Nietzsche’s injunction is terse and direct, but simple it isn’t. Just about the most hopelessly off-target paraphrase possible would be that familiar bit of advice to anybody facing a socially anxious situation: “Relax and just be yourself!” The philosopher has something altogether more strenuous in mind: an effort in which “what you are” includes both raw material and the capacity to shape it. The athlete, musician, or artisan is engaged in such a process of becoming -- the strengthening, testing, and refining “potentials” that can barely be said to exist unless strengthened, tested, and refined.
Nietzsche’s influence on Sigmund Freud has always been a vexed matter. (Perhaps especially for Freud himself, who always denied that there was one, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.) Adam Phillips avoids the question entirely in Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, a new title in the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. The omission seems doubly odd given that Phillips himself is a psychoanalyst: Freud’s repeated but not quite credible insistence that he'd never been able to read more than half a page of the philosopher’s work sure does look like a symptom of, to borrow Harold Bloom’s expression, the anxiety of influence.
Originally presented as the Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge earlier this year, Becoming Freud makes no claim to compete with the major biographies by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. The annual lecture series (begun in the 19th century to honor a Shakespeare scholar who was a fellow at Trinity College) is dedicated to aspects of literature. But the book touches on Freud’s literary interests only intermittently.
Warrant for discussing the founding patriarch of psychoanalysis in the same venue where T. S. Eliot lectured on metaphysical poetry lies, rather, in the status of Freud’s work. It is “of a piece," Phillips says, "with much of the great modernist literature, all of which was written in his lifetime; a literature in which — we can take the names of Proust, Musil, and Joyce as emblematic — the coherent narratives of and about the past were put into question … [during] a period of extraordinary energy and invention and improvisation.”
At the same time, Freud’s participation in the upheaval was not a matter of choice or preference. He showed “little interest in contemporary art, and was dismissive of Surrealism, which owed so much to him; he had no interest whatsoever in opera or music, something of a feat in the Vienna of his time.”
The case studies he published bore proper medical titles (e.g., “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis” or "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-old Boy”) and presented what Freud considered rigorous methods for a scientific understanding of the human psyche. But they read like short stories or novellas, and are now usually remembered for the pseudonyms assigned to the patients (“the Rat Man” and “Little Hans,” respectively) whose stories Freud tells and interprets. He wrote the papers as technical literature, not “creative nonfiction,” and blurring of genres troubled him. Getting the ideas taken seriously by his peers was hard enough without being taken as an experimental author as well.
A fluent and renowned essayist in his own right, Phillips has a knack for aphorisms and apothegms that, after a few pages, tends toward a rather oblique mode of accessibility. It’s been said that while his work always feels brilliant while you’re reading it, that’s the only thing you can remember about it afterward. And there is something to the complaint, much of the time. Becoming Freud is an exception, I think. The chapters add up in a way that his essays, when collected between covers, generally do not.
The book assumes at least some familiarity with Freud’s own life and work, as well as an immunity to caricatures of them. That thins out the potential audience considerably. But for the reader with a little traction, Becoming Freud is one of the more suggestive books on its subject to come along in a while.
The author takes as a central point Freud’s hostility to biography -- expressed in his late 20s, well before establishing himself professionally, let alone developing new ideas. A biographer gathers up documents and recollections, and assembles them into causal sequences revealing the shape and coherence of someone’s life. Which is not just a presumptuous task but one vulnerable to all the tricks of memory and private agendas (acknowledged and otherwise) of everyone involved.
“This, for Freud, would be faux psychoanalysis,” writes Phillips. “Freud revealed to us that when it comes to motive no one can speak for anyone else. And that more often than not people resist speaking on their own behalf.” What they do instead is to come up with stories, explanations, and assumptions that seem to make life coherent, at the risk of trapping them into "buried-alive lives” — both driven and burned out by "the inextricability of their ambitions and their sexuality.”
The alternative, of course, is analysis. Just for the record, I am not quite persuaded by that claim. (Karl Kraus’s remark that psychoanalysis is the very disease that it pretends to cure seems a lot more on the money, pardon the expression.) But Freud's fundamental insight retains its force: people are, in Phillips’s words, “the only animals that [are] ambivalent about their development,” that “longed to grow up” but "hated growing up, and sabotaged it.”
