Minds Stocked Only with Opinions

‘Lost in Thought’
Students learn in conversations, inside and outside of the classroom. Here, students gather on the quad at the University of Washington (Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons).

After a spring of cancelled classes and a summer of uncertainty, we are now beginning—well, something schoolish. University administrators are hoping to avoid another semester rudely interrupted by contagion. Faculty members, themselves often especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age, are recasting what it means to discuss Rousseau or perform recitals or work in a chemistry lab, all via webcam. Our newest students are trying to forge meaningful freshman experiences from their parents’ basements, without late-night dorm conversations or intramural sports.

Zena Hitz seems to have anticipated this crisis. To be clear, her book Lost in Thought, released in May, isn’t explicitly about the tectonic shifts currently rattling educational institutions. Nor should her central thesis of defending unabashed intellectualism be confused with defending universities per se, especially universities as they are currently structured. But during this chaotic fall on American campuses, readers will unavoidably see Hitz’s book through the lens of fundamental questions about our new academic reality: What are our students learning? What is the point of this learning? And how can we ensure that this learning continues to happen, on or off campus?

Academies have struggled with these pedagogical questions since the time of Plato. And as a book that is more diagnosis than prescription, Lost in Thought doesn’t leave its readers with a specific regimen to cure the academic ills it lucidly and often lyrically describes. In some measure, that’s because Hitz’s book isn’t merely an analysis of higher education. Part autobiography, part defense of impractical intellectualism, and part cultural lament, Lost in Thought forces us to contemplate the ways in which we might salvage thoughtfulness—perhaps not through our universities but in spite of them. In fact, now that the solvency of many schools is no longer guaranteed, Hitz’s elegant invitation to seek out intellectual fulfillment in any quiet corner, not just in library stacks, could not come at a more opportune moment.

 

Critiques of higher education—from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind to William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep—constitute a durable subgenre of American nonfiction, and its readers will find several of Hitz’s diagnoses familiar. She laments “administrators with allegiance to hostile principles from the business world,” the droning lecture course where “temporary memorization is the condition for the above-average grade,” and our own manic “demands of attaining and maintaining our social standing [that] crush our hearts and minds along with our bank accounts.” Parents, students, and even fellow faculty members will find themselves nodding along to many of these perennial complaints.

But Hitz also identifies new targets, or at least new names for old ones. Principal among these is the “opinionization” of colleges and universities, a phenomenon she defines as “the reduction of thinking and perception to simple slogans or prefabricated positions.” “Opinionization” is not the unique domain of one political persuasion or cultural faction. As Hitz explains, “much of what counts as education in the contemporary scene is the cultivation of correct opinions,” whether the “much-maligned education supported by progressive activists, education that seeks primarily social and political results” or the “conservative mirror image of progressive activism: the promotion of correct opinions about free markets.” Whatever the political flavor, Hitz argues, faux-academic sloganeering has infiltrated our institutions of higher education. Here she cites Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels as a cultural data point. The academically ascendant Lenù and her professorial colleagues “talk politics to advance themselves while the people they grew up with continue to live in poverty and violence.” More than just a way to keep students happy with facile coursework, Hitz’s opinionization also emerges amid the cynical careerism of teachers themselves.

The conflation of the life of the mind with vacuous slogans will be immediately familiar even to those who live and work outside the halls of our universities

Even if Hitz has coined a new label for it, the conflation of the life of the mind with vacuous slogans will be immediately familiar even to those who live and work outside the halls of our universities. While Lost in Thought locates opinionization within the classroom, its most public examples can be found elsewhere on campus. To my mind, the most obvious cases include high-profile speaker events where professional antagonizers like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos claim the aegis of free inquiry in order to stand on a lecture-hall stage and pronounce “Feminism is Cancer” or “Facts Don’t Care about Your Feelings.” Hitz never discusses such events in her book, but they bring into high relief this adulterated notion of intellectualism, one “that could be boiled down to the mastery of a set of sentences."

