Learn to say no. It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin.
Screen capture: Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995)
Learn to say no. It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin.
Screen capture: Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995)
Massive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt – total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars – is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.
What will happen to the young debtors instead is that they will become Homo economicus, whether or not they studied that noble creature. David Graeber, the anthropologist who wrote the soon-to-be-classic Debt: The First 5,000 Years, likens the process to a horror movie, in which the zombies or the vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy. “They turn you into one of them,” as Graeber told me.
Actually, they do worse than that. Graeber relate the story of a woman he met who got a Ph.D. from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. “Here’s someone who ought to be a professor,” Graeber explains, “doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money.”
The story hit home for me, because I, too, wanted to be a professor once. I remember the waves of enlightenment that washed over me in my first few years in college, the ecstasy of finally beginning to understand what moved human affairs this way or that, the exciting sense of a generation arriving at a shared sensibility. Oh, I might have gone on doing that kind of work forever, whether or not it made me rich, if journalism had not intervened.
It’s hard to find that kind of ecstasy among the current crop of college graduates. The sensibility shared by their generation seems to revolve around student debt, which has been clamped onto them like some sort of interest-bearing iron maiden. They’ve been screwed – that’s what their moment of enlightenment has taught them.
As for my own cohort, or at least the members of it who struggled through and made it to one of the coveted positions in the knowledge factory, the new generational feeling seems to be one of disgust. Our enthusiasm for learning, which we trumpeted to the world, merely led the nation’s children into debt bondage. Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”
Cartoon by R.J. Matson
The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”
Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.
America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.
So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.
Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.
To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.
The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.
On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them “pin,” “hat,” “cup” and a few verbs like “sit,” “stand” and “walk.” But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is “mug” and that “w-a-t-e-r” is “water,” but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy – set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “teacher” were among them – words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
Photo: Helen Keller, age seven, 1887
Many people reach their conclusions about life like lazy school children. They copy the answers from the back of the book without troubling to work out the sum for themselves.
Photo by Lauren Greenfield: Amy, sixteen, scrawls on her arm during a history class in San Jose, California, 1999
As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value to you than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself; because only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge and get it into your power. You can think about only what you know, so you ought to learn something; on the other hand, you can know only what you have thought about.
Now you can apply yourself voluntarily to reading and learning, but you cannot really apply yourself to thinking; thinking has to be kindled, as a fire is by a draught, and kept going by some kind of interest in its object, which may be an objective interest or merely a subjective one. The latter is possible only with things that affect us personally, the former only to those heads who think by nature, to whom thinking is as natural as breathing, and these are very rare. That is why most scholars do so little of it.