On Impartiality: The Root of Learning

True learning is a very mysterious thing: What exactly happens when a person learns something? — as opposed to repeating, memorizing, registering, hearing, or believing. There doesn’t seem to be any formula for causing learning to happen; we cannot make anyone learn, but we might be able to make them repeat what they are told. The best educational systems merely provide sufficient occasions and conditions for learning, including teachers who can present what needs to be learned in the clearest and most attractive ways possible. Even so, some students will learn, while most will only hear and repeat — which is often all they need to do to obtain social approbation.

Since learning cannot be made to happen, is there some fundamental condition for learning that can be instilled and developed — some quality of mind or character that can be cultivated so as to make the student more capable of learning? This question arose for me in a recent re-reading of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (late 12th century, a contemporary of Maimonides), who formed the Confucian canon and exerted more influence than anyone else over the Chinese philosophical tradition of the next 700 years. Zhu pulled out of the main body of the Book of Rites two sections that became core Confucian classics, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, and he also edited them. The first of these addresses education generally, but more specifically, how we can learn to become better and wiser. We are told early on that to learn anything, the mind has to be present:  When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat. (Tr. Legge) Yet for the mind to be fully present, there needs first to be an attitude of care or serious interest: how does that come about?

On the first page of the book we read:

The ancients who wished to manifest their clear excellence throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts/minds. Wishing to rectify their hearts/minds, they first sought to be sincere in their intentions. Wishing to be sincere in their intentions, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their intentions were sincere. Their intentions being sincere, their hearts/minds were then rectified. (translation adapted from Legge)

Classical Chinese philosophy is full of conditional chains like this one. A reader unacquainted with these texts might at first find the logic simply crude and silly, but after some mulling he will usually realize that part of the problem is that the key words do not have exact correlates in English; and translating them into the “approximate” English equivalents creates an impression of imprecise, blurry reasoning. Taking this into account, we then try to peer beneath the translator’s words to understand the train of thought that did not seem imprecise to Zhu Xi’s Chinese readers. However, in this paragraph there is one link in the chain that did puzzle other Chinese philosophers, such as Wang Yangming: Why does sincerity of intention come after the investigation of things? In editing the text, Zhu had switched the traditional order, in which sincerity preceded investigation: Surely genuine care for the matter under investigation had to precede, indeed motivate, the investigation itself? Attitude and interest have to be developed enough before there will be any inquiry. The rectified heart/mind depends on knowledge, which depends on investigation, which in turn depends on sincere interest. According to this reading, the student’s care for the matter has to be nourished before any learning can occur.

Zhu surely understood this objection, and his decision to place the investigation of things before sincerity of intention comes from a profound insight. Sincerity — a word impossible to translate, because it covers a range of meanings that includes authenticity, whole-heartedness, serious interest, but not what in contemporary English we call “sincerity” — cannot be cultivated directly. We cannot just decide to become “sincere” and then work on it; if we try to do that, sincerity becomes a posture —  which doesn’t necessarily mean it is false, just that it is then something we struggle for and practice towards, not something we wholly are. For Zhu Xi, we become sincere naturally, through doing something else. When he describes this something else as “investigation of things” and “extension of knowledge,” what he is getting at is the cultivation of intellectual impartiality in the activity of understanding. This applies to the  Confucian study of relationships and ethics, but also to the study of nature  (Zhu Xi himself was both scientist and philosopher.) In investigating the nature of rust, for instance, one might start by looking at the conditions for it before discovering something like the principle of oxidation; and this is then “extended” to phenomena such as combustion and respiration until the student can go no further. At each stage in the investigation, the serious student will question his own conclusions and seek ways to test them. If the search is motivated by self-interest, such as a zeal for profit from metallurgical knowledge, it will become narrower in its scope and will terminate when the desire has been fulfilled. This is not “investigation of things” as Zhu views it, because — limited by partiality — it stops short of finding “principles.” This applies even more to moral and political questions, where partiality will be governed by fear and desire. We might be “sincere” in our fears and desires, but these feelings will muddy our capacity to recognize what is true or untrue.

