EEUU: crisis de la educación superior y las artes liberales
Junio 9, 2024

Deep Reading Will Save Your Soul

Real learning has become impossible in universities. DIY programs offer a better way.

Universities are in crisis—losing public support, shaken by internal divisions, facing angry donors and alumni, and increasingly straying from their core mission of intellectual curiosity and open inquiry. Our series, which is made possible by the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, will consist of a collection of long form essays and podcast interviews aimed at helping higher education tackle this crisis. 

In today’s installment, William Deresiewicz—inspired by a student’s legacy—analyzes an important new trend: students and teachers abandoning traditional universities altogether and seeking a liberal arts education in self-fashioned programs.

Higher ed is at an impasse. So much about it sucks, and nothing about it is likely to change. Colleges and universities do not seem inclined to reform themselves, and if they were, they wouldn’t know how, and if they did, they couldn’t. Between bureaucratic inertia, faculty resistance, and the conflicting agendas of a heterogenous array of stakeholders, concerted change appears to be impossible. Besides, business is good, at least at selective schools. The notion, floated now in certain quarters, that students and parents will turn from the Harvards and Yales in disgust is a fantasy. As long as elite institutions remain the principal pipeline to elite employers (and they will), the havers and strivers will crowd toward their gates. Everything else—the classes, the politics, the arts and sciences—is incidental.

Which is not to say that interesting things aren’t happening in post-secondary (and post-tertiary) education. They just aren’t happening, for the most part, on campus. People write to me about this: initiatives they’ve started or are starting or have taken part in. These come, as far as I can tell, in two broad types, corresponding to the two fundamental complaints that people voice about their undergraduate experience. The first complaint is that college did not prepare them for the real world: that the whole exercise—papers, busywork, pointless requirements; siloed disciplines and abstract theory—seemed remote from anything that they actually might want to do with their lives.

Programs that address this discontent exhibit a remarkably consistent set of characteristics. They are interdisciplinary, integrating methods and perspectives—from, say, engineering and the social sciences—that are normally kept apart. They are informal, eschewing frontal instruction and traditional modes of evaluation. They are experiential, more about doing—creating, collaborating—than reading and writing. They are extramural, bringing students into the community for service projects, internships, artistic installations or performances. They are directed to specific purposes, usually to do with social amelioration or environmental rescue. Above all, they are student-centered. Participants are enabled (and expected) to direct their education by constructing bespoke curricula out of the resources the program gives them access to. In a word, these endeavors emphasize “engagement.”

All this is fine, as far as it goes. It has analogues and precedents in higher ed (Evergreen, Bennington, Antioch, Hampshire) as well as in the practice of progressive education, especially at the secondary level. High schools will focus on “project-based learning,” with assessment conducted through portfolios and public exhibitions. A student will identify a problem (a human need, an injustice, an instance of underrepresentation), then devise and implement a response (a physical system, a community-facing program, an art project).

Again, I see the logic, it is just what many students want, but what bothers me about this educational approach—the “problem” approach, the “STEAM” (STEM + arts) approach—is what it leaves out. It leaves out the humanities. It leaves out books. It leaves out literature and philosophy, history and art history and the history of religion. It leaves out any mode of inquiry—reflection, speculation, conversation with the past—that cannot be turned to immediate practical ends. Not everything in the world is a problem, and to see the world as a series of problems is to limit the potential of both world and self. What problem does a song address? What problem will reading Voltaire help you solve, in any predictable way? The “problem” approach—the “engagement” approach, the save-the-world approach—leaves out, finally, what I’d call learning.

And that is the second complaint that graduates tend to express: that they finished college without the feeling that they had learned anything, in this essential sense. That they hadn’t been touched. That they hadn’t been changed. That there is a treasure out there—call it the Great Books or just great books, the wisdom of the ages or the best that has been thought and said—that its purpose is to activate the treasure inside them, that they had come to one of these splendid institutions (whose architecture speaks of culture, whose age gives earnest of depth) to be initiated into it, but that they had been denied, deprived. For unclear reasons, cheated.

