Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

11 JUNE, 2014

William Styron on Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers

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“For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most beloved writers of the past century, in large part due to his confident idealism and dogged determination about writing. It was a spirit he cultivated early on, unwilling to accept the standard industrial model of a formal education in literature as the only path to a successful career as a writer. From the altogether wonderful Selected Letters of William Styron (public library), edited by Rose Styron — a fine addition to my lifelong love affair with writers’ and artists’ letters — comes a missive 20-year-old Bill sent to his father on October 21, 1946, during his senior year at Duke University.

After discussing the bureaucratic logistics of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, the requirements for which included two references who could attest to his “character, sobriety, virtue, and that sort of thing,” he launches into a spirited dissent against the limitations of higher education. Among other things, he argues that reading philosophy, particularly Montaigne, is not only a better teacher of writing than literature but also better at helping us learn how to live, which is in turn essential for great writing.

William Styron as a college student

Dear Pop …

I’m fed up, disgusted, and totally out of sorts with Duke University and formal education in general, for that matter, and I hardly see why I’m taking a crack at this Rhodes scholarship when I’m such an execrable student. Only the fact that this is my last semester keeps me from packing up and leaving.

I’ve come to the stage when I know what I want to do with my future. I want to write, and that’s all, and I need no study of such quaint American writers as Cotton Mather or Philip Freneau — both of whom we are studying in American Lit — to increase my perception or outlook on literature and life. For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year. By that time he knows that further wisdom comes from reading men like Plato and Montaigne — not Cotton Mather — and from getting out in the world and living. All of the rest of the scholarship in English literature is for pallid, prim and vapid young men who will end up teaching and devoting 30 years of their sterile lives in investigating some miserably obscure facet of the life of some minor Renaissance poet. Sure, scholarship is necessary, but its [sic] not for me. I’m going to write, and I’ll spend the rest of my days on a cattle-boat or jerking sodas before I teach.

Styron lived up to his determination. After graduation, he took an editing job at a major New York publishing house, which he hated so much that he intentionally got himself fired. He spent the next three years toiling away on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, under the New York equivalent of a cattle-boat lifestyle, scrapping together just enough money to get by. It paid off — when the book was published in 1951, it was received with wide acclaim and earned Styron the prestigious Rome Prize awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

William Styron in 1979

He never did teach in the formal sense, though his monumentally influential 1985 memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, provided unparalleled insight into the disease and informed much of our modern discourse about it.

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21 MAY, 2014

Claiming an Education: Adrienne Rich’s Spectacular 1977 Commencement Address

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“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”

In September of 1977, months before the publication of her exquisite Dream of a Common Language and exactly two decades before becoming the first and so far only person to refuse the prestigious National Medal of Arts in an act of remarkable political courage, Adrienne Rich stood before the graduating women at Douglass College and delivered one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time. The speech, titled “Claiming an Education,” was eventually reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library) — the same magnificent compendium of Rich’s writing that also gave us her timelessly beautiful exploration of how relationships refine our truths.

Adrienne Rich at age 22, 1951. Photograph by Peter Solmssen (Schlesinger Library)

What does it mean to “claim” an education, exactly? Like time, which is not something we make but something we find, Rich begins by arguing that education requires an element of active personal initiative:

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Rich considers the gendered nature of academia’s substance, a lament that seems dated only if we choose to remain blind to the hidden currents still sweeping society. She captures this with devastating succinctness:

One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women’s experience and thought from the curriculum… What you can learn [in college] is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc. When you read or hear about “great issues,” “major texts,” “the mainstream of Western thought,” you are hearing about what men, above all white men, in their male subjectivity, have decided is important.

And yet Rich is careful to counter any misperception that taking more “women’s studies” courses is the solution to this cultural imbalance:

While I think that any [student] has everything to gain by investigating and enrolling in women’s studies courses, I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves. Our upbringing as women has so often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people…

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation… It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others — parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children — that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.

Enacting this responsibility to ourselves, Rich argues, is how we can begin to imagine immensities and a choice monumental stakes:

The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.

Adrienne Rich, 1970s

Lamenting the institutionalized biases of the academy — an academy that only a century earlier refused to grant women access and even today has a severe gender bias — Rich urges:

Too often, all of us fail to teach the most important thing, which is that clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and that these require hard work. Sometimes, perhaps in discouragement with a culture which is both antiintellectual and antiwoman, we may resign ourselves to low expectations for our students before we have given them half a chance to become more thoughtful, expressive human beings. We need to take to heart the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet, a thinking woman, and a feminist, who wrote in 1845 of her impatience with studies which cultivate a “passive recipiency” in the mind, and asserted that “women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.” Note that she implies a defect which can be remedied by intellectual training; not an inborn lack of ability.

Returning to the central notion that education is something we claim rather than receive, Rich turns to the student’s own responsibility in the equation — an assertion essential to the education and empowerment of women, but also one whose foundation applies to all genders across all fields of personal growth:

The contract on the student’s part involves that you demand to be taken seriously so that you can also go on taking yourself seriously. This means seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do…

It means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here. It means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to the belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college — if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will no longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.

More of Rich’s inextinguishable mind can be found between the covers of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Sample it further with Rich on the dignity of love, then complement this particular gem with more spectacular commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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19 MAY, 2014

Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love

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“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other.”

In the winter of 1969, shortly after a young woman he considered one of his brightest and most promising students committed suicide, Leo Buscaglia decided to deal with the flurry of confusion by starting an experimental class at the University of Southern California where he taught, exploring the most essential elements of existence — “life, living, sex, growth, responsibility, death, hope, the future.” The obvious common tangent, “the only subject which encompassed, and was at the core of all these concerns,” was love. So he simply called his course “Love Class.” While some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant” and mocked its premise, the university agreed to let Buscaglia teach it on the condition that it be without course credit and he teach it free of salary in his spare time. Over the three years that followed, the course — not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition — earned Buscaglia the moniker “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes, drawing students of all ages and backgrounds. In 1972, Buscaglia published the most universal and important of those ideas in a slim and potent volume titled Love: What Life Is All About (public library).