The one foundation for learning is impartiality. If we are incapable of stepping out of the frameworks constituted by (usually unconscious) attractions and aversions, we will never achieve clear insight about anything and will never know how to tell the difference between what is true and what we want. This is perhaps why sustained training in mathematics and science might be essential to the study of philosophy. The mind needs to become habituated to standards of self-testing and rigorous self-reflection. For Platonic philosophers these standards came from geometry; for Buddhists, from awareness meditation. Most teachers have probably observed how their students, after having initially been made to study a specific problem, will, after spending some time with the problem, suddenly become interested in it and begin to form their own questions about it. Because they are novices, they will not have the same stamina with questions as more experienced learners have, and will need to be nudged and encouraged until they develop greater capacity for investigation. They will learn to tell if a question has been answered or not, and if not, to find the questions that will take them towards the answer. And they will learn to understand a subject from more than one side, because the many sides of a subject will yield a fuller view of it. After some years doing this, any half-hearted attempt at investigation will strike such students as sloppy and shallow — and they will not be satisfied with the glib and easy answers that come from such attempts.

They will have learned not — as the cliché goes — how to learn, but what it is to learn; they will  have gained not techniques of learning, but the touchstone for it in their own minds. The touchstone is founded on impartiality — without which we cannot know whether we know or do not know. Only from this can knowledge be taken to its uttermost limits, and our intentions and actions, whether clear or confused,  will always be rooted in what we think we know.

If impartiality is the foundation of all true learning, it follows that in our educational institutions we need to preserve the occasions for strict and exact pursuit of questions for their own sake and not for the sake of their consequences; we need to be able to think beyond our fears and desires, and calmly examine points of view and lines of reasoning that might be antithetical to what we want to believe. The impartial mind is capable of finding itself mistaken, and of acknowledging its perceived enemies to be right. Thus education should never be about corroborating or validating the self-image of groups or individuals, whether majorities or minorities; it should not be for the sake of confirming or consecrating partialities, for if we cannot overcome our own partiality we will not learn anything. Through the cultivation of impartiality, we become more capable of self-reflection and self-criticism — and therefore too of self-reform.  The inscription on King Tang’s bathtub read, “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day.”

The Confucian classic goes on to talk about how from the investigation of things and sincerity of intention, all the other human virtues spring. Honest investigation involves courage, humility, respect, generosity, and other excellences. The investigation of things is, according to the Zhu Xi version of Confucius’ thinking, not only a contemplative path, but also the path to becoming a full human being capable of effective action in society.



What Is Water?

The Confucian sages were fond of saying, “To understand what is far away, investigate the near at hand.” By this they meant that to comprehend the principles of “distant” phenomena such as statecraft and political conflict, we start by looking at our own emotions and thoughts: our immediate relationships, with family and friends and colleagues, and the daily situations in which we have to make decisions, tell us all we need to know about grander human things. If we do not understand ourselves and those around us, Aristotle and Thucydides can teach us nothing. Thus the Greek dramatists, Jane Austen, and Russian novelists saw clearly that what we need to know about human living can be found in a single family.

Nowhere is the principle of “understanding the far away by looking at the near at hand” more exquisitely realized than in the work of those early modern scientists who asked, What is our universe made of, and why is it the way it is?  To grasp the principles of planetary motion, Kepler looked at magnets, muscles, river current, ferries, pullies, sausages — not just as analogies, but as examples of the same laws that govern heavenly bodies. Simlarly, the early chemists, like Boyle and Priestley, interrogated the very constitution of material reality with equipment for the most part no more complicated than what we could set up in our own kitchens. If the underlying constituent elements of the universe are finite and present everywhere, and if their changes in state (from solid to liguid to gaseous) are dependent on pressure and temperature, and if their relationships with each other are fixed and intelligible, then what happens on the surface of a planet such as Jupiter should be no more obscure to us than what happens before our eyes at every moment. Indeed, skillfully conducted experiments at one’s own stove will reveal as much to us about what the universe is as a trip to Jupiter will. The secrets of the entire universe are thus right in front of us, if only we were able to open them with a few good theoretical keys.

