Seeing as how my career as an undergrad is pretty much done, I thought it would be a good idea to make a few observations about the whole debacle:
1. Before university, I was in danger of becoming a deadbeat. I had vague plans of making it as a writer (and even managed to rattle out a trashy surrealist fantasy novella during my year off) but was otherwise slipping into apathy and inertia. Academic achievement or having a stable career were losing their interest for me, and it was only at the prodding of my father that I got around to applying. Still, if I was a deadbeat, I was a highbrow one; what mattered to me was literature and music. Discovering Joyce, Bach et al. in high school was something of a mind-altering experience, and I drowned myself in them with the same recklessness that so many friends and acquaintances did with mind-altering substances of the chemical sort.
Oddly enough, the slacker aesthete attitude that I had wound up making my encounter with university more volatile. As Matt Feeny points out in his recent New Yorker post on Allan Bloom’s infamous tract, a weird Puritanism has been steadily developing in university culture:
At the same time, the moral disenchantment that Bloom called relativism is not the problem it was in 1987. Indeed, college-bound American kids now grow up in world that is almost medieval in its degree of moral enchantment. Their moral reflex is anxiously conditioned to an ever-growing list of worries and provocations: smoking, safe sex, chastity, patriotism, faith, religious freedom, bullying, diversity, drugs, crime, violence, obesity, binge drinking. Almost no problem goes un-talked about, un-taught from, un-ruled on. These lessons are convincingly yoked to real-life concerns about safety, health, and happiness, not to mention all those things that, as the song says, will go down on their permanent records.
But I just didn’t care, and couldn’t, in spite of my best efforts, bring myself to care. All the political and moral righteousness that popped up in my classes kept seeming more and more like things that were just getting in the way of me having stuff like what Feeny nicely puts as, “a freaky trip into the true mind of Thucydides”. And all the parlour games derived from Foucault, Derrida, Butler and the like, while entrancing at first, gradually became annoying as my interest in philosophy grew.
2. The good thing about my philosophy major was that being told that my arguments were stupid and having their badness explained to me actually forced some degree of discipline on my mind, and did more to improve my writing than anything else. Dorothy Sayers wrote an excellent essay on the trivium where she makes the point that modern education, in stuffing its youth so full of facts, has forgotten to teach them how to think properly about them. If higher education is anything, it is knowledge gone wild. For those who find analytic philosophy to be so much medieval hairsplitting, who find hyper-specialization to be an uncomplicated good, I ask you to ponder Sayers’ questions:
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
But in addition to whatever utilitarian value I got from philosophy, it did suggest to me an alternative model to my rank bohemianism: the Socratic gadfly. Spinoza, Nietzsche and Kaufmann quickly became heroes. Strange Nietzschean fantasies aside, this did not quite pan out in my case. But it did impress on me the tragic figure of the lonely man who suffers – even unto death – for the truth. That was a far more real, nobler ideal than any other I had known. But it was difficult to make sense of it. I couldn’t quite articulate why, in this postmodern, materialistic world, it was better to choose to suffer, why it felt so important to prize truth over the world. Didn’t Camus say that it is more rational to choose life rather than truth?
To be continued…