Regrets, I've Had a Few

The editors of the cultural magazine .N+1 are publishing a booklet called What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions that they have prepared for undergraduates. Copies have only just come back from the printer, it seems, but I’ve had a look at a prepublication PDF and now feel a certain evangelizing fervor for the whole project.

October 31, 2007

The editors of the cultural magazine .N+1 are publishing a booklet called What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions that they have prepared for undergraduates. Copies have only just come back from the printer, it seems, but I’ve had a look at a prepublication PDF and now feel a certain evangelizing fervor for the whole project.

Its topic, in brief, is the relationship between education and regret – how each one creates the conditions for the other. The books you read at a certain age can put you on the wrong path, even though you don’t recognize it at the time. You are too naively ambitious to get much out of them -- or too naive, perhaps, not that it makes much difference either way. And by the time you realize what you should have read, it’s too late. You would understand things differently, and probably better, had you made different choices. You would be a different person. Instead, you wasted a lot of time. (I know I did. There are nights when I recall all the time spent on the literary criticism of J. Hillis Miller and weep softly to myself.)

The booklet consists of transcripts of two meetings of N+1 contributors (a mixture of writers and academics, most in their 20's and 30's) as they discuss what they regret about their educations. Each contributor also submits a list of eight “Books That Changed My Life.”

The structure here seem to involve a rather intricate bit of irony. There is an explicit address to smart people in their teens, or barely out of them, offering suggestions on what to read, and how. It can be taken as a guide to how to avoid regret. The reflections and checklists are all well-considered. You could do a lot worse for an advice manual.

But the task is impossible. Avoiding regret is not an option, whether in your formal education or your love life; and it’s the price of the ticket that you must learn this the hard way. There are no shortcuts between naivete and sophistication. Or rather, there are a lot of shortcuts – but all of them will lead you astray.

Among the approaches tried and found wanting by participants in the discussion are:

  • The Dartmouth Review’s list of timeless classics by dead white European males.
  • The cultural studies templates for subverting DWEM hegemony.
  • Extremely intense close reading of the finest works of literature ever written.
  • Extremely intense close reading of the densest works of theory ever written.
  • Becoming so immersed in the works of a particular master-thinker (for example, Foucault) or author (Emerson, maybe) so that you end up quoting them all the time.
  • Just trying to keep up with whatever is on the syllabus as you move from semester to semester in a contemporary American university’s smorgasbord of electives.

Whichever path you follow, then, is bound to involve the risk of ending up someplace you might have qualms about, later. You just have to strike out and take your chances anyway. Regret will come, and you'll have to learn from it, too.

This candor is remarkable. And so is the hard edge of respect for the intellectual seriousness of young people. It reminded me, at several points, of a wonderful passage in an essay by Adorno:

“The naivete of the student who finds difficult and formidable things good enough for him has more wisdom in it than a grown-up pedantry that shakes its finger at thought, warning it that it should understand the simple things before it tackles the complex ones, which, however, are the only ones that tempt it. Postponing knowledge in this way only obstructs it.”

This booklet is a reflection on the difference between education and Bildung. That is, between the experience of moving through a given social institution, on the one hand, and the process of being inwardly “formed” by what you’ve learned, on the other.

It’s not an attempt to recast the curriculum, then. Or a polemic in the culture wars. Or a blueprint for reforming the vast multi-billion dollar research-and-entertainment complex known as “higher ed.” In some respects, it is much broader in focus than that; in others, it addresses the particularity of individual experience.

The emphasis falls on how books can influence a reader in ways having little to do with career, and everything to do with a sense of life. (Not that the participants are terribly solemn about this. One of them says, deadpan: “It’s like after I read Crime and Punishment in high school, I wanted to kill an old lady.”)

But there is also an undercurrent of disappointment with the university running throughout the discussion. “Our educations take place in institutions that are divided up in these ways that may not bear idealistic close inspection,” says Meghan Falvey, a graduate student in sociology at New York University. “You can really end up studying the wrong thing, sitting around a table with the wrong people, whose concerns are not your own. Almost inevitably it seems like you won’t know what your concerns are until you’re older or better read or something.”

Perhaps that is inevitable – a human problem, rather than the failing of any pedagogical arrangement that could be reformed. But other comments in What We Should Have Known suggest deep reservations about the university as an institution.

“I realized, the further I went on,” says Marco Roth, a doctoral candidate in literature at Yale, “that almost everyone in academia feels like an outsider, nobody knows what’s going on. Academia’s an empty vessel, but the ones who don’t realize it end up going all the way and end up in charge....They believe in the system. That there’s something they can conform to and master. And the proof is that they’ve stuck it out while so many others drop by the wayside into ‘obscurity.’”

An empty vessel is not worthless, of course. (It has its uses.) The complaint here, rather, is about the routinized and often rather vacuous cult of “professionalization” in the humanities. William James worried about this more than a century ago. But really, he could never have imagined how far things would go. In the more inane extremities of the process, any expression of doubt about the effects of professionalization will now immediately be denounced as “anti-intellectual” -- a tendency reflecting an incredibly impoverished conception of the life of the mind.

The participants in the discussions presented in What We Should Have Known are smart enough to know better; and none of them sounds timid enough to give a damn. The combination of seriousness and playfulness here is inspiring. My only regret is that I did not read this pamphlet a long time ago.

(Information about ordering What We Should Have Known is available here.)


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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