Antoine Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry (1790; Dover) presents us with some of these keys.  In each chapter of this remarkable book he investigates common substances, often breaking them down into their primary constituents and then re-synthesizing them. He is a strict materialist about these constituents: all matter has the quality of weight, and no matter is ever destroyed or produced out of nothing. Thus, when a given substance is heated in air, or combined with another substance by heating or dissolving, both substances might be decomposed and emerge as new entities, but in every case the beginning weight and ending weight of the whole will stay the same, and from this equality we should be able to figure out the quantities of the constituent substances. A simple but powerful example of this occurs in chapter 8 of part 1, where Lavoisier proves in about ten pages that water is not an element but a compound, and he also identifies its components. Since we are all children of Lavoisier, we assume that we already know this — but how do we know this? How did he know it?

The exposition is made through four experiments, which I will summarize. The first three use the following set-up, as drawn by his wife (who did his experiments with him!). Note that Lavoisier (or the Lavoisiers) not only conducted experiments, but also conceived the requisite equipment and had it all specially made.

In Experiment 1, a known quantity of distilled water is put in vessel A and heated in furnace VVXX. It evaporates, passes through the tube EF, which is also kept heated in a furnace, and ends up in vessel H, where it condenses. Amazingly, there is the same amount of water at the end as at the beginning: nothing is lost and nothing gained in this process.

In Experiment 2, a fixed amount of charcoal is placed in tube EF and water in vessel A. These are heated. The water evaporates, and passes over the charcoal as steam. At the end, when the charcoal has disappeared, we find in vessel H a mixture of two gases, which Lavoisier has shown us how to separate. One is “carbonic acid gas,” formed from the carbon of the charcoal and oxygen disengaging from water; and the other is a very light unknown gas, which he will name “hydro-gen” because it forms water. We already know how to test for oxgen and carbonic acid gas, but hydrogen is new. The resulting combined weight of the two gases is the same as the combined weights of charcoal and oxygen at the beginning, and we can infer from these weights that the water we had at the beginning was  a combination of hydrogen and oxygen in a ratio of 13.7:72 by weight. This itself is a remarkable discovery, but Lavoisier is not content: for instance, can we be certain that the new gas hydrogen was not in the charcoal?

In Experiment 3, instead of charcoal Lavoisier places iron in tube EF. This time, when all the water has evaporated, we find of course no carbonic acid gas, but there is a known amount of the new light gas in vessel H; in addition, the iron has turned into what we have learned to recognize as black oxide, and has gained in weight. A determinate quantity of oxygen has combined with the iron, and by subtracting the original amount of iron from the final weight we infer that the ratio of hydrogen to oxygen in our initial quantity of water is 15:85 by weight, which is close enough to the ratio found in Experiment 2.

Thus water is not one thing, but in fact two things in a fixed ratio. Lavoisier is not content with analyzing water into its parts, so now he takes these parts in the ratio 15:85 and, in Experiment 4 (which I will not go into here) synthesizes hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Just as a mechanic shows that he understands what a specific machine is by being able to take it to pieces and reassemble it, Lavoisier has tested his understanding of water by analysis and synthesis. In being so detailed in describing his apparatus, he has also shown us how to make certain for ourselves that we know what water is.

There is no space here to go into other fascinating byways of this book, including the culmination of the discovery of oxygen and the identity of combustion, oxidation, and respiration. Even if the revolutionaries who guillotined Lavoisier had also destroyed all of his writings except this chapter, the chapter alone would still be momentous in its impact on human thought — for had it not been a dogma of every culture that water is an element? How could something so ubiquitous and so essential for life not be an element? Does the mechanical decomposition and recomposition of water not demystify it completely, and put it on the banal level of other things that can be broken down and artificially recreated? Water in these ten or so pages has been demoted from divine status into a compounded object on the level of all other compounded objects, and what is fundamentally “real” about it turns out to be two elements not immediately available to our senses but scientifically inferred.

