Franco Moretti is a literature professor, and founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, who believes in something called "computational criticism," that is, the ability of computers to aid in the understanding of literature. Joshua Rothman's recent profile of Moretti has provoked a lot of response, most of it defending traditional literary criticism from the digital barbarians at the gates. Moretti's defenders argue, however, that his critics have failed to understand a crucial difference between his work and what they're worried it might supplant: "The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over (“Hamlet,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Waste Land”). Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general—facts that are true not just about a small number of canonized works but about what the critic Margaret Cohen has called the 'Great Unread.'"
The truth Moretti is after, however, has nothing to do with literature, with the bone curdling insights of tragedy or the personal insights of the novel's hero. What Moretti seeks is a better understanding of all the other texts, of the entirety of texts and the overarching literariness of a period or of history as a whole. One could say that rather than supplant the traditional literary critic, Moretti's work will aid the literary historian, if only to give a potentially comprehensive idea of any given zeitgeist. That is true, so far as it goes. But as the already decreasing numbers of literature students are now in part siphoned off into alternative studies of literature that ignore and even disdain the surprising and irreducible quality of momentary shock of insight, the declining impact of the literary sensibility will only be accelerated. This is hardly to condemn Moretti and his data-oriented approach to literature as a reservoir of information into mass society; we ought, nevertheless, to find in the popularity of such trends the provocation to remind ourselves why literature is meant to be read by humans instead of machines.
RB h/t Josh Kopin
On October 27, 2013, Walter Russell Mead and Roger Berkowitz sat down with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber as part of the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series. The series engages in ongoing discussion with the nation’s leading bloggers in politics, history, art, and culture.
Jay Rosen is a media critic, a writer, and a professor of journalism at New York University. You can visit his blog, "Pressthink" here. Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media. Read her work from The Atlantic here.
Roger Berkowitz started the evening by asking: Should journalists be objective or should they be political actors?
Jay Rosen answered: "Journalists have to do more than just flood us with facts." Rosen thinks of the journalist, "as a heightened form of an informed citizen." The panel discussed the idea of the journalist vs. the citizen and the myriad of ways in which the two overlap. As well, the role the Internet plays in creating an informed public through the sharing of information.
Megan Garber added, "I'm not interested in getting my ideas out, I'm interested in exploring things publicly...There is value in convening people together to talk about one thing."
Watch the video of the discussion here.
The next event in the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series will take place March 9 and features a discussion with Tom Goldstein, the Publisher and a regular contributor to the SCOTUSblog.
Learn more about the event here and RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
In the Weekend Read on Friday, Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs. While MOOCs can be valuable, we need to distinguish the practice of education from the business of knowledge dissemination. “At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.”
Emma Green considers a recent study that suggests that widows and widowers are less likely to vote than others in their respective demographics. In so doing, she provokes us to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s insistence that an engaged public sphere depends upon a vibrant private realm. Green concludes: If “public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it's also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens? It's well established that people who are married vote more than those who are not, said the authors, and this study provides evidence that this isn't a coincidence of age or stage of life -- influence from a spouse is part of the reason people vote." Green shows that the crisis of the educated citizen—which is the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center’s Oct. 3-4 Conference at Bard College—flows at least in part from a related diminishment of private life.
“Over the Abyss in Rye.” That is the traditional title of The Catcher in the Rye in Russian. Reed Johnson writes that the Communist “Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism.” In the New Yorker, Johnson explores the outrage caused by Max Nemtsov’s new translation of The Catcher in the Rye into Russian. Nemstov’s title, “Catcher on a Grain Field” begins with this first paragraph: “If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth.” According to Johnson, “Nemtsov employs a mélange of English-language calques, Russian provincial speech, neologisms, slang originating in Soviet prison camps, and contemporary hipsterish lingo. The mixture of unconventional speech is deliberate: advocates of foreignizing like to claim that such “marginalized” language, through a bizarre sort of syllogism, best represents the absolute difference of the foreign original. In other words, the Soviet prison slang in Nemtsov’s translation is actually meant to stand in for the original’s foreignness—its Americanness—for the Russian reader."
The rise of the MOOC has forced college Professors to defend themselves against the charge that computers can do their jobs better than they can. Now, on the other side, a study at Northwestern concludes that lowly-paid adjuncts are more effective teachers than their highly-paid senior colleagues with tenure. "There are many aspects relating to changes in the tenure status of faculty – from the impact on research productivity to the protection of academic freedom," the study says. "But certainly learning outcomes are an important consideration in evaluating whether the observed trend away from tenure track/tenured towards non-tenure line faculty is good or bad. Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem," says the paper.” The trend to “full-time designated teachers,” in the turgid prose of this study, furthers the overarching trend of turning college education into high school education, with standardized tests, learning goals, and unending assessments. Anyone who cares about the life of the mind should be worried; but the culprit is the professoriate themselves, who continues to defend the status quo of jargon-filled research and overly-specialized teaching. If we don’t return universities to sites of intellectual fervent, the bureaucratic reformers will turn them into glorified high schools.