I had students like this at Columbia and Yale. There were never a lot of them, and to judge from what’s been happening to humanities enrollments, there are fewer and fewer. (From 2013 to 2022, the number of people graduating with bachelors degrees in English fell by 36%. As a share of all degrees, it fell by 42%, to less than 1 in 60.) They would tell me—these pilgrims, these intellectuals in embryo, these kindled souls—how hard they were finding it to get the kind of education they had come to college for. Professors were often preoccupied, with little patience for mentorship, the open-ended office-hours exploration. Classes, even in fields like philosophy, felt lifeless, impersonal, like engineering but with words instead of numbers. Worst of all were their fellow undergraduates, those climbers and careerists. “It’s hard to build your soul,” as one of my students once put it to me, “when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

That student’s name was Matthew Strother. It was through Matthew—he was in his early thirties by this point, and still seeking—that I learned about perhaps the two most prominent initiatives to have sprung up off-campus of late in response to the hunger for serious study. The first is the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, which was founded in 2012 and now offers dozens of courses a year both in person and online. Its seminars meet three hours a week for four weeks. Recent offerings include classes on Melville’s The Confidence Man, Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, fairy tales, and Mesopotamia. With its leftist commitments, BISR also runs courses in critical theory and the social sciences: Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, “Racial Capitalism,” “The Politics of Pregnancy.”

The second initiative Matthew alerted me to is the Catherine Project, which launched in 2020. Its vibe is very different from BISR’s. BISR was founded by a group of Columbia doctoral students. The Catherine Project was founded by Zena Hitz, a teacher at the St. John’s great books college in Annapolis, a Catholic convert, and, for three years, a resident of Madonna House, a monastic community in eastern Ontario. BISR is named for the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, birthplace in the 1930s of the Frankfurt School of Marxist social thought. The Catherine Project is named for Catherine of Alexandria, an early Christian martyr, and Catherine Doherty, Madonna House’s founder.

BISR is explicitly political as well as educational; its Praxis program offers workshops and other resources to labor unions and nonprofits. The Catherine Project sees itself as being in the business of creating “communities of learning”; its principles include “conversation and hospitality, “simplicity [and] transparency.” Classes (called tutorials, in keeping with the practice at St. John’s) are free (BISR’s cost $335), are capped at four to six students (at BISR, the limit is 23), run for two hours a week for twelve weeks, and skew towards the canon: the Greeks and Romans, Pascal and Kierkegaard, Dante and Cervantes (the project also hosts a large number of reading groups, which address a wider range of texts). If BISR aspires to create a fairer market for academic labor—instructors keep the lion’s share of fees—the Catherine Project functions as a gift economy (though plans are to begin to offer tutors modest honoraria).

Add to these the Zephyr Institute, founded in 2014, which runs humanities-based programs in Silicon Valley. Add the Hertog Foundation’s humanities program, which since 2020 has conducted online seminars for mixed groups of undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals. Add the reading groups and salons that have been proliferating both in-person and online. And many more initiatives, no doubt, that I have yet to learn of.

A number of factors play into this upsurge. One, of course, is the internet, as both a medium of study and a means to publicize offline opportunities. Another is the sense that academic humanities departments have long been inimical to humanistic inquiry—a major reason college students have felt cheated of it—as opposed to political tub-thumping. A former student who did an MFA in fiction at a major public university remarked that while the program’s writing instruction was only so-so, at least the workshops afforded the chance to really read, unlike what went on in what he called the institution’s “clownish” English department.

A third is less obvious. The long-term crisis in academic employment—the shift to adjunct labor, the glut of PhDs—has created a large pool of qualified instructors only loosely attached to, or entirely detached from, the academy. BISR’s faculty, almost all of whom have doctoral degrees, include not only adjuncts (and appointed professors), but book editors, full-time writers, a university librarian, an archaeologist, and a psychoanalyst-in-training. As Russell Jacoby has noted, the migration of intellectuals into universities in the decades after World War II, which he documented in The Last Intellectuals, has more recently reversed itself. The rise, or re-rise, of little magazines (DissentCommentaryPartisan Review then; n+1The New InquiryThe PointThe Drift, et al. now) is part of the same story.

The Catherine Project’s faculty reflects a fourth factor. If there are students who despair at the condition of the humanities on campus, there are professors who do so as well. Many of her teachers, Hitz told me, have regular ladder appointments: “We draw academics—who attend our groups as well as leading them—because the life of the mind is dying or dead in conventional institutions.” Undergraduate teaching, she added, “is a particularly hard pull,” and the Catherine Project offers faculty the chance to teach people “who actually want to learn.”

And, I’d add, who can. Nine years ago, Stephen Greenblatt wrote: “Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley. … The problem is that their engagement with language … often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid.” By now, of course, the picture is far worse. Last year, in an article about the plunge in humanities enrollments, another Harvard English professor, Amanda Claybaugh, was quoted as follows: “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb.” And this is at Harvard. It’s no wonder faculty are thirsty for students with whom they can actually have a dialogue about the books they love.