Wait a minute, says the skeptic: this pure water composed of 15 parts hydrogen and 85 parts oxygen exists only in the chemist’s lab — or in bottled water originating from a chemist’s lab. The water that we encounter in our lives is characterized by variation: the water from my tap, the water in Lake Michigan, the water in a mountain lake at 13,000 feet, the water in the Rio Grande, are all very different — in appearance, taste, constitution, behavior. Each one of these is also different from moment to moment, affected by the sun’s position in the sky, the moon, changes of pressure and temperature, and all those geological and biological beings that interact with it. Even my tap water is never the same on two successive days. Even the water in Lavoisier’s vessel H has among its many conditions Lavoisier’s theory of chemistry and his skill in experimentation. In our experience, too, of “water” — the warm shower on our neck, the boiling water we pour onto our coffee, the myriad forms and patterns of water in a mountain stream as it flows, icicles on a pine tree and the very different icicles on an oak tree, the rain clouds above us — it comes into our view as an infinitude of different beings, constantly surprising and beautiful. How could water simply be a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? — just as my car simply is not a combination of metal and plastic. Water is its own being, with myriad expressions of its own life. Analysis and synthesis have not demystified it.

Lavoisier has too complex a mind to be a reductionist, and he might find it all the more wonderful that something as mysterious as water can be analyzed and synthesized into two simpler components (although hydrogen and oxygen have their own vast enigmas). The multifarious workings of water in our experience are truly how water appears to us, but by virtue of what (my deat Meno!) are all these identified as “water”? Beneath the appearances is a substratum made of elementary substances, and these substances follow their own rigid laws of changes of state based on temperature and pressure, and inescapable fixed affinities with other substances. There are cycles going on behind our appearances — just as behind the appearances of weather from day to day there are determinable meteorological cycles. Our experience may not tell us what things are, or it may reveal only a tiny part of what things are; in contrast to the phenomena of infinitely varied patterns and events, the substratum is eternal, cyclical, blind. Hydrogen and oxygen do not know about water, but water, as it were, obeys them. Could this also be a parable for our mental and emotional processes?

Remembering a Massacre

 “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” (Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, ch.22)

Every year at around this time I look at the famous photograph of Tank Man: the fearless little guy who made the tanks stop for a few minutes in their relentless rumble towards the Square where thousands of student protesters had been living for weeks in a tented city seeking an end to political corruption and a more democratic turn for the government of China . He is a slight man, dressed for a desk, and he seems to be holding a briefcase and a plastic shopping bag — sure indication that this action was not premeditated. He is walking home from the market, and his indignation wells up as he sees the tanks coming to quell a just and peaceful protest. With quiet and unbreakable resolve, he decides he doesn’t care about dying and has to make the tanks stop so as to talk to their occupants, human being to human being, Chinese to Chinese, and ask them what the hell they think they are doing. They stop, they talk, two men come and drag him away, and the tanks roll on. He fails to stop them, but unwittingly occasions an unforgettable image of justice standing up, unbowed, in the face of tyranny — and of hope that mere conversation might achieve something.

Once a year, in the first week of June, I deliberately dwell upon this image not just because of its pure moral power, but because for me it is a memory. I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t far from there. Two friends of mine were friends of Tank Man; they say he had no idea what made him do such a crazy thing. I had been teaching at Shanxi University, in Taiyuan, three hundred miles from Beijing, and some of my students were on Tiananmen Square that day, June 4, 1989 — twenty-seven years ago, half a lifetime ago. A couple of days after the massacre, I left the country, and we have never talked about what happened there. One of them made it back to Taiyuan before I left and pressed into my hand a roll of undeveloped film; only a few days ago he asked me if I remembered that, and I told him of course I do, and the black-and-white photographs he took of hunger-strikers in tents are stored away in a box of my most precious keepsakes. Another young protester, in hiding after the massacre, gave me two plastic Beijing University cafeteria tickets and a Beijing University keyring tag, which I still keep in the same box; these were to be mementoes that the event actually happened, and that Beijing University really existed — because it was quite imaginable that the Chinese government would burn down the entire University and erase it from history. As Ian Johnson points out in a recent article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/08/chinas-memory-manipulators), the Chinese have been quite effective in the controlling of historical memory. Most young Chinese I talk to these days have no idea what happened on Tiananmen, and have never heard of the major players in this drama; apparently no one ever mentions it. This is why images such as Tank Man stick like a thorn, like a nail, into the thin skin of Forgetting: once seen, never forgotten — and questions will be asked.