A Three Day Festival at FDR Library & Bard College
Learn more here.
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.
Hannah Arendt: A Film Screening, Lecture, and Discussion with Roger Berkowitz
One Day University
Learn more here.
John LeJeune gives us the Arendt quote of the week and considers the place of language education in the education of the citizen. Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs.
At Duke University and the University of North Carolina, two highly popular professors have transformed their course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue into a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that is taken by 170,000 people from all over the world at one time. This is old news. There is nothing to worry about when hundreds of thousands of people around the world watch flashy lectures by top professors on how to think and argue. Better such diversions than playing Temple Run. There are advantages and benefits from MOOCs and other forms of computer learning. And we should not run scared from MOOCs.
But the alacrity with which universities are adopting MOOCs as a way of cutting costs and marketing themselves as international brands harbors a danger too. The danger is not that more people will watch MOOCs or that MOOCs might be used to convey basic knowledge inside or outside of universities. No, the real danger in MOOCs is that watching a professor on your Ipad becomes confused with education.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will over time be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. There is no reason that computers or televisions can’t convey knowledge as well or even better than humans. Insofar as professors and colleges imagine themselves to be in the “business of creating and disseminating knowledge,” they will be replaced by computers. And it will be their own fault.
The rising popularity of MOOCs must be understood not as a product of new technology, but as a response to the failure of our universities. As Scott Newstock has argued, the basic principle behind MOOCs is hardly new. Newstock quotes one prominent expert who argues that the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." What you might not expect is that this prediction was made in 1885. "The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses." What Newstock’s provocation shows is that efforts to replace education with knowledge dissemination have been around for centuries. But they have failed, at least until now.
MOOCs are so popular today because of the sadly poor quality of much—but certainly not all—college and university education. Around the country there are cavernous lecture halls filled with many hundreds of students. A lone professor stands up front, often with a PowerPoint presentation in a darkened room. Students have their computers open. Some are taking notes, but many are checking Facebook or surfing the Internet. Some are asleep. And others did not bother to show up, since the professor has posted his or her lecture notes online so that students can just read them instead of making the effort to make it to class. Such lectures may be half-decent ways to disseminate knowledge. Some lectures are better than others. But not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated more efficiently and maybe even better on a computer. It is in this context that advocates of MOOCs are correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture. That it is cheaper too makes the advance of MOOCs seemingly inevitable.
As I have written here before, the best argument for MOOCs is that they may finally put the large and impersonal college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.
What this means is that there is an opportunity, at this moment, to embrace MOOCs as a disruptive force that will allow us to re-dedicate our universities and colleges to the practice of education as opposed to the business of knowledge dissemination. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
“Education,” as Martin Luther King wrote, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born. (I have written more about King’s thoughts on education here).
In her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes that education must have a double aspect. First, education leads a new young person into an already existing world. The world is that which is there before the child was born and will continue to exist after the child dies. It is the common world of things, stories, and experiences in which all of us spend our lives. All children, as newcomers who are born into a world that is at first strange to them, must be led into the already existing world. They must be taught to speak a common language, respect common values, see the same facts, and hear the same stories. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In its first aspect, then, education must protect the world from “the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation.” This is the conservationist function of education: to conserve the common world against the rebelliousness of the new. And this is why Arendt writes, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”
At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.
Now is the time to use the disruption around MOOCs to rethink and re-invigorate our commitment to education and not simply to the dissemination of knowledge. This will not be easy.
A case in point is the same Duke University Course mentioned above, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” In a recent article by Michael Fitzgerald, the Professors— Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke and Ram Neta of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill— describe how teaching their MOOC led them to radically re-conceive how they teach in physical university classrooms. Here is Fitzgerald:
“The big shift: far fewer in-class lectures. Students will watch the lectures on Coursera beginning Monday. "Class will become a time for activities and also teamwork," said Sinnott-Armstrong. He's devised exercises to help on-campus students engage with the concepts in the class, including a college bowl-like competition, a murder mystery night and a scavenger hunt, all to help students develop a deeper understanding of the material presented in the lectures. "You can have these fun activities in the classroom when you're not wasting the classroom time with the lectures," he said.”