Freud's patients came from that portion of the population which could not find a practical way to combine desire, frustration, and misery in socially acceptable ways. And as a Jew working in Vienna (the city that elected a candidate from the Anti-Semitic League as mayor in 1896, while Freud was deep in struggle with his own emotions following his father’s death) he may have been at the perfect vantage point to develop his understanding of modern life as a process that, Phillips writes, "selected out the parts and versions of the individual that were unacceptable to the state and left the individual stranded with whatever of himself didn’t fit in.” The personality becomes a regime "in which vigilant and punitively repressive authorities are in continual surveillance.”
Becoming Freud doesn’t narrate the development of psychoanalytic ideas or try to put them in social and cultural context; or rather, it does so only incidentally. It is primarily a book how Freud became someone able to think such thoughts, in such a context (how he became what he was) despite all the resistance that effort always generates. The book ends with its subject at the age of 50, with most of 35 more difficult and productive years ahead of him. I hope the author finds an occasion to write about those later decades — about how Freud occupied and managed what he had become.
Despite the praise heaped on California Senate Bill 520 by Phil Hill and Dean Florez in a recent panegyric published in Inside Higher Ed, the bill was not the right answer for California’s higher education access woes, and it is a poor model for other states to emulate.
A bill that would open the door to for-profit companies -- including unaccredited “fly-by-night” ones -- to offer courses in the name of a state’s colleges and universities is fraught with danger. A bill that would require a state’s colleges and universities to outsource their core educational function is truly misguided, however well-intentioned the idea may have been.
That’s the real reason for the huge uproar and the rare universal opposition to California’s SB 520 from those close to higher education -- both faculty groups and the universities themselves.
Let’s be clear about one thing that’s not acknowledged in Hill and Florez’s piece: colleges and universities around the country already allow transfer credit from other universities as long as those courses meet the quality control standards of the home institution.
That tradition has been in place for a long time precisely to balance the needs of students who often take courses at more than one institution with the needs of the public to ensure quality control and the integrity of degrees from its taxpayer-funded institutions. The people of California (including employers) need to know that a degree from the University of California, the California State University, or a state community college is just that -- and not something offered by an unknown entity.
By mandating that state public colleges and universities begin a process of outsourcing its courses, SB 520 would have seriously weakened transparency and accountability in its institutions of higher learning. That’s one reason why the provosts of major universities in the Midwest have argued against similar schemes in their institutions. Alumni and trustees at Thunderbird Business School have also expressed serious concerns about how such a proposed relationship would threaten the reputation of that school and the value of its degrees for all students.
There is good reason for such concern, for cautionary tales about relying on for-profit companies to offer a college’s courses are unfolding right now around the country. In a December 2012 court settlement, for instance, the New York Institute of Technology was found legally and financially liable for actions of its for-profit partner. More recently, Tiffin University has seen its accreditation threatened because of over-reliance on unaccredited for-profit companies to offer its courses.
If SB 520 had passed, it would not have expanded meaningful access to quality higher education in the state. But it would have thrown open the door to massive profits for edu-businesses, who are accountable not to the people of California, but to investors and stockholders. No wonder so many CEOs were there to praise SB 520.
Florez and Hill labor mightily to make SB 520 sound bold and innovative, an effort to “wake up [California’s] higher education community,” they say. What everyone, including the state’s elected leaders, really need to wake up to are the fundamental facts about higher education funding in California.
According to a report published in February 2013 by Postsecondary Opportunity: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and titled “State Disinvestment in Higher Education FY1961 to FY2013,” California’s state fiscal support for higher education as a percentage of state personal income dropped by 58.2 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1980 and 2013. The trajectory is clear: if the current long-term trend continues, California will reach zero in state funding for higher education in the year 2054.
Unfortunately, as Postsecondary Opportunity’s research demonstrates, many other states are also in a “Race to Zero.”
SB 520 was no “wake-up call” for anyone. It was, in fact, a dangerous diversion from the reality that there is simply no substitute for public investment in higher education, and there is no single cheaper teaching modality or low-cost “magic bullet” that will meet our need for qualified college graduates.
With all that is at stake for the futures of millions of students and for our country, we need to take a harder look at so-called “innovative” solutions that make the old promise of “something for nothing.”