My own memories of Tiananmen and the preceding weeks are foggy — because I myself was foggy at the time, because I had not being paying attention and indeed did not know how to pay attention. As foreign teachers, we taught our classes, spoke English with students, and tried as best as we could to cultivate friendships and “see” China. But most of us saw only a surface and were clueless as to what it meant. The consolation for our obliviousness is that many professional China Watchers also did not see anything like this coming. On April 15, the “reformist” Hu Yaobang died, and within a few days students throughout China had boycotted classes and many started flocking to Beijing. The university turned grimly quiet. No one explained to the foreign teachers what was going on; the impression we gained was that the students were protesting government corruption, and that this was a little storm that would blow over soon. So we waited — read books, had conversations, played pingpong. Our students struck me as politically somewhat naive and idealistic, and also not very informed as to what was going on. Of course, the government was also confusing the airwaves with its own opinions and interpretations, and western news stations on the radio had not yet picked this up — but soon they would not be able to ignore it.

I have considered reconstructing a day-by-day chronology of events, but such a clear sequence would do no justice to the utter confusion of the time. The fog of memory is itself the soul’s way of assembling experiences so as to preserve something more vital than a mere sequence — a mix of feelings, moods, images, people, better rendered in the kind of narrative called san wen in Chinese, a seamless fusion of narrative, poetry, and philosophizing.

The storm did not let up. In the month of May, it was increasingly hard to get news — until towards the end of May we got a news blackout. Bear in mind that there was no internet; we had mainly the official Chinese newspapers, snail mail, and shortwave radio. By the middle of May it became crystal-clear to the foreign teachers that something very significant was happening, but our Chinese friends kept us ignorant of it all — partly to spare us complicated explanations, but mainly because they didn’t want to drag us into something that they, the Chinese, had to sort out for themselves. There were no classes, no schedule; people popped in and out of our building at random times, and we spent half the night glued to our shortwave radios hoping to learn something from the BBC or Voice of America. Time seemed to have stopped. Around campus, bands of students would walk singing, sometimes holding bottles. The atmosphere was of a euphoric high, charged with eros. If we gave these students pistols, they would go through the streets shooting at the heavens. And all this was taking place in a month when the trees were shimmering in the green of early summer, and the familiar smog of Taiyuan fairly crackled with sulphurous acridity. The vast industrial city was normally in a state of constant burning, but now even on the emotional and intellectual levels all was combustion.

The old and middle-aged were quiet; they had lived through four decades of Maoism, including ten years of the deranged fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution in which a whole generation was “lost.” They had tried to speak caution to the youngsters but to no avail. On one memorable evening in May about fifteen of our students visited us, looking very concerned. Things were getting dangerous, they knew, and there might be a violent government crackdown. By then the protest had turned into one for democracy, and these students had to know if it was worth sacrificing their lives for democracy: after all, they had never experienced it, so what exactly were they risking everything for? Their families were worried sick for them. I was at a loss how to answer these questions, but it was then that I witnessed the power of a St.John’s education. My then-wife was an alumna of the college. As a student, most of the political readings had gone over her head, but she was able to lead these students, with great calm and clarity, through an impromptu seminar on the opening question, Is a democracy worth dying for? — which of course necessitated the question, What exactly is democracy? They left the room without a simple answer but at least more thoughtful than before.

In the wee hours of May 19 Premier Zhao Ziyang came down to the Square and expressed sympathy for the students and their cause, but asked them to go home to prevent further suffering. He was then ousted and put under lifelong house-arrest, but he had intimated clearly that something bad was coming down the pipe. In the ensuing days the blackout was imposed, and the radio signals were interfered with. We got news mainly from eyewitnesses returning from Beijing. It seemed clear at the time that government and armed forces were full of inner divisions, and civil war was possible; if everything disintegrated, we would be facing bands of looters and would find it very difficult to get out. On the night of Tiananmen itself a student who had made it home reported seeing a tank rolling over protesters and then repeatedly backing over the bodies while a soldier laughed from the turret. A series of stories like this unleashed the imagination into its most terrifying fantasies of oppression. There was something strangely enjoyable and exciting about this state of mind — the exhilaration of all possibilities being open, intensified by utter helplessness. It seemed as if an entire society was about to fall to pieces, and there would be nothing to rely upon besides our own puny selves. From the BBC  I heard that the anti-aircraft guns defending Beijing were redirected towards the airforce bases around Tianjin — so was the air force going to attack the government?  Shakespeare got it right when he opened the civil strife in Henry IV Part 2 with the voice of Rumor herself:

Rumour is a pipe

Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures

And of so easy and so plain a stop

That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,

The still-discordant wavering multitude,

Can play upon it. 