This kind of mental necrosis has its own underlying causes: like our worst politicians, it’s a symptom more than the disease itself. For Hitz, genuine intellectual work depends upon intimate settings, forthright conversation, and modest-sized “communion.” Thoughtless opinionization, by contrast, stems from our “system of higher education [where] person-to-person teaching belongs only to a handful of liberal arts colleges and to elite doctoral programs.” Hitz, whose background is in ancient philosophy, perhaps takes inspiration here from the observation, in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, that a small-scale setting like a courtroom or seminar table is a precondition for nuanced inquiry. Lecture-hall ostentation—domain of the pundit and the PowerPoint presentation—might make for an entertaining spectacle, but it’s antithetical to real intellectual activity.

Before we turn to Hitz’s cures for spectacle’s assault on contemplative intellectualism, it’s worth pausing to recognize how these considerations of scale and setting are central to our current academic crisis. As an urgent matter of public health, institutions around the world are trading in tables and blackboards for “remote instruction,” “hybrid classrooms,” and “asynchronous content.” Some educational critics see these changes as overdue adaptations, moments to reap the economies of scale that modern technology offers. Reformers like Scott Galloway of NYU—with the honorable intention of expanding access to the American university and lowering its unconscionable price tag—advocate for massive expansion of student populations at our nation’s major universities by leveraging these cost-saving tools. Recently in New York magazine, Galloway called for Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Google to deliver chemistry lectures and history slide decks to thousands. “The tech company would be responsible for scale and the online group part,” he explains. “The university would be responsible for the accreditation.”

While Galloway and others see mass delivery of content through online platforms as the solution to the real problems of overpriced and underperforming institutions, Hitz sees such platforms as the catalysts of opinionization and anti-intellectualism. Indeed, the metamorphosis of college education into an enormous Zoom meeting is incompatible with Hitz’s brand of intimate thoughtfulness, for in her eyes the internet is “a cesspool for the love of spectacle” and a “bottomless temple of lurid fascination.” It is true, of course, that the internet has provided important platforms for marginal communities and has birthed artistic breakthroughs in narrative and multimedia. But if intellectual life takes as a precondition a kind of smallness, a kind of intimacy, could we ever expect to find it in a thousand-student Zoom call?

 

By identifying the root problem of deformed intellectual culture as the scale of instruction, we might find the cure for the disease in smaller class sizes. In theory, replacing every lecture hall with a modest seminar table could help, but reforms like this one seem economically unfeasible: universities have already raised their sticker prices about as high as they can go for now, so we shouldn’t expect them to tack on even more faculty salaries and campus infrastructure costs. But again, Hitz’s book isn’t simply about reforming American universities. In fact, while Hitz maintains that academics are the “official guardians” of intellectual life and might be prime agents of its “renewal,” she directs us to cultivate intellectual activity outside campus gates, even in the least academic environments.

She recalls exemplary figures like Einstein and Malcolm X who found intellectualism in unlikely settings. Einstein, of course, would have a successful career at the Institute for Advanced Study, but before that he spent time working in the “worldly cloister” of the patent office. For Einstein, she explains, “there were no hotshot professors to impress, no university administrators to placate, no students to whom he had to justify his existence,” and this “place of removal and retreat” allowed him the mental space to reconceptualize the foundations of physical reality. In the cases of Malcolm X and Antonio Gramsci, even the “bleakness” of prison cells could occasion the development of rich interiority.

No strict apologist for universities, then, Hitz wants us to see opportunities for this kind of thoughtfulness in all walks of life, and her ability to look beyond educational institutions positions Lost in Thought as a rich contribution to our culture’s wider conversation about the role of technical education and community college. “Manual labor,” she remarks, “leaves the mind free to ruminate and consider in a way that other forms of labor do not. This is why carpentry, or gardening, or housekeeping can be satisfying in a way that ticking boxes, pushing paper, or thinking through complex but trivial problems is not.” At one point, she even sings the virtues of garbage-collectors.

