I am profoundly grateful to have readers like Steven McGuire and Nathaniel Peters, who have engaged with my book at the level of its deepest questions. McGuire forcefully raises the question of the book’s attitude to politics and so amplifies a critique made by other reviewers, such as Jonathan Marks, Sophie Duncan, and Paul Seaton. I will begin there. But Peters’s question about the role of truth in education intersects with politics, and so we will find our way there, too.
Thought and “the World”
McGuire argues that there is a tension in my book between its defense of radical intellectual egalitarianism and its rejection of what I call “the world.” He further argues that I am too harsh on ordinary politics and that I do not sufficiently honor the political conditions that make intellectual life possible. When I describe ‘the world’ as the locus of competition and striving for status, I am giving a definition, not making a judgement. I distinguish the world in this narrow sense from the world in a broader, more natural sense, meaning something like “what there is.” I do sometimes call the world “the social and political world,” but by this I do not condemn all social and political life. After all, not only do I argue that intellectual life involves withdrawal from the world, but also that it nurtures communion—that is, forms of community not based on competition. Moreover, I argue that intellectual life is a bond of unity and a source of common ground between people of disparate backgrounds and walks of life.
My use of “the world” is traditional. In a famous slogan, Christians are said to be “in the world but not of the world.” Perhaps more transparently, the figure of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is very much embedded in social and political life, but he operates by a different set of values. His “unworldly” concerns give him the courage to stand up to the Thirty Tyrants and finally to the Athenian people, even in the face of death. We humans are divided between, on one side, a default setting that seeks distraction, status, comfort, and the ease of getting along with others, and on the other the desires for truth or for real connection, the pursuit of which fulfills us. This division between “the world” and what really matters is evident from our experience; it requires no appeal to revealed religion or Platonic metaphysics.
My book is partly rhetorical—it presses hard wherever conventional wisdom pushes opposite. When I began writing in 2015, I was especially concerned with the widespread dominance of political agendas, left and right, in higher education. I felt that allowing contemporary concerns to drive learning flattened out the incredible depths of our source material in literature, philosophy, history, and so on. I saw the politicizing of intellectual life not only on the left, where it has been grist for the conservative writing mill for decades, but also on the right, where funded positions in libertarianism or free markets have become common and doctrinal schools popular.
With that in mind, I pressed hard on the intellectual life’s aspect of withdrawal, inwardness, and uselessness, trying to generate rhetorical force against the vast pressure for learning to be engaged, outward, and useful. I think I was right to strike from this angle, even if it meant that certain truths—namely, that serious education cultivates freedom and equality—fell into shadow. I thought that this angle would be a better starting point for reform, and that even in the dark times I feared, an education that secured a human core in the worst circumstances would be urgently needed for as many learners as can be reached.
I was also concerned that the political and practical bent of academic culture was partly driven by a fantasy that the social world can be perfected by our efforts. So, in a conservative spirit, I emphasized the intractable evils of common life to lower our expectations and to direct energies elsewhere. Yet I did not mean that we should abandon our imperfect, struggling communities, either. A flourishing community depends on at least some of its residents breaking free of the default mode—the more the better. Here, too, I intend a version of a conservative insight: a primary purpose of politics is to protect private life. Inwardness, intellectual or otherwise, is the source and the safeguard of individual human flourishing, without which no community is judged to do well.
McGuire thinks I do not sufficiently value the “latitudinarian political life in which average people live together . . . held together by a modicum of justice and common advantage.” As the figures of Yves Simon and Primo Levi in my book suggest, such a political life is compatible with grave evils: authoritarianism, mass murder, and slaveholding, among others. It would be a disaster beyond words if, in the name of the necessary tolerance of what is possible, we denied the importance of an inner life, from which all of our broader, better, and deeper aspirations stem.