The government too can play upon it, to create the massive anxiety and sense of impotence that result in a craving for safety and stability.

The massacre happened. We waited for news of our friends. The mother of the boy who gave me the Beijing University food tickets took a train with a group of other parents to find her son in Beijing. The train was halted twenty miles from the capital, and together with other parents she walked the rest of the distance and then spent a day scurrying through foul-smelling smoke and gunfire before she found her son hiding with relatives. The boy said that he saw the troops in the early morning heaping all the bodies up, setting fire to them, and then hosing down the remains with chemicals so that no trace was left. No tourist would ever suspect that anything had ever happened.

The next day, in Taiyuan, we learned through the grapevine that students and factory workers in this large city were going to stage their own march and protest. We heard that a notoriously ferocious battalion of troops from the far west had been transported into town by train, and these soldiers did not mind killing Chinese; tanks had been hidden in the bomb shelters under the main square; and our friends who were doctors said that hospitals had been told to empty their beds and have extra supplies of blood ready. These all could have been been part of a ruse to intimidate people, but at this stage anything could happen. It was a slow, dignified, silent march to the city center: hundreds of thousands of people, maybe a million, grieving and angry. All of us foreign teachers went, hoping that with Brits and Americans in the crowd the soldiers would not open fire so recklessly, and if they did, we would be witnesses or, through our deaths, catalysts to an international response. When we reached the center, a group of us climbed to the roof of an international hotel in order to see better and give notice of danger. There were no soldiers in sight. The student leader gave a short speech, after which there was silence. Then the crowd as one voice roared the name of their martyr: “Zhao Ziyang!” — three times. And then a long silence, before we quietly dispersed, many weeping.

Everyone who went through this was changed by it, even though we have never talked about it. How remarkable it was that a people who had never experienced democracy could burn with such longing for it! — although to me the longing was clearly for something else, a breaking free from long decades, perhaps centuries, of cultural frustration and individual stagnation into a hope of freedom and fulfillment. I am curious whether any of my memories ring true to those who experienced these six weeks, whether they too remember it as if awaking from a dream. To me the whole thing, culminating in “Zhao Ziyang!”, felt like collective absorption into an experience that really makes no causal sense — although I know that on the level of causal explanation the chain of events was all too explicable and predictable. Many years later, one of my friends who had been on the square that night, a young man who struck everyone who met him as a paragon of Confucian integrity and idealism, told me that in the 1990s he realized that the students could never have succeeded. After graduating, he worked in local government for ten years, and when the SARS virus outbreak occurred in the early 90s he saw the Communist Party first dithering for weeks and then, when international pressure had been brought to bear, resolving to contain the virus. Within 24 hours, he said, every town and village in the country had a human cordon around it — such was the might of the Party. Had the Tiananmen protests then been allowed to happen, as a way to draw out the forces of dissidence and crush them? — and to cow the population into stability for decades after? This is “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” And it worked.

We all left China a day or two later. There was no telling which way the political tide would turn, and if the country reverted to ultra-conservative Maoism our presence would endanger all our friends, who could easily be denounced or arrested for giving state secrets to foreigners. Since the route through Beijing was closed, we had to take a train to Guangzhou and try to find a flight back from Hong Kong, along with tens of thousands of other people fleeing the impending catastrophe. Dazed and emotionally wounded, not least from tearful farewells to dear friends whom we might never see again, we hunkered down in a luxury hotel. On the first night we had dinner in a small Indian restaurant. It was packed. Everyone was watching the epic French Open final between Stefan Edberg and the 17-year-old Michael Chang. I didn’t know it then, but the young Chang had vowed to win because he wanted to give the Chinese something to be cheerful about. The game was an astounding, inspiring battle. I tried a spoonful of my Chicken Vindaloo, felt my mouth filling with a conflagration that expanded to the rest of my head and started to burst through every pore. I put the spoon down, shocked at the intensity of my torment; I had never before been unable to finish a curry. As I continued to watch Michael Chang’s heroic performance, he and I both pouring with sweat for different reasons, no one would would have guessed that my tears were not just because of Vindaloo..

