Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Language Day: Find the Meaning of Life in a Novel

I read this truly excellent essay today in the Boston Globe, and it has me all atwitter with thoughts. It's somewhat lengthy, and I'll pull out my favorite paragraphs here, but if you have time, by all means read it. (And feel free to get a discussion going in the comments!)

Essentially, it talks about the failure of universities to provide a true humanistic education to the students passing through its gates, and what that means for society's spiritual (but not necessarily religious) investigations. The article acknowledges that those studying the sciences fare better, though I believe that anyone in any discipline could benefit from humanities courses taught well. The difficulty, the writer posits, is that when the humanities left a secular but still spiritual pursuit of the questions Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? to pursue narrow, specialized research fields, they lost their power, prestige and the interest of their students.

What I'm interested in is the obviously deep curiosity people have for the big questions, and how they go about trying to find their way toward insight, even without guidance or organization. After all, this curiosity is what led me to stumble upon Joseph Campbell, and then embrace him as a teacher. As Kronman, the writer of this essay, says:
Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school.

So maybe we got screwed in college. So maybe we should have been studying Plato, but we were (somehow, in my case) studying Madonna. What do we do now?

For me, I couldn't agree more with Kronman--the answer isn't in the unique inflection of a religious tradition, but in the larger, more universal explorations of human mythos, consciousness, philosophy. So, we go and we find like-minded people, and we teach ourselves. I know that this is suited for avid readers--and while I am one, I recognize not everyone is--but again, starting out with Joseph Campbell's accessible The Power of Myth book or DVD could be the beginning of a direction.

Then, as we progress, we can follow Kronman's suggestion, which begins by discussing the similarities of programs devoted to these larger questions. He writes: (emphasis mine)

These programs differ in many ways, and inevitably reflect the culture of their schools; some are mandatory and others, like Yale's Directed Studies, are elective. But despite their differences, all rest on a set of common assumptions, which together define a shared conception of humane education.

The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.

That notion above--"that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength"--obviously speaks to me as a writer of fiction. But I see it as an exhortation to those of you who may not always see the potential art has to be more than be an elegant and decadent luxury.

This is pretty heady stuff, but here's my main message on this Language Day: Read fiction. Study a painting. Read philosophy. Watch a really great film. Get to know Art. Get right up next to these big, huge, ginormous ideas--yes, it may make you uncomfortable, yes, it might be difficult at first. But if you're serious about finding your bliss, you first have to find out what your life means to you, what you have to contribute, what the purpose of your life is.

To me, there's no better, more fun way to do that than to cozy up to some art.


Anonymous said...

I’m at a convergence point, a psychological zone where everything I read and all of the people I meet are building upon one another. This article feeds into that, tapping into shades of Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and my own question of the value of academia as it is now structured. The universe is presenting me with compelling information to consider. My world view is changing. Rather than being frightened of the changes, I feel free and happy: there is something wondrous in being able to stop clinging to old thought-habits and be open to seeking new answers to life’s biggest questions. Such as the titular question of Kronman’s article: Why are we here? Having studied philosophy and physics in college, I experienced both the “research-driven idea” and the “great conversations” of works that have “lasting beauty and strength.” In a sense, everything I studied was asking true questions, and so I cannot entirely agree that these questions are being ignored as Kronman asserts. That said, I do agree that college leaves her graduates bereft of the “priceless materials for a lifetime of struggle with the most important question anyone ever asks.” If the questions are being posed, why are even those of us fortunate enough to have been exposed to these questions leaving college unprepared to understand the nature of being? I posit that the problem isn’t the questions or lack of asking, but in the responses that are cultivated within the academic structure. Kronman calls out as problematic the specialization of fields of inquiry. Pirsig refers to this as “find[ing] and invent[ing] an endless proliferation of forms … call[ing] these knowledge.” He believes that this is producing a society of “specialists and that the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him, too.” There can be no convergence points when there’s no convergence, when there’s no overlap between specialization. Without overlap and convergence, the mind grinds to a stop, goes into power-saving mode and waits for the spark of wonder to return. All this waiting leads to a malaise of spirit, and I don’t think it’s too unfair to say this is partially caused by building colleges that exist for research and the passing of categorized, specialized bundles of facts. I believe specialization by it’s very nature limits the kinds of responses a person can have to any given question. Cross-fertilization of specialties helps, but let’s be honest: it’s tough to double major. Any more than a double and most students are headed for burnout, if they can even afford the astronomical price of taking overloaded or “extra” course credits. Most students, for financial or societal reasons, go to college with the aim of graduating in four years with a specialty. This aim robs students of the freedom to spend four years following questions where they lead, since invariably the questions would stray from the confines of Major/Minor. Of course, we want our doctors to take all of their courses. But wouldn’t doctors who had time to think about what it means to be saving lives have value, too? I know there are colleges out there that do allow students to design their own curriculum, rather than sticking to a stock range of options (Bennington in Vermont comes to mind). Along the same lines, Kronman points out the Great Books programs at several top colleges, which is laudable and certainly headed in a promising direction. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to be enough to tinker with the system. I think there needs to be a complete overhaul to a way found to stop using “carrot and whip grading” (Pirsig) to incent students to work. Natural wonder needs to be allowed to return to the Ivory Tower. Students need to be allowed time to think, not just to hurry and cram for the next test on specialized facts that don’t amount to anything when it comes time to decide for themselves what this life is all about. Pirsig suggests that perhaps a gradeless and degreeless system could be built and people would attend out of natural curiosity about their world and their place in it. I think that’s a beautiful idea. I also don’t see it ever happening (praise be to Pirsig if I’m wrong!). Barring huge changes in academia, the best mechanism for change is what you suggest: individuals “find[ing] like-minded people, and [teaching] themselves.” People are doing this – you’re living proof of that, and I am just thrilled you’re sharing your perspective. Christopher and Cecelia Phillips ( have started a grass-roots effort they call “Socrates CafĂ©” to bring together people of all walks of life to discuss meaningful questions. I went to a talk they gave a couple of years ago and was impressed by their passion. I wasn’t at a convergence point then and it was just an interesting lecture, but now I’m starting to think they might be offering a way to overcome the shortcomings of academia. Even if we don’t agree on the ailment, I do think Kronig’s right, something’s gotta give!

- Erzsebet

PS - Love your closing sentence in this post!

Tiffany Hamburger said...

Erzsebet--wow--what a great response! I am really taking it all in, and I feel like I need to go back and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

And I gotta check out the Socrates cafe!

Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful comment!