How possible is an inner life? McGuire suggests, by contrast with my egalitarianism, that only a few people are really interested in or capable of intellectual activity. He gives as evidence our obvious preference for smartphones and TV over serious thinking. This suggests naïveté on his part about the social origins of our desires and about the importance of social supports for any discipline.
Our preference to look at smartphones is neither simple nor transparent. First of all, our weakness for distraction is exploited by profiteers, who use every scientific tool available to figure out how better to monopolize our attention. These profiteers have acquired such scope and influence that it is not obvious what law or custom will put a limit on their practice. Secondly, exercising this preference makes us miserable. Is it a coincidence that the explosion of smartphone use coincides with an explosion of mental illness? Perhaps. But I know that a day on Twitter leaves me depressed, and a day translating Hebrew is not only joyful, but something on which I draw indefinitely. Twitter can be useful, but it is not fruitful in that way. Yet I spend more hours on Twitter than I do translating Hebrew. The hegemony of the smartphone suggests that a minimally just and ordered political life is compatible with a grotesque flattening of our humanity. Some residue of justice and common advantage left over from a previous regime may guide us, but for how long? And resting on what?
Our ability to cultivate inwardness can be helped or impeded by our institutions. The barons of Silicon Valley send their children to tech-free Montessori schools, while working parents in poor areas may have only screens for babysitting. The large lecture halls of big universities are not conducive to seeking out a personal mentor in the way a seminar room is. However, I argue in my book that inwardness can be unlocked in unexpected ways. The under-occupied prisoner or the homeless schizophrenic may be more in touch with reality—and certainly better read—than a top executive. The number of free people may be few, but their social station is not predictable.
All this is to say that I am aware, even painfully so, of the material and political conditions for the egalitarian pursuit of the intellectual life. In the perspective I outline in my book, our deepest desires are more difficult to tap into than the default mode, and yet more fully satisfying, just as a good marriage is more difficult, and more profound, than a lifetime of promiscuity. Similar to marriage, intellectual life depends on laws, customs, institutions, and all that goes into the grab-bag called “culture.”
I go light on institutional and political details in my book for the sake of setting out aspirational ideals. Readers who find the ideals attractive are free to adapt them to realities in a variety of circumstances. My model here is Plato’s Republic. An aspirational image can function as a regulating ideal for reform of all kinds, but in times of large-scale institutional failure it can also be used as a diagnostic tool or as a guide for lonely individuals. Thus while my view of the capacities of individuals is much more optimistic than McGuire’s, my judgment of current circumstances is in the end far more bleak.
In the five years since I began writing Lost In Thought, especially these past six months, I have seen with increasing alarm the disappearance of the habits of freedom and equality from our common spaces. Our country is very close to oligarchy, if it has not already arrived. Oligarchic values are reflected in how we think about education: a few rich smarties should design policies, programs, and online modules to determine what everyone else should learn. The decline of egalitarianism in education began, perhaps, with the development of education as a professional expertise, but it has flourished in power—economic, political, and cultural—thanks to the rise of the tech companies. I see that the oligarchic mindset has infected my students—that is, even young people who have been offered the liberty to determine their own education as free adults. I see them sometimes anxious to be told what to think, and sometimes insisting that their own pre-existing views be adopted and expressed by central command. But it is older adults, not the young, who have built oligarchy or watched it being built.
Thought and Education
How do we teach young people to think for themselves? Nathaniel Peters questions my resistance to holding truth as central to education. My truth-avoidance comes from my egalitarianism. Such avoidance can certainly be taken too far. The extreme-sport pedagogy of the St. John’s tutor is not to hide behind a Sphinx-like smirk (despite our reputation), but to be transparent, to speak the truth when it is relevant, while learning along with students. So, crucially, we mean to leave space for students to direct their own learning by following the fundamental questions that lie in every human heart.