σχολή: Leisure and Learning

Do most people later in life think of their student days as a golden springtime? I remember my undergraduate years in Cambridge as a green idyll, filled with books, old buildings, college gardens, and walks along a river. This was more than 25 years ago, but it seems more like 10,000 — a different lifetime, a different me. I don’t think that time and distance have purged away all unpleasantnesses and left me with this glowing mist of good memories. It really was idyllic. At the time I had a long-distance girlfriend who lived in Germany and whom I saw during vacations, and since I was quite loyal my romantic life was simple, peaceful, and not a constant tangle of unpredictable distractions; we were both readers, and communicated through long letters every day. I have also always hated parties and other large gatherings dedicated to the Having of Fun — that mysterious godhead — so my social life was confined to long conversations with a small group of friends, often over beer or on walks, and usually about books, films, and music. There was always time for these conversations.

My academic life was not crammed with classes: at Cambridge in those days, lectures and seminars were optional, and the obligatory events were “supervisions” (called tutorials elsewhere), in which no more than a handful of students met once a week with a professor to discuss assigned work. Most of my supervisions were one-to-one meetings with my mentors Arthur Sale and Charles Moseley. I would have three supervisions in an average week: one for translating a French text, one for “Practical Criticism” (in which three or four of us met to do close readings of a poem or prose passage — this was a specialty of Cambridge), and one for study of the writers of a given period. The latter was the most important, because the depth and care with which you studied the authors of the significant periods of English literature would form the foundation for your effectiveness in the high-stakes essay exams at the end of each year. Each week I would spend most of my time reading the works of an author and then writing a 4-5 page essay on some theme stemming from them that I would frame for myself. The night before the supervision, I would slip the essay underneath my tutor’s door, and the next day we would meet to discuss my essay. To give an example: Let’s say the period to be studied that term was the Restoration and 18th century. I remember that during that term I read and wrote on Dryden, Restoration dramatists, Defoe, Swift, Fielding, Pope, Johnson; there might have been a few more, but these writers left a strong impression on me. For Fielding week I had to read Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews; for Swift, I was assigned Gulliver’s Travels, the famous shorter satirical works, and his poems — but I also read The Tale of the Tub. I was overwhelmed by Johnson: after reading Rasselas, the essays, the poems, the preface to the Dictionary and his writings on Shakespeare, I was smitten and read his Lives of the Poets too — with the result that I found myself drowning in one man’s tumultuous ocean of prose and needing two weeks to learn how to swim in it. In any one week, I usually had only one big thing to chew upon; my time was not packed with various tasks tugging at me, and I was able to mull, to feel things out, and let an author work on me. I know that a week isn’t much — but to a receptive, alert young soul, a week spent inside the mind of one great author can feel like a whole life well lived — especially when in much of that week, time has been forgotten. Indeed, losing track of time is one of the great blessings of such an education: sitting on a river bank, reading Fielding and only looking up when I found it too dark to read, realizing that I had missed dinner but not minding because I was still lost in happy absorption…in such a state, life is complete and there is nothing lacking. I would then walk back to my room, grab something to eat, and go find my friends. Writing came easily to me then, because the words flowed naturally from an unconstrained, relaxed cohabitation with the books I was studying; I did not have to switch gears every three hours to meet the challenge of a different task.

