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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.

The Man Who Made Yale-NUS Yale-NUS

 

It’s coming up on four years since I sat nervously at my family’s home in Wellington and waited to receive a Skype call that would determine the next four years of my life. I ran through the possible questions I might be asked by the Yale-NUS admissions officer, practising possible formulations of answers, reminding myself to remain calm yet formal.

My computer rang, I took a deep breath, then answered. In a rapid-fire voice at times very deep and, when excited, melodious, the admissions officer told me his name was Austin Shiner, he’d been with Yale-NUS for a year or so since himself graduating from Yale, and that he was excited beyond belief about what Yale-NUS might become. His smile was infectious and I was smiling too within a minute of talking, and his facial expressions seemed to mimic perfectly what he was saying: something serious was said with head tilted slightly downwards and a furrowed brow to give no doubt this was serious; something frivolous, with head tilted backwards and eyes smiling. His cheeks were red, as if to emphasise the extent to which he couldn’t contain his excitement when speaking of Yale-NUS.

“What books do you like to read?”, Austin asked me. I could talk about that no problem, even though it wasn’t a question I’d thought of beforehand. I talked for a bit about books, and then trailed off, expecting the next question. Austin instead started talking about his own favourite books, and offered me some recommendations. King Rat by James Clavell, he told me to read: historical fiction telling the story of prisoners of war (including some Americans and some New Zealanders) during World War 2, set at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. I ordered the book right after the call. A recommendation from Austin, especially when it comes to food or books, we’ve all come to realise, is not something to be ignored. (His YouTube channel sums up the man: “These videos deal with food. Hence, they deal with life.” Austin last night became the first person to eat at all 108 of Singapore’s hawker centres).

It is hard to think of that Skype call as an interview. It was merely a conversation between two people both excited about this thing called Yale-NUS, one of whom had just moved half way across the world to a new country called Singapore to work there, and the other who (I would find out in a few months’ time) was about to.

That “interview” was prescient, because in a matter of minutes Yale-NUS (which at this point, remember, had not a single student nor its own campus) was made tangible for me. And it was made tangible with a sense of infectious excitement, intellectual passion, and a desire to see and explore everything that Singapore and Southeast Asia has to offer. Those are three qualities that I think many would agree define the Yale-NUS experience today.

Some might put it as a chicken-and-egg problem: was Austin chosen to work here because he had the qualities they wanted this school to embody, or is Yale-NUS like that today because of Austin Shiner?

But for those of us here, and especially for those of us in the class of 2017 who have been here since the beginning, the chicken-and-egg riddle is easily solved. As he flew off last night to Taiwan for a new chapter of life, it can be said with seriousness and with immense gratitude that one person, perhaps above all others, has left an indelible mark of good at Yale-NUS College. Future classes of students who never met Austin will nonetheless know Austin precisely because they know Yale-NUS.

Thank you, Austin. Have a great year; keep the videos coming; and see you at graduation.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing

Apology for IdlersI wrote recently of my experience learning how to do nothing. The essay came out of my experiences after being involved in a high-speed crash during a bicycle race, and receiving a concussion. For the next two weeks the doctor’s orders were to have cognitive rest, to literally do nothing—no reading, no phone, no computer, no intense conversations.

What I should have done during that period, however, was have someone read to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers.

While writing my own essay, I struggled with how to refer to “doing nothing”. I ended up referring to it as both doing nothing nothing—to be differentiated from doing nothing singular, which is lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram—as well as daydreaming.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is writing about doing nothing singular. And through doing so, he discusses how to escape the cult of busy—which is not so new a phenomenon after all—as well as why we should all take time to be idle. He touches also on the purpose of education and how it can come about as much through idleness as through books and classes, as well as the traps of living your life in pursuit of others peoples’ measures of success.

“Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”

He is careful to point out that doing nothing is not always preferable to doing something; but his task is to point out its advantages at certain times.

“The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be eat to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

We so often think of reading a book as doing nothing and relaxing, but Stevenson complicates this idea. His version of doing nothing requires escaping altogether the notion of productivity, including consuming knowledge. This is one answer to the conversation I had with a good friend about whether we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it.

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallot, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bust and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thought.”

Idleness—those “vivid, instructive hours of truantry”—is the best education we can get. In an echo of the character Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which was published just four or so years before his essay), Stevenson hilariously enlists Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting a young truant to illustrate the point:

“”Hey now, young fellow, what dost thou here?”

“Truly, sir, I take mine ease.”

“Is not this the hour of the class? and should’st thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?

“Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”

“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Is it metaphysics?”

“Nor that.”

“Is it some language?”

“Nay, it is no language.”

“Is it a trade?”

“Nor a trade neither.”

“Why, then, what is’t?”

“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.”

Idleness, in itself, can be a vital education in the “art of living”:

“Many who have ‘plied their book diligently’, and know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry, stockist, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life. Many make a larger fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them—by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living?”

Stevenson wrote this essay in 1876. He discusses exactly the “cult of busy” that so many, the New York Times included, have taken to be a modern phenomenon, and explains how idleness is a way out of the trap. This is perhaps his most important passage of the essay, dealing really with how people choose to live their lives.

“Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desks or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

Stevenson warns all students of the dangers of filling your life with so much busyness that you cannot focus on what is really important. He explains how conventional success is determined in society, and why students should be sceptical of that image.

These people “Have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train… This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.”

Stevenson ends with a warning to all who are young on what they might be giving up by pursuing a single measure of success through continual hard work, books and study. In practical terms, this is a comparison of different education systems—those that focus on work twelve or more hours a day, versus those that focus on life and practical skills—as well as a plea for taking time off to discover your own standards of success.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

Stevenson’s essay is an important one to read to see through the day-to-day traps and vanities of work and productivity. It is an extreme view, but Stevenson himself admits that; his purpose was not to persuade anyone of complete idleness, but to present the other side of the story that young people are so rarely told. His ideal is a middle way between productivity and idleness—and in that way, we would be able to ensure that our productive time is spent on activities whose ends we actually want to be pursuing.

 

Thanks to my friend Tamara for recommending the collection of Stevenson’s essays.

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.