized, and explains Mr Valls’ last minute addition of Australia to his Pacific tour.

Pacific countries seem to be rather enjoying the flirtation. The French leader’s visit gave John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, an opportunity to make former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s case to be United Nations Secretary General, as well as argue for a long sought-after New Zealand-EU trade deal. Mr Valls may also have encountered Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, on the tarmac in Wellington — Mr Mukherjee was calling on New Zealand’s political and business leaders, the first ever visit to the country by an Indian head of state. He, too, brought the possibility of some large cheques, announcing the agreement of direct flights between the two countries.

In the end, it is deals like that which mean countries are unlikely to pay much attention to the historical or geographic accuracy of claims to Pacific identity. In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. Mr Valls’ over-eager exclamation might have been worth it after all.

In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels

In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.

There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.

When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.

If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.

I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.

I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.

Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.