The atmosphere at the university workshop on online learning was becoming a little edgy, with questions in the air like “What does flipping a classroom really mean?” And, more dauntingly, “Do MOOCs threaten our liberal arts model of education?” A high point occurred when one participant, addressing a panel of faculty and administrators, asked, “What is our solution to these changes?” with the not-so-gentle observation, “Because if we don’t have one, we are road kill.”
The response from the panel was slow in coming -- no big surprise. Fact is, there is no easy answer. That’s because the question of how not to become road kill presumes that we understand why we should not become road kill. It is only through a clear, here-and-now answer to the second question that we are likely to devise a credible response to the first.
So here is a here-and-now context for why. Truly harrowing challenges are upon us: climate change, with its companions, the sixth mass extinction, and ecological overreach, are all bearing down on us potential road-pizzas like a convoy of 18-wheelers.
By the time this year’s graduates are ready to send their children to college, the planet’s CO2 concentration will have reached 450 parts per million, summertime Arctic sea ice will be a thing of memory, and humanity will have committed a dozen future human generations to a minimum 2°C temperature rise. These are the terrifying facts of our current reality, and without proper leadership, our likely fate.
To meet these challenges, people -- our future leaders -- need the best possible technological expertise. More than that, they need to be able to think across multiple time horizons. If only liberal arts colleges provided that kind of relevance.
Well, maybe we do.
My daughter just got home from her first year at college — a liberal arts college. Had she experienced anything, I asked, that spoke to dangers that are so slow that they span generations, but are no less deadly for being slow? She looked at me as if to say, do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? Because that was the whole point of her paper about Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
This was her experience: She had cried when Aeneas killed Turnus. But more than that, she was outraged. For the sake of a moment of vengeful glory, Aeneas had lost his way from the past to the future.
And that related to my question … how?
Try a little empathy, she suggested.
I eventually got it. This, the early part of the 21st century, is our moment. Our willingness to make painful sacrifices for the latter part of the century depends on our ability to empathize with people we have never met — our future grandchildren. Experience in empathizing across a broad expanse of time is one kind of relevance liberal arts institutions have a lot of experience providing.
A second kind of relevance to those harrowing challenges is directly related to the Internet itself. Few would contest that the Internet is an indispensable asset in describing the complex environmental and societal processes that collectively make up what is referred to as climate change. Put another way, no college graduate today should be ignorant of the potential for Internet-based computational power and knowledge to model and predict future climate.
This potential is, of course, much more general. Broadly speaking, the Internet and liberal arts share something very important. They are both about the creation and use of knowledge through collaborative work. How were Unix, Git, and LaTex created? All were the result of a very liberal-artsy vision for online collaboration.
Can liberal arts colleges provide that kind of relevance, too?
As educators, preparing future leaders to exploit the resources of the internet will require that we move into that space ourselves. We have to learn to recognize the opportunities for new paradigms for learning that the internet has created. One major shift already under way is a reorientation toward student-centered classrooms.
Flipping a class -- so that online lectures are viewed at home and class time is spent in active discussion -- is an example. Flipping isn’t new, but digital technology makes flipping easy, and that is new. It works because it lets humans and computers each do what they do best.
Beyond that are new digital tools that we are just figuring out how to use. Examples are discipline-specific software products like Spartan. Spartan produces molecular electronic structures, in three dimensions, on the computer screen. It lets students see and manipulate these structures by solving the most basic equations known to science. Maybe I’m not making that sound as cool as it is, so let me try again. If you think chemistry is an impossibly difficult, jargon-ridden, mysterious science, you are right. Spartan changes that by making every sit-down experience with it a unique, original investigation into the nature of chemical behavior. This is digital-based pedagogy with methodological muscle, formerly a graduate school tool, now accessible to freshmen. You just have to find a way to make it happen in your classroom.
It is through the combination of these two kinds of relevance -- Aeneas and Unix -- that students at undergraduate institutions, our future leaders, get wired for sound, classical judgment informed by the tools of modern life. And if individual liberal arts colleges can deliver these skills better than most, leveraging the advantages of small classes and inspired mentoring, then we are an important part of the response to that convoy rumbling our way.
These kinds of tools are not online grading, and not MOOCs either. They represent a new kind of information literacy. True, we are not there yet; it will take effort, and a bit of daring, to figure out how to teach tools like these. But as we grow into them, we will discover previously unimagined new paradigms for learning.
Rather exciting, actually, considering the stakes. And not at all like road kill.
Steven Neshyba is a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound.