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.