I am reminding myself of all this because my academic life now is very different, and the reminder is a healthy jolt. The college I teach at has been praised for being “the most rigorous college in America” — ambivalent praise, to my ears. On the one hand, it is nice that an evaluating body can acknowledge that a genuine liberal education is in fact hard work, distinguished by intellectual exactitude and toughness. On the other hand, I’ve always been skeptical of “rigor” — which can often be a numbing capacity for relentless application void of creativity or profundity, and which is more like rigor mortis. The rigor of St.John’s is not that deadly rigor, but the rigor of difficult texts studied under tight schedules. For example, in a given week a Freshman could be studying Thucydides, the later books of Euclid, the Meno in Greek, Lavoisier, and the rudiments of music theory — with a paper or two thrown in, and about 20 hours of class time (in contrast to my three hours in Cambridge!). Their “tutors” keep more or less the same pace, and if these tutors also have families they have barely any time for reflection. It is impressive work that creates powerful minds able to exert themselves quickly across a range of different kinds of thinking — but where is there time to dwell, deepen, expand, and grow organically to love the books? Only when the students are Seniors do they get the blissful freedom of a 4-week empty period in which to write an essay on a single book — and even here there are faculty members who wonder why they need all that time. I answer: In these four weeks they learn what it is to gain their own quiet intimacy with a book, to change their minds about it several times, to write and reject their own drafts, to come up with thoughts they are pleased with and then, several days later, to find these same thoughts inadequate. In this process they become deeper and more authentic as students because they find their own rhythm for thought and speech — one that is not imposed on them from outside. Their relationship with books turns into their own — something more than what is needed to generate thoughts for the next class.

Unfortunately the tendency in schools at every level is to fill all the available time: keep them busy, keep them productive — and the measure of a student’s success is made by the numbers: how many hours of class, grade point average, salary after graduating. Academic life thus merely mirrors the obsessions of a society oriented towards business — and therefore towards busyness. If busyness has an opposite, it world be “doing nothing” — a kind of passivity, preferably in front of screens, on which there flows a continuous stream of suggestions for things to buy. Even our play-activities are subject to the tyranny of numbers — sports, video games, TV ratings. We distrust “free time” that is not measured in this way, because we have to have something to show for everything we do; and the young are sucked into this ethos whereby all time has to be scheduled. I am always shocked to hear about schools that teach 6-year-olds how to schedule their days: No, no, no — children are supposed to have no sense of time! In academic institutions, it could be that the need to fill every hour comes from guilt about charging tuition: we have to reassure everyone that students are getting their money’s worth. Moreover, adults generally mistrust the wildness, the contrariness, of the teenage spirit: how can we be sure they will use the time wisely? The answer is that we can never be sure; indeed, we can be sure many will not use it wisely — and even that it is hard to know beforehand what “wise” use of time might look like in many cases. Leisure is always a risk, but it is a risk without which very little that is creative and original can arise.

In his 1877 essay “An Apology for Idlers,” Robert Louis Stevenson points out that it is in our unscheduled hours that our real education happens:

If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking in the class. For my own part, I have attended a good many lectures in my time. I still remember that the spinning of a top is a case of Kinetic Stability. I still remember that Emphyteusis is not a disease, nor Stillicide a crime. But though I would not willingly part with such scraps of science, I do not set the same store by them as by certain other odds and ends that I came by in the open street while I was playing truant. This is not the moment to dilate on that mighty place of education, which was the favourite school of Dickens and of Balzac, and turns out yearly many inglorious masters in the Science of the Aspects of Life. Suffice it to say this: if a lad does not learn in the streets, it is because he has no faculty of learning. Nor is the truant always in the streets, for if he prefers, he may go out by the gardened suburbs into the country. He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn, and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new perspective. Why, if this be not education, what is?

 While others are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week be out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

But to value leisure for its usefulness is to remain limed in the busyness-mindset. Usefulness cannot be an end in itself, and if the aim of most people is to attain a certain level of contentment, of happy vitality, we have to allow ourselves the spaciousness to slow down and dwell in activity that is for its own sake.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is a blank to them. If they have to wait an hour or so for a train, they fall into a stupid trance with their eyes open. To see them, you would suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train. Before he was breeched, he might have clambered on the boxes; when he was twenty, he would have stared at the girls; but now the pipe is smoked out, the snuff-box empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life. 

The many days I spent walking by the river with a book, or reading in one of the college gardens, might have seemed mere idleness to someone used to constant grind and pressure — but it is in such idleness that most of the work of studying, of understanding, takes place. The Greek word from which we derive our words school and scholar, σχολή, originally meant leisure. Superficially, we could explain this by saying that we can only study if we have a certain amount of time exempt from labor; studying is something that happens in our free time. But if leisure is not a species of vacancy, a mere privation of work,  a state of no activity, then it is a form of activity in which mind and heart can regenerate in the exercise of inquiry and imagination — pure play, in the fullest sense. I would wish this for everyone.