Better Living Through Consciousness: Why You Should Take Your College Education Seriously

(The rather lengthy post below is a paper UD gave a couple of nights ago to the undergraduate Philosophy Club at her university, George Washington.)

Brain fade. It's what the novelist Don DeLillo calls the current American tendency to lead an entire life zoned out, comfortably numb, and very, very stupid. Those of you who know DeLillo's novel, White Noise, know that all the professors at the College on the Hill, as it's known, are stupid. All the students are stupid. Pretty much everyone in the book is stupid.


April 8, 2008

(The rather lengthy post below is a paper UD gave a couple of nights ago to the undergraduate Philosophy Club at her university, George Washington.)

Brain fade. It's what the novelist Don DeLillo calls the current American tendency to lead an entire life zoned out, comfortably numb, and very, very stupid. Those of you who know DeLillo's novel, White Noise, know that all the professors at the College on the Hill, as it's known, are stupid. All the students are stupid. Pretty much everyone in the book is stupid.

If any basic thing distinguishes a serious college, it's the institution's desperate desire that its carefully selected students not exit as stupid as -- or stupider than -- they entered. You could be cynical and say that you and your parents are paying GW -- the world's most expensive university -- around $50,000 a year to get a credential, but there are lots of credentials around. More likely, you and your parents would like to think that attending a serious and reasonably demanding school like this one means disciplining and sharpening your mind, having conveyed to you not merely information, but frameworks and backgrounds for that information, complex and conflicting interpretations of information, and ways of entering into the act of interpretation yourself, whatever the information may be.

At a slightly higher level, we might say of the well-educated product of a school like GW that, as Paul Fussell puts it in his book, Class, university educated people "adopt toward cultural objects the attitude of makers, and of course critics. It's not hard [for such a person] to imagine himself producing any contemporary work of art or drama or architecture."

We could define a university-educated person, then, as someone distinguished by the ability to bring to any phenomenon he or she encounters - a presidential election, a novel, a law, a tsunami, a nervous breakdown -- disciplined mental activity, a discipline that emerges out of an ability to assimilate pretty much all at once a reasonable amount of historical perspective and raw data, as well as a sense of multiple and clashing perspectives. It also implies a skepticism that senses the limitations of any particular explanation or interpretation, as well perhaps as a sense of how the person him or herself could contribute to the phenomenon or its understanding - could perhaps a write a novel of her own, or join a group of scientists studying tsunamis, or amend a law.

You cannot achieve this discipline without

1.) being able to control your emotions and your self-centeredness; and

2.) being able to focus your mind on one subject or object over a reasonably long period of time.

You cannot achieve it, that is, so long as you are in brain fade mode. Nicolas Malebranche wrote that "prayer is the natural attentiveness of the soul."

University study, let's say, is the natural attentiveness of the mind, an attentiveness profoundly compromised by the culture of postmodern America.

I'll describe some pertinent features of this culture in a moment.

Universities contain not merely knowledge, but an ethos about the value of knowledge in living out your life. They communicate the conviction - at least the good ones do - that if you want to live a good life, you should live it attentively, with a mind always ready to be engaged in the pleasures and exertions of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic clarity. The arts and the sciences -- that's how we present our curriculum to you, and the distinction reflects this basic existential orientation toward, well, beauty and truth. The attentive intellectual has an informed and critical orientation toward the world; the attentive moralist approaches human quandaries with a grasp of ethical theory; the attentive aesthete responds to natural and created beauty with taste, judgment, and, often, aesthetic achievements of her own (playing a musical instrument well, knowing how to write a solid short story) that allow her an insider's knowledge of a particular form of art.

We could go yet farther in the direction of characterizing this more valuable life by suggesting that beneath the comforts of brain fade lies a sort of horror -- the horror of the unlived life, the life of passive self-pleasuring via postmodern technologies -- and in particular the technologies of the screen.

Read almost any Raymond Carver story to sample the unlived life.

I concentrate in what follows on screen and communications technology, but it's worth reminding ourselves that traditional obstructions to a serious liberal arts education -- grade inflation, huge lecture courses, too much booze, sports madness, the need or desire to take part-time work -- continue to exist alongside these new technologies. There are many, many ways for a brain to fade, surprisingly so in a college setting.

Isn't this why we laugh at films like "Animal House"? They wouldn't be funny without the contradiction between the university setting and the brainlessness of university students. In these instances we're not just talking about brain fade. We're talking about the intentional blotting out of consciousness, even as students situate themselves in institutions whose basic creed involves a kind of reverence for greater and greater degrees of mental precision and intensity.

