The Read: Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought
Friday's Child is Loving and Giving
Why did I get this book?
I honestly don’t remember what got it onto my reading pile. I have a vague memory of hearing it talked about on the radio, or maybe seeing it in something I read in the New Yorker. I would guess that what hooked me was that the author is both an alum and current faculty member at St. John’s College in Annapolis, an institution that I feel some affection towards despite the fact that my own academic life has been so far away from its approach.
Is it what I thought it was?
I didn’t have strong preconceptions, so I don’t think it could have disappointed me one way or the other. I had a bit of anxiety that it was going to be another of these rather sour complaints against the current academy in favor of some imagined past era when everyone supposedly thought deeply and well and without regard for fame, professional success, or instrumental politics, and there’s a touch of that in the book. Mostly at this point I dread those books not because I feel accused by them but just because at the least I’ve read it all before and at some point it’s just boring but also because at least some of them are just trying to make a rather more ordinary kind of culture-war political axe-grinding seem nobler or more high-minded.
I don’t think this has the latter problem. It has some of the former issue (familiar sentiments laid out in relatively familiar form) but perhaps not unbearably so. It may be that if the book didn’t touch my heart more often, that is my problem, not the author’s. (More on this shortly.)
What continuing uses might I have for it?
I think there are some Swarthmore students and faculty who would vibe pretty strongly to the book. Equally there’d be people annoyed by it or bored by it. It might be a decent reading selection in a class or a group where I was trying to represent a fairly traditional sentimental view of knowledge, learning and “liberal arts” in a likeable and engaging form.
“I learned how to navigate the byzantine social hierarchy of the academic world. I learned whom to admire, and whom to disdain. To be told who was ‘out’ made one feel included in the ‘in’—but, of course, the ruthlessness and ubiquity of the practice of judgment suggested how fragile my own limited success was. Through hearing scorn pronounced on academic failure and rejection and through pronouncing it myself, I developed a terror of being judged wanting by my teachers and my peers.”
“A cutting book review, a devastating objection from the back of the lecture hall: these were a currency of success, not despite but because of their cruelty.”
“What would happen if we tried to organize our lives around merely instrumental pursuits, such as earning money or promoting justice?”
“The love of learning is general among human beings and pursued in a variety of ways and degrees. Unlike the love of the outdoors, however, we do not always recognize it. We miss it in its lowlier forms, and misidentify it in its higher ones. We do so because we have various desires and goals, in various invisible hierarchies. We have ultimate ends that may or may not be transparent to us. Thus we can love learning for its own sake, or we can use it for the sake of a political agenda; it can be a means to wealth and status, or a stepping-stone to a sense of achievement; learning can accrue under idle social habits, following the crowds. We may not know whether we are driven by the real thing or by something else until we are put to the test.”
“Suppose that true and authentic intellectual life, learning for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else, is found in poverty, in deprivation, in imprisonment, and under severe political oppression. How should those of us attracted by that authenticity respond?”
“Understanding, like the sight of something beautiful or fascinating, calls out to be shared. The most solitary of solitary learners seeks to communicate, if only in writing and only for the sake of human beings she will never meet…Delight in learning flows naturally into delight in teaching.”
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
The prologue is great; the descriptions of graduate school and conventional academic careerism really struck a chord with me and recalled my own essay advising students to think twice about pursuing graduate training.
Couldn’t help but be annoyed by the pro forma use of video games as an example of self-debasing disengagement from the world (compared to the self-enhancing disengagement she attributes to true ‘learning for learning’s sake’).
A deeper issue is that the book is about experiences of learning, the value of learning, the effects of learning on the self, and it’s at its absolute best in that respect when Hitz situates her feelings about thinking and learning in her own biography, from her countercultural parents and childhood to her pursuit of a standard academic career to her rejection of that career and her embrace of a materially sparse religious life and then her homecoming to St. John’s as a tutor.
The problem is that a fair amount of the book is just a series of universalizing philosophical announcements or axioms that she then tries to reason her way towards, using the examples of other people’s experiences of learning. There’s a slightly perverse mismatch here between what is being declared and what is being demonstrated, e.g., the book doesn’t seem for the most part to enact or represent learning as it is being described. It seems more learned, or erudite: as knowing already what it sets out to convince the reader about. Only occasionally do I get the feeling that Hitz is puzzling over or grappling with uncertainty or experiencing curiosity. In fact, much of it doesn’t seem to have the interiority that she is validating and celebrating. I enjoyed the book most when it does have that quality—and found it most convincing when I could align my own inner life as a reader and intellectual with hers (or distinguish it from hers).