What we see here is that the mass appeal of MOOCs and their use as a way of replacing lectures is not being seized as an opportunity to make education more serious, but as an excuse to make college more fun. That professors at two of this country’s elite universities see it as progress that classes are replaced by murder mystery games and scavenger hunts is evidence of a profound confusion between education and infotainment. I have no doubt that much can be learned through fun and games. Children learn through games and it makes all the sense in the world that Finland allows children in schools to play until they are seven or eight years old. Even in primary or at times in secondary school, simulations and games may be useful. But there is a limit. Education, at least higher education, is not simply fun and games in the pursuit of knowledge.
As Arendt understood, education requires that students be nurtured and allowed to grow into adults who think for themselves in a serious and engaged way about the world. This is one reason Arendt is so critical of reformist pedagogy that seeks to stimulate children—especially older children in secondary schools and even college—to learn through play. When we teach children a foreign language through games instead of through grammar or when we make them learn history by playing computer games instead of by reading and studying, we “keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.” The same can be said of university courses that adopt the juvenile means of primary and secondary education.
The reasons for such a move to games in the classroom are many. Games are easy, students love them, and thus they fill massive classes, leading to superstar professors who can command supersized salaries. What is more, games work. You can learn a language through games. But games rarely teach seriousness and independence of thought.
The rise of MOOCs and the rise of fun in the college classroom are part of the trend to reduce education to a juvenile pursuit. One hardly needs an advanced degree to oversee a scavenger hunt or prepare students to take a test. And scavenger hunts, as useful as they may be in making learning fun, will hardly inculcate the independence of mind and strength of character that will produce self-thinking citizens capable of renewing the common world.
The question of how to address the crisis in education today—the fact that an ever more knowledgeable population with greatest access to information than at any time in the history of the world is perhaps the most politically illiterate citizenry in centuries—is the theme of the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” In preparation for the conference, you can do nothing better than to re-read Hannah Arendt’s essay, "The Crisis in Education." You can also buy Between Past and Future the book of essays in which it appears. However you read it, "The Crisis in Education" is your weekend read.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.
This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.
“I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, truly to love the world ... Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theories [the book that would become The Human Condition] Amor Mundi’”—Hannah Arendt
I am writing this in a tiny room in Brooklyn, sitting on a red leather chair at my desk next to a window which looks onto a garden. Above me, and across the entire wall I am facing, are shelves of books: each section of which I’ve assembled in accordance with a theme. Part of one shelf contains a history of the battle at Stalingrad, translations of Rilke, Cavafy and Rene Char, RB Onans’s The Origins of European Thought, Said’s Orientalism, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution each of which is relevant to, or footnoted by, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which I read during a business trip in Europe. In this room I do not allow food, television, music or clocks—anything that might divert my attention from writing—but I inadvertently had my phone in my pocket yesterday, and so the news reached me about the death of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.
We called each other Elisabeth and Steven whenever we met, but in my head and in conversation, first with fellow students of hers and later with professors and scholars, she was never Elisabeth or Young-Bruehl, but always the entire name Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in keeping with a certain gravitas, which surrounded her like an invisible fence. You could not cross that barrier without a special permit, a permit that, despite my many efforts, I was never able to obtain.
The grief I feel at Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s death is clearer because we were not friends, though, especially recently, we did travel in some of the same circles. We first met 29 years ago at Wesleyan University, at the College of Letters, where I was her student in a course on technology and philosophy. Her lectures displayed a penetrating understanding of what we might today call the Net Delusion: the dark side of freedom unleashed by technology. She was certainly the first person I ever heard speak about thinking global (she always pronounced the word with the stress on the second syllable to emphasize its importance); yet she was constantly flummoxed by the operation of her tape recorder. I once pointed what I thought was the humor in this situation, but Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did not find it even remotely funny. She was a formidable professor, projecting both a coldness (especially towards men) and a muscular intellectualism. It would not have been safe to “think aloud” or “free associate around an idea” in her class for she would cross-examine you without mercy. On the other hand, if you were prepared with notes and quoted sources precisely, she would suddenly remember your name and thank you for your contribution.
It was in her classes that I first read (first heard of) Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, whose work arrested my respect as no author had before or has done since. My admiration grew into awe as I read her works and as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl told us about Arendt’s life: her principled stance against Jewish fascism (in a letter she co-signed with Albert Einstein); her affair as a student with her married professor, and despite the fact that her husband was a communist, her love of fine dining.
It was about this time that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl became famous. Her biography of Hannah Arendt was published to near-universal acclaim, and I can still remember Peter Berger’s cover review in the New York Times Book Review featuring Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World proudly displayed in the entryway to the College of Letters.
