You can still learn in a collapsing university, the only kind there is.
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In my recent New York Times opinion essay, “College Students: School Is Not Your Job,” I recalled a professor of mine who lived in a dorm, screened movies like “My Dinner with Andre” for the students, and indulged our philosophical musings afterward. I argued that freewheeling reflection and inquiry of this sort was the essence of a college education — that the person who goes to college is a person seeking intellectual formation. Such formation will likely help them become more economically productive, but that is not the sole purpose of college. Liberal learning is an end in itself.
As you may have heard, the U.S. higher education system is in crisis. College is very expensive, and yet many colleges and universities are in dire financial shape. The disciplines that feature open-ended nonutilitarian inquiry — literature, philosophy, theology, history, music, mathematics, etc. — are being cut left and right.
In that context, aren’t I out of touch for advocating leisure and liberal education? Isn’t it rather privileged of me to make this case? Shouldn’t students learn chiefly to earn? There’s no time to discuss niche 1980s art films when the university is collapsing and the earth is on fire. And it certainly shouldn’t be on students to take the initiative and seek out leisure; they’re already under so much financial pressure, and besides — to borrow from a song that was popular when I was in high school — they didn’t start the fire.
As you might suspect, I think there are problems with this argument. Beyond that, I think arguments like this exhibit an intellectual tendency that isn’t doing students, or humanity, much good.
In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner writes that my call for students to seek out moments of leisured conversation and learning
is like asking students to look for sustenance in a parched landscape. Sure, there’s a few morsels to be found if you go looking hard enough, but do not be prepared for your institution to roll out a bounty, no matter what the brochures might promise.
If you are interested in languages and you are enrolled at West Virginia University, you’re not going to find these experiences. If you go searching at the institutions where the vast majority of faculty are contingent part-timers, you’re not going to find them.
Things at WVU and elsewhere are pretty bad. In some cases, humanities departments are paying for bad decisions by university leaders. And the labor situation in academia has been bad for some time. (Please note that I am a contingent part-timer. For what that’s worth.)
And yet. WVU’s library owns 1.8 million books. Any student can check them out and read them. Those contingent part-timers have office hours, when students can drop in and ask for help with class concepts or chat about a cool movie they saw. If my long experience holding office hours is any indication, students don’t often seek out their faculty. In my career, I’ve spent 90% of my office-hour time alone. That’s a conservative estimate. It might be 95%.
Discretionary reading and visits to office hours take time, of course. And maybe students don’t feel they have it. But, at minimum, they are supposed to go to class. Even if a full-time student does zero homework, that’s about 15 hours a week when they’re gathered in a room with their peers and an instructor, and the only thing on their agenda is to think and learn. Even if most of their classes are little more than transcribing lectures, a student probably has one professor who asks them to engage their brains in conversation with others. That means they likely have at least three hours a week that could be given over to the sort of leisure I’m describing.
The point is, even amid the department closures and executive mismanagement, opportunities are there. And while four-year colleges are pricey, community colleges, where more and more students are taking their liberal arts classes, are cheap. If you live in Austin, you can take one of the Great Questions classes profiled in my article for $255.
I do think it’s on students to take up the opportunities the university sets out for them. Education occurs in their minds, after all. Their professors, and the universities as a whole, owe students an environment and the right coaching for them to learn. Instructors even owe students some cajoling. But in the end, if students don’t take the opportunity, it’s their loss.
When I make a case like this, a lot of people — smart people! — take me to be laying some kind of elitist burden on students or workers. When I say things like, “Burnout is a big problem, let’s make work less demanding so people can enjoy their lives,” I often hear back, “But some people can’t afford to burn out!” (I have an essay on this phenomenon coming in a month or so.) It’s as if I’m saying your life is worthless if you don’t own a Lexus. But I am not saying that. I’m saying something different.
This may sound grandiose, but I am trying to point toward a type of human liberation — intellectual and moral and spiritual, to be sure, but liberation nonetheless. I think people are capable of more than the economy demands of them, and I think exercising those capacities is a big part of a life well lived. Some capacities can only be strengthened in leisure. In some cases, material burdens need to be removed before people can fully exercise these capacities. But you’d be surprised what people are capable of even in poor circumstances. And even once the burdens are removed, people still need to stretch themselves. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it difficult to live the good life as philosophers and theologians define it, even amid the typical comforts of middle-class America.
There is something nihilistic about responses that double down on the burdens that supposedly make it impossible for people to exercise their capacities and find meaning. This nihilism has become disturbingly common among liberals in general and liberal academics in particular.
John Warner writes:
If I let myself, I can get pretty angry over nostalgia like Malesic’s substituting for structural critique and general disgust over how aspects of education that people of my generation could take for granted have been destroyed through some combination of deliberate action by some and neglect by others.
My purported nostalgia
soft-pedals the degree to which opportunities [that] we all believe are the underpinning of a worthwhile education that means something other than increasing one’s value as an instrument of capital … “have been obliterated,” never to return.
The kind of education I advocate has already been “destroyed,” according to Warner. It’s been “obliterated.” If you believed in the value of this sort of education, as I do and as Warner claims to, would you tell students this? Would you tell them a non-instrumental education was impossible? What good would that do?
What does this liberal nihilism come from? One hypothesis is that it’s a perversion of compassion. Liberals care a lot about individuals who are subjected to unjust burdens, systems, and rules. Compassion motivates liberals both to call attention to these burdens and to undertake societal reform. But lately, they tend to over-describe society’s oppressive systems, perhaps as a way to signal the severity of the problems. It gets to the point where, in order to depict innocent individuals as maximally crushed by the system, liberals leave no room to see the system as reformable. They leave the individual no agency.