Hitz’s attention to opportunities for intellectual life outside academic institutions reminds me of another defense of manual labor by the political theorist Matthew Crawford in his 2009 Shop Class as Soulcraft. And although Hannah Arendt never appears in Lost in Thought, there are robust parallels between her and Hitz as two advocates of contemplative living. When she writes that “contemplation in the form of learning is a robust human good, valuable for its own sake and worthy of time and resources,” Hitz echoes Arendt’s twin considerations of the vita activa and vita contemplativa in The Human Condition. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, too, Arendt praises “solitude” as a kind of healthy intellectual monasticism, where “I am ‘by myself,’ together with my self, and therefore two-in-one.” Given Hitz’s own suspicions about large-scale education and her claim that “real learning is hidden learning,” these two women could be read productively as distant interlocutors.

 

Taking Hitz’s view of politics and intellectualism as two separable categories of activity requires a definition of thoughtfulness that readers may not share.

Arendt, however, takes the political landscape of the twentieth century as one of her primary concerns, so while she and Hitz might share a fascination with Augustine and Aristotle, Hitz departs from Arendt in her explicitly apolitical (if not anti-political) idea of intellectualism. “Our vision of the love of learning,” she remarks, “is distorted by notions of economic and civic usefulness.” Hitz’s argument is not that political activism is wrong but simply that it is different from intellectualism: “Making money is useful, and fighting for justice is necessary, but neither is valuable in the same way that exercising the love of learning is valuable.” In many of the autobiographical sections of Lost in Thought, Hitz recalls the enduring allure of leaving academia to pursue human-rights advocacy and her involvement in various Catholic charitable organizations—political life is present throughout her book, but largely as a foil.

Especially amid our several national crises, it’s hard to maintain such a strict separation of the academic and the political. Speaking for myself, it pains me to think of how my own alma mater churns out credentialed oligarchs, including Jared Kushner, an agent of fatal incompetence in our federal government. Taking Hitz’s view of politics and intellectualism as two separable categories of activity, moreover, requires a definition of thoughtfulness that readers may not share. Her contemplative intellectual life is something rather different from our agonistic model of the Millian marketplace of ideas. For Hitz, intellectual life is “beyond politics,” for “politics even at its best requires factions; it requires divisions, allegiances, the emotional power of us versus them.” When she contrasts the “competition” of politics with the “shared endeavor” of intellectual life, we might imagine a utopian college devoid of toxic grade-grubbing. But I wonder how we might more precisely differentiate between divisive politicking and the salutary factions among, say, physicists sparring over string theory.

Although Hitz describes her allergy to politicking with only an occasional allusion to the issues of scale and opinionization that permeate her analysis of universities, it’s helpful to revisit precisely those topics in this second context. Political persuasion has always relied on sloganeering—whether “Make America Great Again” or “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”—because democratic politics requires mass mobilization. Suspicious of the “false communion” of spectacle both in the lecture hall and at the campaign rally, Hitz instead champions the paradox of finding political community in quietude. She praises Dorothy Day’s “sense of unity with the suffering heart of the human race,” a feeling catalyzed by solitary imprisonment. She nods to Malcolm X’s “profuse stream of public speeches” while especially admiring his “disciplined inwardness.” In many ways, Hitz’s criticism of politics simply echoes her suspicion of the crowded auditorium.

This persistent interest in the scale of human activity makes Hitz’s book a valuable opportunity for reflecting upon this tumultuous year, which has been defined by the mass politics of protest and pandemic. Humanity has rarely felt bigger. And as our students resume some simulacrum of school in these autumn months, we would do well to consider the technological expansion of our classrooms and its effect on our students’ “disciplined inwardness.” The medium, of course, is the message, and if the academic medium increasingly looks like an enormous digital rally, we may have already traded the contemplative message for a cheer.

Lost in Thought
The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Zena Hitz
Princeton University Press, $22.95, 240 pp.

Published in the September 2020 issue: 

Charles McNamara is a Core Lecturer in the Classics Department at Columbia University.

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