Often when EYB walked on campus, she was surrounded (guarded?) by five or six women whose appearance and decibel levels of Sprechstimme I can only describe as “fierce.” But my desire to know more about Arendt was strong, and when EYB lectured on Hannah Arendt at Yale and NYC, I travelled to hear her. I went, in part, to slake my thirst for more information on Arendt but also to tell EYB how much her biography meant to me and how immersed I had become in her subject. But despite the fact that I was the only one of her students who attended the lectures away from Wesleyan, she rebuffed me and I retreated. One day, however, in New Haven, I’d forgotten to put gas in the car and was forced to ask her to lend me $10 so I could get back to school. I returned the money to her the next day with a thank you note and a pack of LifeSavers. She smiled, said nothing. My friends said she really didn’t like men, though I saw she made room for a few. I became a model student of hers, reading assigned books and even commentaries on them; I wrote tough, straightforward papers, in dense academic prose, with footnotes and translations; and I received high marks, but the admittance to her circle that I craved never arrived.
A few months later, I went to her office to discuss a paper, but she did not wish to discuss papers. Some elitist in the Academy had rejected an essay or book proposal she had proposed. “I don’t send them out if they’re not good anymore,” she said and then told me how she had toiled for five years writing Arendt’s biography and about the file cabinets of correspondence she had sorted through in doing so. The irony that she was complaining to me that she was not getting the recognition she deserved was not lost on me. Feeling she had opened the door onto exchanging confidences, I shared with her my recent decision to come out of the closet. She withdrew instantly, and said only, “Honey, it’s 1983, where have you been?” Another student was waiting to speak with her and I swallowed my feelings and left.
The intense pleasure I felt at being her student, at having studied philosophy at the hem of the garment of Arendt’s student, who was Heidegger’s student, who was Husserl’s student, was forever undercut by the frustration I felt whenever I actually found myself in the same room with her, and had to confront my inability to make friends with her. Not only were we not friends, but also I came to dislike her for the principal reason that I felt she did not like me. How petty and utterly formal that dislike was, I always knew. I thought my devotion would eventually win her over; I was wrong.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was an exceptional professor and I was not surprised when she became famous, though I was shocked by those who ascribed her fame to her exclusive access to Hannah Arendt’s archives, rather than the magisterial display of intelligence, sensitivity and restraint she brought to bear on her topic. Those of us familiar with Arendt’s life knew Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was much smarter than she was lucky: she was chosen by Hannah Arendt herself as her research assistant. EYB was the only one of Hannah Arendt’s students to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy under her tutelage, and had to write two theses because Arendt rejected her first work (on Heraclitus) and ‘suggested’ she write a second one (on Jaspers.) And at the time of Arendt’s death, Mary McCarthy-- the best friend, famous author and Arendt’s literary executrix—could easily have taken on the biography project, or given it to an experienced biographer, but she did not. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once told me, she had three strikes going in against her candidacy: unlike Arendt, she wasn’t Jewish, German was not her Muttersprach and she was not one of Hannah’s intimate friends. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was chosen for the promise of her brilliance, a promise she fulfilled magnificently.
When Hannah Arendt died, EYB was in her mid-thirties, and she wrote a biography that not only illuminated many of the most important ideas behind Arendt’s books, but one in which the intensely private Hannah Arendt seemed to leap from the pages: sending her housekeeper’s son to college with the proceeds of one of her books, debating with Hans Morgenthau on the editorial pages of the New York Times, and refusing Auden’s marriage proposal after a visit to his apartment during which Arendt blanched when witnessing a group of Auden’s friends share a single spoon while tasting and stirring their cups of coffee. But what I also admired most about Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book was the way she remained quietly in the background, so as not to distract her readers. EYB never names herself in the biography, though those of us who were her students discerned that many of the anecdotes illustrating Arendt’s intensely nurturing relationships with her students were, in fact, about the two of them.
It has been faithfully reported to me by the son of the former concertmaster of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, that during rehearsals the great maestro would wave his arms and gesticulate emphatically, often pantomiming his musical ideas, the better to illustrate them to his musicians. But during performances, Toscanini was entirely restrained, used miniscule gestures, and quipped that audiences should sweat, not conductors.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was the Toscanini of biographers, whose mastery of her subject included privileging graciousness over self-promotion, and she turned out a bravura performance. Such was the demand for her writing afterwards, Louisiana State University Press republished her novel Vigil later that same year.