The book’s central preoccupation is to ask “what is learning when it is pursued for its own sake”, with an assumption that to undertake learning for instrumental purposes (to solve a problem, to invent a device, to advance a career, to create a policy, to impress or dominate people, to secure a politics) sabotages or undercuts the human potential of learning, subjects it to a limiting purpose. Hitz is trying to on one hand assert that the love of learning for its own sake is a universal human experience and on the other reawaken us to that part of our own individual lives. She ends up describing this kind of learning as inward, interior, individual, and as necessarily undirected in some sense. Though as she notes, she also acknowledges that this leads to some form of self-improvement, self-fashioning, to the growth and cultivation of our soulful individuality—hence, to something that seems potentially instrumental. I’m a bit minded at some points of the knots that Johan Huizinga ties himself up in throughout his book Homo Ludens: Huizinga insists that play is defined by serving no purpose but itself, which immediately causes a philosophical problem: then why should we care about it? Why discuss it in depth? Why should it take on so many forms?
I get it. I am sentimentally attached to this idea, that we should learn for its own sake. I have had that feeling myself in much of my life, that emotional sense that I just learned something and I value what I learned without having a purpose in mind for it, without accounting the labor time needed to learn it. When this book touched me, it’s because it evocatively described that sensation. I used to deeply love Merlin’s speech about the compensating, inalienable power of knowledge in the beginning section of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and I wish I could recapture my naive love for it. The problem is that I now know that what Merlin says (“The best thing for being sad is to learn something…That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting”) is simply not true. Learning has at times made me sad. Knowledge often tortures me, and I sometimes regret what I know. Sometimes that’s because I end up tied to the instrumentalities of others that way, or what I know can’t be shared or made useful due to competing instrumental attitudes. But also sometimes it’s better not to know.
In any event, I am not sure I gain anything from trying to separate this sensation of learning-for-itself from all the ways in which learning also has purpose. At the least, I ended up wishing that Hitz spent way more time on doubts, uncertainties, objections, fears about whether we can or should try to purify learning into an inner devotional cultivation of our selfhood. Maybe every pure experience I think I’ve had of learning is just really a rationalization of some darker, more sociological, more interpersonal, more psychological motivations I have, some that I might not even be aware of. Hitz is aware of these issues but is mostly driven towards trying to identify and purge what get imagined as baser, more worldly reasons to learn or produce knowledge. I’m not sure that’s possible; I’m not sure it’s desirable.
There’s also a form of universalizing and declarations about “we” and “us” that I’ve come to find wearying generally but especially in an attempt to work at the biggest universalizing scales. It irritates me for a lot of reasons. For one, I know that the set of “all human history and experience” is vaster that the usual “Westerners + a few tokens elsewhere” form of universalizing arguments can handle or address. For me, at least, that requires a more humble stance where I qualify my views or show some respect towards for the possible limits of my assumptions. Towards what I have not yet learned, towards what I never will learn, towards an awareness that builds in the life of any learner that everything we learn only makes our awareness of relative ignorance so acute. It’s also another place where the declared intent and the content of the book mismatch. Hitz is almost interested, especially right at the end, in something close to Gramsci’s vision of the organic intellectual: in declaring that the experience of and love for learning is a universal human experience, and that many people experience learning in this sense without being fully self-aware of having done so. I quite agree, but then the thing to do might be less to deliver some high-level paeans to learning and thinking and more to explore learning in everyday life. She mentions Jonathan Rose’s spectacular book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, but perhaps doesn’t appreciate that it is a demonstration of one way to persistently think about thinking outside of elite or academic circles. What was thinking or learning like for the average male citizen of Periclean Athens? For Athenian women? For slaves? What is thinking and learning like in everyday American life? Those are questions that can be both contemplated and explored, and they’d fit with what she’s striving for.
The juncture where the book bored me the most was the recital of the usual “save the university, restore what once was” lament. Not that I disagree with aspects of the lament—she talks about adjunctification, about the crudeness of political dictates applied by state legislatures, by the corporatization of university management. But in light of the rest of the book, the preoccupation with the university creates a puzzle that is addressed indirectly at best. Most of the experiences and descriptions of thinking that she engages—literary and philosophical texts, memoirs like that of Malcolm X, histories like Rose’s—are narrating or thinking about learning independently of the university as an institution. She knows that the university and learning, the university and thinking, are not synonymous, but that ought to lead to a relative disinterest in the fate of the university. Which she tries to have but then immediately goes back on. “Our intellectual institutions my decay and collapse, but intellectual life itself cannot be allowed to follow”. Well, why should it? If you’re going to think at the biggest scales about thinking, then one thought that should float up at some point is: are some societies less prone to thinking? Are some conditions more conducive to it? If we must be unconcerned for the instrumental purposes of thinking more or better, than we cannot actually answer the question, “And what will come of us if our intellectual life decays and collapses? Or for that matter if it flourishes?” She declares, “We must reconnect with and remind ourselves of what matters in what we do, so that this particularly human way of being, its joys and sorrows, its modes of excellence, and its unique bonds of communion, is not lost”. That implies that it can be. Has it ever been lost before? What was that like? “Reconnection” implies we used to be more connected to what matters in what we do. What was that like? When was that, exactly? What did the university have to do with it, whenever that was? When did the university have its “original purpose”, which she wants us to “recover”?