The book opens with an adaptation of a magnificent lecture titled “Forward to Love,” which Buscaglia delivered in 1970 at a school in Texas, focusing on a more oblique and abstract but no less crucial aspect of love: how the laziness of stereotypes stifles its spirit and labels limit its transcendent power.

Buscaglia begins by looking at the nursery of social beliefs — the education system:

Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.

This might sound obvious — a tired truism, even — and yet it’s antithetical to how most formal education unfolds, even today, with its model of industrialized conformity. Buscaglia offers a poignant example:

[The art teacher] comes racing in from another class and has time only to nod to the teacher, turn around and say, “Boys and girls, today we are going to draw a tree.” She goes to the blackboard, and she draws her tree which is a great big green ball with a little brown base. Remember those lollipop trees? I never saw a tree that looked like that in my life, but she puts it up there, and she says, “All right, boys and girls, draw.” Everybody gets busy and draws.

If you have any sense, even at that early age, you realize that what she really wanted was for you to draw her tree, because the closer you got to her tree, the better your grade. If you already realized this in grade one, then you handed in a little lollipop, and she said, “oh, that’s divine.” But here’s Junior who really knows a tree as this little woman has never seen a tree in her life. He’s climbed a tree, he’s hugged a tree, he’s fallen out of a tree, he’s listened to the breeze blow through the branches. He really knows a tree, and he knows that a tree isn’t a lollipop! So he takes purple and yellow and orange and green and magenta crayons and he draws this beautiful freaky thing and hands it in. She takes one look and shrieks. “Brain damaged!”

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist' (click image for more)

To drive the point home, Buscaglia offers another illustrative tale titled The Animal School — a story he loves “because it’s so wild, yet so true”:

The animals got together in the forest one day and decided to start a school. There was a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish and an eel, and they formed a Board of Education. The rabbit insisted that running be in the curriculum. The bird insisted that flying be in the curriculum. The fish insisted that swimming be in the curriculum, and the squirrel insisted that perpendicular tree climbing be in the curriculum. They put all of these things together and wrote a Curriculum Guide. Then they insisted that all of the animals take all of the subjects. Although the rabbit was getting an A in running perpendicular tree climbing was a real problem for him; he kept falling over backwards. Pretty soon he got to be sort of brain damaged, and he couldn’t run any more. He found that instead of making an A in running, he was making a C and, of course, he always made an F in perpendicular tree climbing. The bird was really beautiful at flying, but when it came to burrowing in the ground, he couldn’t do so well. He kept breaking his beak and wings. Pretty soon he was making a C in flying as well as an F in burrowing, and he had a hellava time with perpendicular tree climbing. The moral of the story is that the animal who was valedictorian of the class was a mentally retarded eel who did everything in a halfway fashion. But the educators were all happy because everybody was taking all of the subjects, and it was called a broad-based education.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' (click image for more)

Buscaglia’s most important point, however, is that such industrialized conformity transcends the education system and bleeds into our everyday lives, at all layers and levels of society — its product is a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit. We then use these labels to produce culturally toxic stereotypes and polarities that say nothing about those being labeled and a great deal about those doing the labeling. Buscaglia writes:

How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.

He goes on to share a rather unique experience from his own childhood:

I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents were Italian immigrants. A big family. Mama and Papa were obviously great lovers! They came from a tiny village at the base of the Italian Swiss Alps where everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew the names of the dogs, and the village priest came out and danced in the streets at the fiestas and got as drunk as everybody else. It was the most beautiful scene in the world and a pleasure to be raised by these people in this old way. But when I was taken, at five, to a public school, tested by some very official-looking person, the next thing I knew I was in a class for the mentally retarded! It didn’t matter that I was able to speak Italian and an Italian dialect. I also spoke some French and Spanish — but I didn’t speak English too well and so I was mentally retarded. I think the term now is “culturally disadvantaged.” I was put into the class for the mentally retarded, and I never had a more exciting educational experience in my life! Talk about a warm, pulsating, loving teacher. Her name was Miss Hunt, and I’m sure she was the only one in the school who would teach those “dumb” kids. She was a great bulbous woman. She liked me even if I smelled of garlic. I remember when she used to come and lean over me, how I used to cuddle! I did all kinds of learning for this woman because I really loved her. Then one day I made a tremendous mistake. I wrote a newspaper as if I were a Roman. I described how the gladiators would perform and so on. The next thing I knew I was being retested and was transferred to a regular classroom after which I was bored for the rest of my educational career.

He returns to the perilous effect of labels — something that Maya Angelou famously lamented — and reminds us that social forces are the cumulative result of our individual choices:

Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.

Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity:

We are constantly moving away from ourselves and others. The scene seems to be how far away you can get from another person, not how close you can get to them. I’m all for going back to the old-fashioned thing of touching people. My hand always goes out because when I touch somebody, I know they are alive. We really need that affirmation…

We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel. The hardest thing to be is what other people want you to be, but that’s the scene we are living in. Are you really you or are you what people have told you you are? And are you interested in really knowing who you are because if you are, it is the happiest trip of your life.

The rest of Buscaglia’s Love: What Life Is All About, an exquisite addition to these must-read books on the psychology of love, goes on to explore our ancient quest to define it, the notion that it’s a learned phenomenon, the interplay between love and strength, the responsibilities of love, and more. Complement it with Van Gogh on love, Stendhal on its seven stages, and the science of how “limbic revision” rewires the brain in love.

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