Susan Sontag pointed out that there is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things. I will always wonder if, on some level, her colleagues’ resentment at her learning a second field motivated EYB to leave Wesleyan, where she was a revered and tenured professor. A few years after I graduated; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl took on the project of writing a biography of Anna Freud, and she enrolled at Yale, and became a clinical psychologist. You might not think this was such revolutionary choice for a woman of EYB’s extraordinary intelligence and accomplishments, but it was for Hannah Arendt’s student and biographer. In EYB’s words, Hannah Arendt “rejected psychological categories altogether” which meant that she held psychology with the same degree of barely concealed contempt as she did “the social,” “statistics,” and “economics”; phenomena which Arendt regarded more as symptoms of the breakdown of the polis, and the triumph of charm over greatness. It is widely reported by Hannah Arendt’s students that she “ate talk of psychology for breakfast.” Nevertheless, in the last years, I attended many of EYB’s lectures where she never failed say things like “as a clinician we say…” or “in the field of psychology this is termed…” as though she were still dealing with objections to her succeeding in yet a second career. David Schorr, who did the cover illustration for the Arendt biography, told me EYB was disappointed by what she learned about Anna Freud: hoping to write about a pioneer in the emerging field of psychology who was also a lesbian, EYB discovered that Anna Freud was not and, in fact, was even less tolerant than her father had been about same-sex love. The Anna Freud book, like the Arendt book before it, won awards and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl added psychology to her philosophy, and did it so well that she was recently appointed the editor of Donald Winnicott’s complete papers, a task that will now have to be completed by another.
As a professor, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had continuously astonished us with her ability to recognize the patterns of thought in the great philosophers. She could instantly identify the author of unattributed passages, and was at her most fascinating when pointing out why a given philosopher was incapable of conceptualizing this or that thought. I can only imagine the power of such a mind attuned to listening to her patients, and the patterns of their thoughts. She must have seemed uncommonly gifted and insightful, because she was uncommonly gifted and insightful.
By 1996, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had written An Anatomy of Prejudices, a book that, I believe, in time, will be seen as a seminal work, not in the least because of its Arendtian methods of drawing distinctions and bringing literally clinical thinking to the task of classifying prejudices. Prior to her work, all prejudice (singular) was regarded as a uniform mass of unexamined negative emotions as though they were all alike and shared a common point of origin. I can only imagine how furious she must have been when her work was extensively utilized by Andrew Sullivan in a major newspaper article, which sought to justify the removal of some section of the social net from underneath the underprivileged.
All the while, she continued to turn out books of breathtaking originality (Cherishment, Where Do We Fall When We Fall in Love, and Why Arendt Matters among her 11 books) and became increasingly preoccupied with the only topic I sensed was more dear to her than politics: love. I continued to follow her career, read her books, and eventually her blog. From her most recent writings I could tell she was deeply in love with her wife, Christine Dunbar and from our mutual friend Jerome Kohn I learned she was, at last, very happy. At this moment, the thought of her happiness is great solace to me. Once I sent her a letter acknowledging her profound influence, thanking her for teaching me to think, and enumerating all of the many ways I felt, and still feel, indebted to her. She wrote back, pointing out to me that my letter named my dog but not my Better Half, and made clear to me, in terms that were only fair, that I was to remain on the other side of her “gravitas.”
In choosing to become an analyst, and writing psychoanalytic books, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl showed her profound intellectual courage: recently, she even addressed Hannah Arendt’s disdain for her chosen field on her blog , postulating that it was understandable that Arendt, whose father died of syphilis when she was a child, and who famously guarded her private sphere, might have strong resistance to a field which focused so intently on early childhood experiences. And in a conference at Bard College in 2006, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt’s birth, she pointed out that recent historical research had revealed that “Eichmann was even more guilty than Arendt knew” with not-so-subtle reference to Arendt’s half-psychological, half-philosophical characterization of the Nazi logistics expert as “banal.”
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s public challenges to her very famous professor at first irked me, then made me think about the patterns of her life and thought and then finally confirmed for me what I had learned from her, first in her lectures and later through her many books: in order to be an Arendtian, she had to face up to and reveal the truth as she knew it, or else she would be sucked into mediocrity. When her truth led her into conflict with a small portion of Hannah Arendt’s thought, she did not run away; she analyzed the facts and stood her ground.
Her mentor often quoted the Ancient Roman saying fiat iusticia et pereat mundi, Let justice be done though the whole world may perish. In time I came to understand how Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, mutatis mutandis, came to embody the very ideals of her beloved and revered teacher, Hannah Arendt.
Even though I grieve that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has died, she will go on influencing me; here, in this tiny room where I am writing, and through the rest of my life, I will go on grieving that she is no longer with us to write more books, to illuminate the world and share the truth, in her courageous yet understated style. She was a bright and shining example of the life well-examined.
Steven Maslow is the Chairman of the Hannah Arendt Center Board, and a former student of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.