(Lest my conservative and left-wing readers start feeling too smug, I daresay there is occasionally nihilism among their ranks, too. Conservative nihilism has its own character. Left-wing nihilism is not really distinguishable from the liberal sort. Sorry to disappoint.)
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, college professors (a liberal profession, even if not all its members are avowed liberals) started expecting less of students. I sure did. The idea seemed to be: Things are hard right now, we’ll just wave students through. That was an understandable move at the time, but I wish we hadn’t made it to the extent we did, and we certainly shouldn’t keep waving students through, even as we are perhaps more aware of how dificult things are for some of them. And while learning ought to involve leisure, we owe students a worthy intellectual challenge. When we wave them through, we suggest there’s really nothing to learn.
It is bad when a university foolishly decides to shutter humanities programs. But even when that happens, students retain their agency. A single student who reads a book for the sake of something more than a grade has proved that the conditions for learning have not been obliterated.
The nihilistic account is not true. All hope is not lost. I can’t believe I’m saying this, because there’s a very shallow pedagogical movement out there whose mantra is “just trust students,” but if you’re an educator, you must have faith in students. And why? Because you’re in the business of helping people develop their capacities, and to do that, you must have faith in people. You need to believe that they have the agency that provides the basis for their flourishing and that can be finally obliterated only by death.
The literary critic Becca Rothfeld notes that people who care about literature, academia, and emancipatory politics often lament the grand decline of everything good. And yet. Here’s Rothfeld:
In our age, as in every other, there are both dark forces at work and a small but committed clerisy determined to resist them. Our perennial pessimism may be the product of a narcissistic need, common to every generation, to feel that one’s own epoch is beset by special dangers.
But perhaps this distastefully underwhelming analysis skirts the real issue, which is simply that it’s more thrilling to live under threat. There is nothing more atmospheric, more galvanizing, than paranoia, so we might as well carry on worrying.
Young people today face many challenges. They will outlive their elders, and those extra years are likely to be hot ones. And it’s their elders’ fault.
And yet young people are not exempt from the call to live a meaningful life. They can’t refuse to live in these conditions. Well, I suppose they can, but it won’t do them any good. It’s not like walking into a bar, getting a bad vibe, and deciding to try the place next door. There is no next door.
Climate change is relatively new, but the world has, in a sense, always been on fire. The humanities have always been in crisis. We have all, every one of us, always been dying. Nascentes morimur. Culture, education, standup comedy, pro football, funiculars, indoor plumbing, champagne, Mardi Gras, petroglyphs, Bollywood, pulled-pork barbecue, the Sicilian defense, frisbee golf, Deep Ellum, Pee Wee Herman’s “Tequila” dance, “Magic Mike,” Afrobeat, the gospel according to John: all of it, every structure and all of civilization, has been built on a collapsing foundation by decrepit beings ultimately bound for oblivion. The law of the universe is that, on the large scale, entropy increases. And yet, locally, and for a very short time, we can break that law. That’s why we go on living, why we raise and teach the next generation.
The Swedish author Henning Mankell wrote, some months after being diagnosed with lung and throat cancer:
It is possible to live with cancer. It is possible to fight against it. Nothing is ever too late. In its own way, everything is still possible. My stance this damp September evening is to do ultimately with what cancer has not taken away from me. It has not robbed me of my joy at being alive, or my curiosity about what tomorrow has in store.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking, Sure, but Mankell was well-off and benefiting from the Swedish health care system. And the only reply can be, But he had incurable cancer. You don’t get to privilege-check someone with a terminal illness. Whatever privilege they might have over those who are not cancer-stricken, they won’t have it for long. Mankell lived three more weeks. Do you envy him?
Note Mankell’s words: “It is possible to fight against” cancer. Accepting the reality of cancer and taking joy in what it has not ravaged are fully compatible with fighting it. Similarly, you can protest and fight against what’s happening at WVU while still looking for opportunities to learn at the university. You can agitate for more aggressive decarbonization while enjoying your life on the warming earth. It would be tragic if you could not do both, because life is so short. This is your one chance to protest and your one chance to wring any enjoyment out of existence.
There’s a speech by Wallace Shawn in “My Dinner with Andre” that I’ve watched many times in the last few years.
Shawn is defending a fairly humdrum existence — an everyday hedonism — against Andre Gregory’s quest to break from the “dream world” of mindless consumerism and find a higher reality at the ends of the earth. “You seem to be saying,” Shawn says to Gregory, “that it’s inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today, and everyone is totally destroyed, and we all need to live in these outposts.” Shawn then asks (rhetorically, without waiting for Gregory to answer) if it isn’t “pleasant” to spend time with his wife and children, read the paper, drink coffee, eat coffee cake, and maybe direct the occasional play.
I might want to push Shawn to advocate for a higher form of leisure than drinking coffee, but then, I don’t have to, because he’s performing that leisure through the conversation. Gregory tends to drone on and on, trying Shawn’s patience, but there are moments in the film when both characters’ minds are fully engaged. They’re doing what Aristotle and Josef Pieper saw as among the highest human activities.
Shawn and Gregory think the good is possible — here, now, and in the future. Unless you do, too, you will never fight for anything better.
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I cannot stand this song or the artist who performed it, so I will not link to it. But the phrase works for my purposes.
I first encountered Mankell’s essay via an episode of The Relentless Picnic, a podcast that’s currently dormant, but whose episodes reward multiple listenings. Right in the middle of the “Passage Potluck” episode, the three discussants pair Mankell’s essay with a passage from another contemporary author, and the result of their bouncing these passages off each other is one of the greatest moments not just in podcasting but in the history of interpretation. The Relentless Picnic embodies something like the leisure I think ought to be at the heart of college.