I am involved in one of these off-campus ventures myself. My student Matthew, having spent many years searching for, then dreaming of, his ideal intellectual environment, decided to create it himself. It would marry rigorous group study of literary and philosophical texts with mindful living and abstention from technologies of communication. It would be a face-to-face community, a retreat from distraction, a school for adults. It would be small, self-governing, contemplative, and free of charge. He studied models: Deep Springs College, Plato’s Academy, Nietzsche’s experiences at Villa Rubinacci. He made copious notes. He outlined a set of principles. He purchased property in upstate New York.

But he did not live to see his plans take form. Matthew died last year, of cancer, at the age of 35, in the middle of his life’s way. But such was the beauty of his dream, and the love that he inspired, that some of us who knew him, led by his widow, Berta Willisch, determined to see it realized. Already this year, the Matthew Strother Center for the Examined Life is running three ten-day pilot programs for five participants each (plans are to expand to groups of ten and also offer longer sessions). The faculty include myself, Zena Hitz, and Len Nalencz, a friend of Matthew’s and a professor at the University of Mount Saint Vincent.

The response to the announcement of our pilot programs confirmed for me the existence of a large, unmet desire for text-based exploration, touching on the deepest questions, outside the confines of higher education. With limited publicity, a tight deadline, and a fairly demanding application process, we received nearly 160 submissions. Applicants ranged from graduating college seniors to people in their 70s. They included teachers, artists, scientists, and doctoral students from across the disciplines; a submarine officer, a rabbinical student, an accountant, and a venture capitalist; retirees, parents of small children, and twentysomethings at the crossroads. Forms came in from India, Jordan, Brazil, and nine other foreign countries. The applicants were, as a group, tremendously impressive. If it had been possible, we would have taken many more than fifteen.

When asked why they wanted to participate, a number of them spoke about the pathologies of formal education. “We have a really damaged relationship to learning,” said one. “It should be fun, not scary”—as in, you feel that you’re supposed to know the answer, which as a student, as she noted, makes no sense. “Study or attention,” said another, “has been lodged in an institution that has its own incentives,” like sorting for “merit.” “We need opportunities for reading and exploration that lie outside the credentialing system of the modern university,” he went on, because there’s so much in the latter that cuts against “the slow way that kind of learning unfolds.” A third, a dedicated autodidact who dropped out of a prestigious institution, used the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander’s notion of an “intimacy gradient” to describe his urge to enter into deeper contact with material than college courses typically allow. “For life’s significant questions,” he wrote, “like how one might choose to live, answers are to be found by moving along the gradient, not by ambling around the periphery.”

“How one might choose to live.” For many of our applicants—and this, of course, is what the program is about, what the humanities are about—learning has, or ought to have, an existential weight. Beneath their talk of education, of unplugging from technology, of having time for creativity and solitude, I detected a desire to be free of forces and agendas: the university’s agenda of “relevance,” the professoriate’s agenda of political mobilization, the market’s agenda of productivity, the internet’s agenda of surveillance and addiction. In short, the whole capitalistic algorithmic ideological hairball of coerced homogeneity. The desire is to not be recruited, to not be instrumentalized, to remain (or become) an individual, to resist regression toward the mean, or meme.

That is why it’s crucial that the Matthew Strother Center has no goal—and this is true of the Catherine Project and other off-campus humanities programs, as well—beyond the pursuit of learning for its own sake. Which means, for the sake of whatever students want to do with it, of whomever it might make them. This is freedom. When education isn’t pointed in particular directions, its possibilities are endless. After college, Matthew disappeared to Europe. I didn’t hear from him for five years. Finally, I got a letter—at some thirty pages, the longest I’ve ever received. It was a spiritual diary that doubled as a reading log. He referenced Joyce, Hesse, Bellow, Camus, Lawrence, Larkin, Miller, Maugham, Hemingway, Chesterton, Salinger, Durell, Ozick, Blake, Gorky, Chekhov, Geoff Dyer, Paul Goodman, Roberto Calasso, David Shields, Gregoire Bouillier, and George WS Trow. At the end, he wrote this: “The straight river of my narrative has opened onto the wide deltas of the present, and looking out to sea there’s nowhere to go but anywhere.” Exactly.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. He is the author of five books including Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society.


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