When I began college, I mistrusted authority and doubted universal truth. It put me at ease to be trusted with my own learning. Without that offer of trust from my teachers, I could not have relaxed enough to inquire seriously into fundamentals. Now that I am a committed adult believer, I see that young people do not learn to trust their judgment unless they are left free to determine their own inquiry. The learning of another functions as a crutch, a shortcut. Without trust in oneself and experience in free inquiry, a young person cannot become a free adult or a member of a community of equals.
Student-directed learning is a limited pedagogy: when one undertakes a specialty, one must learn truths and facts from others—although even there one is training oneself to join the guild of experts as an equal. Further, I suspect, the need for radical openness is difficult to understand for those whose notion of authority is benevolent, that is, who have been guided in self-trust and freedom from an early age. Such an upbringing is rare. One of the consequences of family breakdown is the loss of the experience of benevolent authority and with it, trust in oneself. As is suggested by Leon Kass’s interpretation of the Decalogue, “Honor thy father and mother” means, among other things, “Don’t honor Pharoah, but humans ultimately equal to yourself.” Without father or mother, false gods fill the void, and the equal dignity of human beings becomes obscured. It falls to teachers, among others, to offer a way out, and my college has found one of those ways.
Fundamental questions do not come already organized under comprehensive doctrines. They are not even always fully articulate, but lie implicit in something as ordinary as birding or people-watching. Nor do such schemes emerge organically in any reliable way. Any worldview has holes in it, if not wide gaps; many of us spend years just trying to find the thread. It is true that at the moment of judgment, one worships either God or Mammon. But in the between times, we may be chasing peregrine falcons on a bicycle without knowing what we will find, or in an intellectual disarray because the Manichean cosmos is incompatible with philosophical astronomy.
I suggest that we resist the urge to structure a course of learning around our little human ideas. Such practice stands us up as a barrier between our students and the objects of inquiry. For this reason, I recommend a deliberate arbitrariness: say, a set of books that have proved to liberate, and which the teachers find endlessly interesting. We could read them in order of the color of the spine, first red, then orange; or we can read them in a rough chronology by date, which has the added benefit of seeing them talk about one another. The important thing is that teachers stand back from the limelight and learn what we can ourselves, in real time, so that young people, following our model, can learn in a world where living authorities cannot be trusted.
Imposing a comprehensive doctrine on a curriculum shuts off more lines of inquiry than it opens, and closes off possibilities that we haven’t yet imagined. But my concern with teaching the truth also connects with my concern about teaching mere opinions. A correct opinion only becomes a truth when it is understood. What is the source of understanding? A mind that is alive, active, and able to formulate its own questions, in such a way that it can recognize an answer by its own capacity.
Individuals must experience their learning as a mode of freedom and spontaneity, not a complex navigation of yet another structure of authority and achievement. Any fundamental question, or a practice that leads to one, is as good a place to begin as any other. There is hubris in imagining that human knowledge is well enough developed that we can confidently arrange for others what is first and what is last. We can develop our pedagogy as elaborately as we like, but no plan survives contact with the inner battlefield where an individual struggles to find happiness or truth.
I complain in my book that my conservative and Christian fellow-travelers overemphasize correct opinions. I wonder a bit that my book seems to be searched for the correct political beliefs! I do not express a political theory beyond a basic egalitarian ideal and a mild conservatism, for the simple reason that a great variety of theories are compatible with my subject as I approach it, just as intellectual life is possible under a variety of regimes. I discuss the prophets, Malcolm X, and Dorothy Day, rather than the prudent ameliorators, because prudent amelioration, however important, is not a fundamentally intellectual practice, and because it is not always within our power. Moreover, prophets articulate ideals, which, as I say, can guide thought and action in more than one way.
I wrote the book while haunted by the prospect of catastrophic individual and institutional failure. Perhaps time will show me to have been overwrought. Regardless, in every age, those who will face irreversible loss—whether of their livelihoods, their basic liberties, or the last prospect of success for their civic projects—need to know that the struggle to recognize and proclaim the truth is sufficient to secure their dignity.