These kinds of exquisitely calibrated warnings leave me cold because they’re rarely pegged to a precise historical moment or configuration of institutions and yet if you’re to take them seriously, they must be. And they sit especially poorly with an argument that’s been about praising the ubiquity of learning as an inner experience, that has otherwise provisioned very few normative guideposts about learning and thinking. Is there bad learning? Good learning? Are there times where we think we’ve learned but we have actually just deepened our ignorance?
The subtitle of the book also seems to me to go by the wayside after the lovely prologue and the introduction. E.g., the pleasures of learning. The pleasure later is the notion of a “refuge from the world”, that learning is an inward, unworldly, spiritual easing of our burdens. I suppose that could be described as a pleasure, but it’s a curiously abstract and ascetic one if so. (Asceticism is something that Hitz expressly calls out as important to her vision of learning and thinking, which of course is a philosophically familiar, long-standing proposition.) But because of the rarified, virtuous, spiritual understanding of learning, all sorts of other interior experiences of learning are off the table. Is there, for example, a pleasure in being a know-it-all? E.g., in knowing where others do not? In the way learning creates prescience or foreknowledge? (It’s terrible being Cassandra and yet there is a pleasure in seeing those you’ve warned suffer the consequences for not having listened.) There’s a pleasure in learning something no one knows; a pleasure in really understanding something you thought you knew. There is the pleasure of solving mysteries, and the pleasure of making something mysterious where once it seemed neatly resolved. There is the pleasure of discovering oneself in a stranger, and of making oneself strange. There is the pleasure of having the material tools for learning around oneself; in visiting spaces of devotion to learning. (I have never felt more grand than in doing my work in the old British Library’s space in the back of the British Museum.)
What this makes me think on, I suppose, is also that what Hitz calls learning or thinking I kept rewriting in my own sentimental interiority as curiosity. How does that work? What is that thing? Why did that happen? Who was that? Is that really true? How do we know? What came before that event? What happened afterwards? And again, it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Hitz is enacting. This feels like an incurious book: it does not begin or end with questions, it is not unresolved or confused by anything, it does not encounter the texts it encounters with wonder or surprise. It does not meander. It does not contradict or question itself, or think three different thoughts about one problem. When I feel most sentimental and attached to a sense of learning-for-its-own-sake, to standing against instrumental approaches to knowledge, it’s with curiosity in mind—that nothing should stand against asking an unplanned question or a spontaneous detour, that the straight road to an argument or a goal or a manifesto is not only the least scenic, it’s the least robust and reliable, the least enduring, the least persuasive to anyone who isn’t already driving the same route.
The last thing that kind of ate at me as I read is that the emphasis on interiority, self, individuality, is impoverishing, and again, somewhat in contradiction to the best parts of Hitz’ own story. Her love for learning begins in a family where everyone questions each other and themselves, where everything learned is provisional and contestable. Her rediscovery of a real desire to know and think occurs in communal, contemplative life in a religious sanctuary. Learning in community and in social relation comes in focus in the last part of the book, but it is a much weaker concern in the ways it is developed and explored, which poses yet another problem for the ways that the book circles back around to “we have to save the ways that we think together, whether through the university or otherwise”. Again, I think that’s partly because it’s terribly hard to think about how people think and learn together that preserves Hitz’ anti-instrumental vision of learning and thinking. But that might be exactly the place where “learning for its own sake” and “learning that has instrumental usefulness” are unprofitable to try and untangle. A bunch of hobbyist car mechanics might be tinkering with a set of cars both because they’re curious about cars and because there’s an economic usefulness to being proficient at maintaining automobiles, both of which are very much enhanced if you do it in community rather than in solitude.
I enjoyed this book more than other work in its genre—at its most personal and reflective, it captured some feelings I’ve had in my own life—but I think the best demonstration of a love of thinking and learning is to be more uncertain and exploratory about how that love flourishes or dies, and how much cultivation exactly it requires. I wish in that sense that the book had gotten lost much more.
I had a long conversation about writing with a student earlier today that kind of reminds me of what you say here. She’s an excellent writer but sincerely asked what she can do to get more out of her writing. I suggested she try to find the joy in it, marrying the intellectual work with playfulness, with what amuses and engages her. Evidently this was a revolutionary thought. Since when do we only teach grim duty in scholarship? Sigh.