‘Lost in Thought’

In a seemingly unlikely time, author discusses the relevance of her book on "the hidden pleasures of an intellectual life."

June 9, 2020
 

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press) was written before the coronavirus pandemic, before the killing of George Floyd. But its author -- Zena Hitz -- argues that reading great books and thinking about the issues they raise is as important as ever and can help in our response to the recent crises. Hitz is a tutor at St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md. She responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: You couldn't have known when writing your book that it would come out amid a pandemic and protests about police brutality against black people. What do you think your approach offers in this time?

A: It's true that I didn't foresee these events, but it's also true that they have forced us to face directly serious problems that we've all known about for years. The dramatic financial crisis that the pandemic has created for higher education will force the question I ask in my book: What are universities for? They aren't for athletics, and they aren't tax shelters for endowments. They are meant to secure learning, especially learning that won't survive on the terms of the market, learning for its own sake. So we will have to choose -- or it will be chosen for us -- whether we renew our institutions around the purpose that justifies them or let them become so corrupted that they lose their grip on any significant public good.

As far as the current concern with violence against the black community: we don't think enough about the frame of mind that permits some people to be human and others to be discarded like trash. In my book, I look at the inegalitarian frame of mind not through social theory, but by reflecting on my own life, in an examination of conscience. An inegalitarian frame of mind is a pervasive condition: it affects everything. If you don't live near poor people, and your kids don't go to school with them, and you don't go to the same hospitals as them, or even the same parts of the airport, and if your work handles them at a vast distance, mediated by a thousand interfaces and structures and programs and five-point policies, it's easy for you to overlook their suffering humanity. Likewise, if there are two education systems, one for the poor and one for the rich, that will contribute immeasurably to your inability to see the humanity of others.

Whatever might have been egalitarian about our modes of education is disappearing very quickly. Take online learning, for instance. No one becomes a professor through online learning. We all know that the highest excellences of the mind are only achieved through personal mentoring -- that's why we find personal mentoring in our elite institutions. So a turn to online education on a broad scale will mean that one class of people designs the education models and determines their goals, and another class will be expected to submit to be molded in those models and goals. This is profoundly contrary to the freedom and equality on which our common life is supposed to be based. But we see it everywhere, not just in online education. What do we learn in public policy or international relations programs? We learn how to devise plans that can be imposed on communities of which we are not a member. We think about how to control the disadvantaged, by coercion or opportunities or by "nudging." Equals don't coerce equals, and they don't nudge equals. They try to persuade one another, and when they fail, they accommodate the disagreement.

The great books movement in which I teach is rooted in the radical egalitarianism of the 1930s. A "great book" is not one defined by the gender or race of its author, but by its power to liberate: great books invite their readers into a conversation with them on the basis of equality. So much is testified by the words of those liberated, as quoted in Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, or as found directly in the writings of Douglass, Du Bois, Baldwin, Malcolm X or Huey Newton.

The great books allow us to discover our dignity, in part because they do not seek to control us, and in part because they allow a deep encounter with other human beings. Our dignity lies in the discovery of what is deeply human in us, our capacity to understand, to love and to choose. So, for instance, Du Bois describes reaching beyond the veil of racial prejudice to converse as an equal with the minds of the past. When we attempt to liberate others by providing what we judge to be opportunities, we "liberators" stay at the center; the oppressed are mere means to an end. The oppressed can even use themselves as a means to an end if they accept a given mode of "achievement" without asking questions about it and making it their own. The goal real liberal education seeks is freedom and equality, that is, achievement as defined by the learner, not as defined by economic or political authorities.

Q: You write of the role you played in a Canadian religious community. How did that experience change your life?

A: I was a research academic before I left academe for a time to live in the community. It was a very difficult decision that went against a lot of people's expectations for me. Elite academe has wonderful aspects, but it's easy to be enslaved by the judgments of others or by one's own competitive spirit. Then I was living for a time in a hidden place where my work was very simple, and its value obviously rested in service to others, real concrete human beings I lived with, and in nothing else. So it helped me, once I left, to stay more detached from the expectations of others, to care less about my impact or my appearance of impact, and to try to live from fundamentals, the things about teaching and learning that mattered most to me, and to see them as a form of loving service.

Q: You write of the love of learning, and St. John's College, where you teach, is known for educating students with that love. How do you feel about the way St. John's (and the values you push) don't seem to be dominant in higher education today?

A: For me it's much more salient how much the St. John's approach has to offer to the crises facing educators at all levels. Higher education has a very low satisfaction rate at the moment, for everyone from students to faculty. It's in desperate need of renewal, and everyone knows that, even if there's broad disagreement about what renewal means. Now I say that the point of higher education, especially a nonprofit educational institution, is learning for its own sake. Anything sought for its own sake is marginalized by the elements of human culture that focus on material or superficial forms of competition. It's just the way things go. I hope very much that academic readers of my book find ways to integrate the love of learning into their work and into their institutions, on the terms that make sense to them and to their circumstances. But I also recognize that sometimes the smallest scale is where things work the best, and perhaps the love of learning will always be at the margins. If I've strengthened or encouraged those at the margins, that's enough for me; the rest is icing on the cake.

Q: What do you mean when you say that reading and thinking about the great writers is an "escape from the world"?

A: "The world" is meant in its originally Platonic, then Christian, sense of the locus of social striving and competition, the realm where we compete for money, power and status. Now "escape" is a bit misleading; I use the word "refuge" more. We can escape from "the world" into distractions -- videos, TV, social media, etc. But the refuge that reading and thinking provide is not just an escape, but a place where realities are shown to us, the reality of our dignity, and realities about human life that are enduring and not just shadows on the wall. Now I have my own view about the deepest realities of life: I think they are cause for hope. But I don't press on that; for the purposes of my book, the enduring realities of human life might amount to a counsel of despair. I'm thinking of someone like Thucydides, who thinks the worst parts of human nature usually win. Even so, self-understanding, clarity of mind, awareness of what's real, these are far preferable conditions to scrabbling for power under the guise of various illusions.

Q: Humanistic learning, you write, "opens up dimensions of humanity that might be hidden if ordinary life and to which the common experiences are hostile." Please explain.

A: In the book I appeal to numerous examples from fiction, film, biography and history of individuals who faced incredible diminishment in their ordinary lives. We have the working-class concierge of a Paris apartment building who is treated like garbage by the tenants, but who finds her refuge in a room stuffed with books behind her kitchen. We have political prisoners who have been deprived of everything, cast into exile, tortured and mistreated, who find their dignity in writing poetry or creating artwork. We have someone like Malcolm X, whose father is lynched, whose family is broken up by the welfare office and who is told by his teacher to become a carpenter instead of a lawyer. He devours his prison library and finds a more authentic version of himself in it. The world is telling these people that they are garbage. But they seek in books and in learning something different, their deep humanity, their unconditional worth, and they find it.

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