Avoiding navel-gazing and idolization
These might be some of the questions freshmen are asking themselves these days, but they are really ancillary to bigger questions about their intellectual development. More deeply than simply asking what classes one should take, one ought to ask oneself: What kind of intellectual model do I want for my four years of intellectual training here? What kind of tools do I want to give myself to educate myself after Princeton?
These might seem like abstract concerns, but they merit attention because of the emergence in higher education of two kinds of students whose ambitions or even insecurities prevent their full education.
One kind, the person engaged in what we might call Self-Identity Studies, has already been given an outline by the late historian Tony Judt. One purpose of college education is to broaden the mind to worlds it didn’t know before, but those engaged in SIS seek out academic “disciplines” in which they can study, effectively, themselves, and market this study as legitimate scholarship. For example, the young Hispanic woman from East Los Angeles specializes in the art forms of Oaxacan migrants to her home neighborhoods, and perhaps even writes a junior paper on it. A young man of Pakistani extraction writes, for his creative thesis, a commentary to his translation of Punjabi poetry.
Worthwhile pursuits in themselves, these sorts of projects run the risk, when they take over the education of students, of turning scholarship and education into a form of autobiography, even self-therapy. Judt feared that this focus on private, personal interests, rather than on scholarly consensus (canon, scholarly methods) would erode a sense of shared social life in the academy. These voluntary academic Bantustans, with their own proprietary conferences and publications, corrode a sense of shared scholarly mission. With their focus on studying the self rather than rigor (close reading, linguistic competence, primary source scholarship), they actively contribute to the assault on the humanities at a time when many universities have questioned the value of the liberal arts. When students explore their own racial, gender or psychological profiles as a form of scholarship, they miss out on discovering subjects they relish purely for their own interest. The push toward autobiography as scholarship — aided by the promotion of SIS scholars on university faculties and the splintering of consensus disciplines like history and English into sub-faculty ghettos — tells the student that they need not drink from a well fount of shared literature, from a common pool of erudition. Scholarship becomes logotherapy.
Still, Judt perhaps missed the rise of a different, also unhealthy approach to higher education: the person engaged in Important Person Studies. Enthralled by academic or intellectual celebrity, those engaged in IPS seek models in the generation above theirs: Here Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, there Christopher Hitchens, there Timothy Garton Ash. Intent on becoming the great public thinker, these students look at credentials rather than the journey to achieve them. They think that if only they can flow through the proper sluices — the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton, Teach for America, the fancy fellowship, McKinsey, Yale Law School — then they, too, will be successful and thus happy. Though engaged in reputable disciplines like history, international relations or economics, people pursuing IPS stand out for their interest in “leadership” in the abstract. They claim expertise in regions they have never visited or whose languages they do not speak. They want to participate in the public debate without having ever distinguished themselves in something besides, well, the public debate. IPS may be tempting, but it does not offer happiness or fulfillment, and those who pursue its charms often forget that there are plenty of un-Important People who are quite important, and that often you become an Important Person simply by following your own interests and passions, insignificant as they may strike others.
What to do? My unsolicited advice: Begin your education as broadly as possible. Take advantage of courses like the Humanities Sequence or Integrated Science that baptize students in the great questions and themes of the Western tradition, or the most advanced approaches in science today. When thinking about foreign languages, or your fourth course, surprise yourself. You’ll be surprised later by how much the discipline of rising every day for a 9 a.m. Russian class, or your teacher on “Walden,” brought you something beyond the course description.
And don’t sweat exploring your own identity, or becoming an Important Person (if that’s what you want) too much. I still struggle with whether I want the latter. As for the former, I have many more days of my life to spend in my home city, sitting on the 405 Freeway before I fully — if ever — grasp how growing up in Los Angeles has shaped the politics of my body.
Timothy Nunan ’08 is a Rhodes Scholar studying for an M.Phil. in social and economic history at Oxford. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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