What I'm arguing so far is that four years of serious college education represent a unique opportunity for you to concentrate, to the exclusion of everything else, on the exercise of free and focused consciousness. Every year I get a few emails from former students complaining about how work life is intellectually unchallenging, how they miss the scope for mental and imaginative activity -- activity that was both solitary and communal, a matter of libraries and classrooms -- that college offered. The people around you in college -- in a serious college -- are intelligent students and
- let's be generous - committed professors excited about their work. All of this -- the people, the classrooms, the libraries -- challenge you. Often these students who've graduated to a work setting express regret that they didn't do more with the time they had in this exceptional place; it now occurs to them that it's over, and work and family will be their permanent reality. unless they go to graduate school.

I remember why I went to graduate school. I remember the moment I determined to do it. I was gazing out of my big office windows at the Chicago River. Six months out of Northwestern University, I worked in a multinational ad agency in the city as a copywriter -- part of the creative staff. It was a heady job. It paid well; I wrote and produced print, radio, and tv ads; I made presentations to clients; I got to wear jeans (creative people get to wear jeans). I had long lunches in the city with fun people. I was a good writer, and I was pretty funny, and the agency thought the world of me.

Depression quickly ensued. Why? I remember sitting at my desk in my hip disheveled office and asking myself this question. As I asked it, an image of Hal suddenly materialized in my brain -- Hal, a beefy burly red-haired Chicagoan in his 50s, a back-slapping salesman for the agency who'd had me to dinner recently. On his fourth or so wife, and with plenty of money, Hal first sought to impress me that night with his Lake Shore Drive apartment's views of Lake Michigan and the city, and then, in a private moment, attempted an assault on my virtue. He was drunk and stupid and the whole thing was drunk and stupid and I thought -- later, at my desk -- I can stay in this world and make a lot of money and get a lot of ego satisfaction from moving around in the media world -- or I can get the hell out before I have to manage my successful life with the same anti-depressants 10 percent of the population's taking.

That's right -- I escaped back into school. It's not that I couldn't handle the corporate world; I'd have been a successful ad agency person. It's that I really didn't want to, and I saw that there were ways to avoid it. But then I'm a professor, and maybe professors have less tolerance for the grubbiness of corporate life than other people. I don't know. Most of you will end up in corporations. If you can't take it, you'll look elsewhere, to non-profits, or to government work, or to universities. My point is that I sensed back then that the implicit argument universities make - you'll live better if your consciousness is most alert, and given most scope for significant activity - is pretty plausible for a lot of people. Given all of this, as my subtitle suggests, you should take your college education seriously, if only as a model of a sort of life that you come to know and, in a principled way, reject.


Part of the problem I want to address here is that colleges themselves are embracing technologies that make the free and focused exercise of consciousness more and more difficult. I'll start with a recent -- and typical -- comment from a professor. This one teaches at Carnegie Mellon:

[I]t is hard to reconcile [my] students' lack of knowledge with the notion that they are a part of the celebrated information age, creatures of the Internet who arguably have at their disposal more information than all the preceding generations combined. Despite their BlackBerrys, cellphones, and Wi-Fi, they are, in their own way, as isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea. They disprove the notion that technology fosters engagement, that connectivity and community are synonymous.

GW students drag wires and screens and whistles and handhelds everywhere, including into the classroom. Ever wonder what things look like from up in front of the room, where I stand? Some of my classes remind me of retirement homes, where old people shuffle about tethered to oxygen machines and hearing aids -- these vibrant young people seem prematurely enfeebled, dependent on a reassuring vibration from a cell phone or a message from a BlackBerry (they leave class and interrupt the flow of their consciousness to answer these messages). They fiddle like obsessives with their iPod. In classrooms where laptops are allowed, they're deep into Facebook and oblivious to the real-time experience they're supposed to be having.

I said earlier that to have a disciplined, educated consciousness entails, first of all, a certain selflessness. I said you have to control your emotions, and your self-centeredness. We all know about the rather pathetic self-centeredness of the very old, drawn in to themselves through illness, through lack of social contact, and through a dull squirreling about in their own distant past. Some of this comes to characterize the inattentive techno-student, caught up always, even in class, with the trivial details of her personal life, and her small social set.

The university professor attempts to introduce students to new worlds, worlds very very different from the students' world. Technology drags the student's world with her everywhere, and makes her impervious to the challenge to get over herself and have a broader consciousness. Iris
Murdoch talks about the "merciful objectivity" toward the world of people and things that a real education fosters; the technostudent tends toward a certain impatient subjectivity; he's eager always to enter and re-enter his own little screen world, his own tribe, "isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea."

