The Means and the Ends of an Education

When it comes to thinking about university study in the United States, the challenge seems simply to be getting in.

As admission rates get ever closer to zero percent and the process becomes ever more stressful, it’s really no wonder we begin to think the challenge of university ends once we are in. From there, just make sure you pass, develop a niche, get a prestigious internship, and all will be fine, the thinking goes.

We focus so much on the admission that we forget all about the point of it all, which is what we do once we are in. Education, then, starts to seem like something that happens to us during these four years, rather than something we grab hold of and shape.

One’s approach to university from the very first day shapes not only the four years there, but one’s entire life. That’s because education in the liberal arts tradition is, at its core, about learning how to live. It’s about learning what good and bad means to you, not the person next to you. I’ve only learned that recently, late in my time at university. And yet learning it has changed everything.

But because the admissions process has conditioned us to think of university as a competitive machine that will give us a path to a higher-paying job, we ignore what it is that university truly offers us.

Universities have all the tools necessary to learn about life and its mysteries as one wants to learn about them. But because we think the difficulty of our education has happened in the admissions process, we ignore the real effort required of us. That effort lies not in essays or assignments, but in deciding what it is that we actually want out of our time here—and then going and getting it, however tiring and difficult it at times may seem.

Admission to university is the means of an education, not its end. What a simple idea that is so incredibly difficult to keep sight of—even once one is “in”.

If The Grass Were Greener

Idioms often express truths so fundamental that we ignore their real intent.

We say “the grass is always greener on the other side” when really what we mean is, it never actually is.

Things won’t be better by getting into that college, by getting that promotion, or by moving into that nicer house. They will all have their downsides. Yet we ignore the now and live for that future, and then say to ourselves, with a sheepish grin: well, the grass really is always greener on the other side.

Next time, say what you really mean. “The grass is never greener on the other side.”

The world becomes a different place when you know you have what’s greenest.

 

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.

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.