I also suggested earlier in my remarks that an enduring concentration upon one thing -- one line of reasoning, one page in a novel, and, in the classroom, upon the professor herself, a particular human being standing up in front of you and following a reasonably complex line of thought, with assistance from students discussing the thought with her -- is crucial for the exercise of free and significant consciousness. Yet professors themselves, in part because of their frustration with technology that's making it more and more difficult for them to hold a class's attention, are turning to a kind of defensive technology in their classrooms.

Someprofessors do little other than read PowerPoint slides; at some schools, these professors read a few slides and then ask the students to use their clickers (large lecture halls in some universities have, at each seat, a clicker device) to answer multiple choice questions.

Think of the synergy here, especially in large lecture classes. Students are gazing at all manner of stuff on their laptops (and in doing so distracting those students trying to pay attention to the front of the room); professors are staring down at their PowerPoint slides and reading the words on them aloud. In some classrooms, professors report that groups of students are gathering in various corners to watch films together on someone's screen while the professor attempts to lecture. At Syracuse University the other day, a professor suddenly dismissed a class of four hundred students because he was offended by someone texting in front of him.

We'll see more of this sort of thing as universities begin to recognize that the much-vaunted wired classroom is killing consciousness.

The university is the great, and really the only, theater of living, breathing, human to human, unpredictable, far-ranging, free-ranging intellectual activity. Of course not every classroom, not every subject, will have this characteristic of intellectual intensity. Arguably, for instance, the activity I have in mind is more liable to take place in humanities classrooms than in science classrooms. William Arrowsmith argued that a mastery of scientific method "cannot help man live or die well." Only the humanities could do that. [For him,] the central "enabling principle" of the humanities [was] "the principle of personal influence and personal example."

He called for Socratic teachers who were "visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship; men ripened or ripening into realization, as Socrates at the close of the Symposium comes to be."

I've said that a serious liberal education can help you live well. Arrowsmith rightly adds that it can help you die well. The model of engaged and intense lifelong consciousness I have in mind in these remarks is not really a placid scholarly sort of thing; it's the sort of thing you witness sometimes in intellectually intense humanities professors. I would characterize it as a deep interest in the tension between the threat of mental and cultural disorder, and the reconstruction of mental and cultural order through the use of intellect and imagination. The best novels and plays often present a dialectical world, ever-shifting between human efforts to impose meaning and order, and the failure or partial success of those efforts. A deep education in literature and music and philosophy draws us into this dynamic, as Arrowsmith suggests in another comment. The humanities, he says

> are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the
> intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible
> turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of *other* chaos
> matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and
> abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has
> suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual
> chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch
> us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

Discipline, then, the discipline of the truly liberally educated, is a tenuous thing; it understands itself as an internal condition which has suffered into being, a being delicate and threatened.

It's this complex consciousness which a serious reading in, an education in, philosophy and literature helps you adopt. Its insights emerge in the being of the professor herself, who embodies in front of the class the ongoing conflict between darkness and enlightenment, chaos and clarity. Her vulnerability as she exhibits this complexity signifies her willingness to leave the comforts of the tribe for the risks of real human engagement.
What she's really doing is sharing -- modeling -- a valuable and evolved form of consciousness. Her consciousness expresses itself not directly, but through her grappling publicly - with her students - with literary and philosophical texts that challenge and sharpen consciousness. Here we're looking for difficulty - not the easy familiar pop culture artifacts that White Noise's professors specialize in, but challenging works whose depth suffers into being.

Harold Bloom has written that

> The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to
> ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or
> Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to
> augment one's own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon
> will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more
> harmful citizen. The mind's dialogue with itself is not primarily a
> social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the
> proper use of one's solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality.

The liberal arts university offers that special public sphere in which you join a group of seriously reflective people who want to think out loud about that solitude, that inner life, that consciousness.

All brains eventually fade, but we shouldn't, before our time, collude in that fading. We should cultivate the highest forms of consciousness that we can, while we can. The university as a special cultural institution is the place where we can witness consciousness in league with consciousness, the Milton scholar so sensitive to the poet's work as to become a kind of channeler of the writer's consciousness.

This is the opposite of the tribal isolation and ignorance about which the Carnegie Mellon professor complains. It is an enduring effort to get over yourself, to allow, in all their fullness, other consciousnesses to enter yours, so that you emerge deepened, more complicated, more mercifully objective.



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