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GP 10 January 2007: For the Love of Learning

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does” - William James 

The Concord Bookshop.  On Sunday morning, we turned to C-Span Two to catch up with Robert D. Richardson, Jr. who was talking to some devotees about his new book, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.  The cumbersome title aside, it promises to be a most entertaining biography, if Richardson’s ramblings in the bookshop are any indication.  Richardson is an awfully civilized fellow and has previously written about a couple of Concord’s greatest—Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  But the crowd was his equal, their questions both delicate and pointed.  Now when we are up Boston way, we have a new compelling reason to beat a path to the doors of our friends in Concord.  There’s quite a clutch of interesting people there, such as David Sibley, the bird fellow, and they have not been brought low by the conspicuous affluence of the place.  They may be at the bookshop. 

William James is America’s greatest philosopher, and should be correctly recognized as the father of pragmatism, which is this country’s great, unique contribution to philosophy.  Its massive impact often not recognized, this is the philosophy that set the intellectual stage for a good many of the  advances in developed nations during the 20th century.  It taught people to take the world on a piece at a time and to acknowledge that vaporous ideas that do not lead to a tangible outcome have very little meaning. 

He labored in the shadow of Harvard, back before that institution became so thoroughly populated by a bunch of Washington wannabees.  In the 19th century, literacy and numeracy and even undergraduate education were core Harvard endeavors.  Apparently he got into science by enrolling at Lawrence Scientific School, which Harvard looked down upon because it did not require Latin and Greek for admission.  As well, he got a sort of medical education at the Harvard Medical School, which at that time, says Richardson, demanded above all else that you could pay its $50 fee.  He went on to spend his whole career, really, as a prof at Harvard. 

Head of the Pin Philosophy. But it’s not his pragmatism that speaks to the present day.  To tackle the present world, we need a more integrated, holistic world view than it offers. The tendency has been for thinking to go ever more micro since World War II—deconstructionist, reductionist.  In other words, our philosophers have gotten down in the weeds, not seeing the trees, much less the forests.  It’s hard to advance society today unless our thought process is riddled with global energy and a world view that even looks back to the great German metaphysicians such as Hegel.  In business we find that specialists without cosmic focus get fastened on details and miss the main chance. 

It’s another side of James that’s important now.  As we said last week, the developed nations are suffering an epidemic of depression.  James had terrible fits of depression, such that he even contemplated suicide.  It was his probing into psychology and the nature of belief that gave James the strength to go on; in this he is terribly relevant to our times.  And his psychological explorations eventually made a philosopher out of him.  He is exciting because he did not offer up a philosophy of barren survival: he said we could climb out of despair into the clouds. 

The Will to Believe.  It is in the Varieties of Religious Experience and “The Will to Believe” that he ministers to this age that suffers from low expectations and that is often trying to just get through today without much thought for tomorrow.  James, at his best, believed in the future—that we could shape it, mold it, and get better.  A little bit like Pascal, he thought we could opt to believe, or opt to doubt, but that the payoff from belief was so great that we should clutch to our breast the will to believe.  Whether you visit with politicians, or businessmen, or soldiers in the present day, you discover men of good heart who try to do good work, but who lack hope for the future.  They need a dose of Jamesian optimism.  He would raise our sights. 

Education Is Broken.  Of course, our citizens will not find Jamesian thinking in our schools and colleges.  The system is broken, the schools don’t teach, the universities don’t think, and cerebral activities are cast aside in overscheduled lives.  School and college is something you get through, so that you can climb on to the next run of the ladder. 

Where to Learn.  You only have to read Bernard Bailyn’s Education in the Forming of American Society or a raft of other historians to realize that only a small fraction of American learning takes place in the schoolhouse.  Newspapers, museums, the workplace, and a whole raft of societies are the stuff that creates learned people.  Now, as our schools and colleges come unglued, we have to be at pains to discover and cultivate the informal agencies of learning. 

Schools of another sort crop up everywhere.  The few surviving independent booksellers such as the Concord Bookshop do stir minds.  C-Span, our best TV channel or network, puts thinking on parade very day, particularly on week ends when it does books.  For those who are active on the Internet, there are global conversations that take place 24 hours a day which can lead to an understanding of some advanced retailing practices in German stores, life-saving public health initiatives in Finland, or energy-thriftiness in Japan.  In some measure, new forms of education are arising that diminish the very importance of our current, plodding institutions that have lost the ability to teach people to read and write.  WGBH, Boston’s public TV station, has become the city’s most important institution, and its offerings shape polite culture around the nation. 

History Boys.  One of the hits of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 was Alan Bennett’s History Boys, which created excitement in the English theater, had a run on Broadway, and now is a very fine movie.  It’s simply marvelous, but not to everyone’s taste, because it definitely reflects some of Bennett’s hang-ups.  It’s about a bunch of lads at a second-string English private school who are taking aim at Oxbridge (Oxford-Cambridge).  They’ve been marvelously exposed to Hector who teaches them to absorb, and understand, and to become drenched in learning.  He reminds one of the great Henri Peyre of Yale University, a Romance languages professor and head of the French Department, who taught students that you could not begin to understand a poem until you could recite it by heart.  Irwin then is brought in to coach the boys so that they will get past the exams and the interviewers—he teaches them spin, and clever answers, and all the things that get us ahead but make us vacuous.  All the things that get us up the ladder but leave us feeling hollow and depressed—without belief.  One should note, however, that Bennett actually believes that teaching should combine the virtues of Hector, Irwin, and Mrs. Lintott, who rounds out the teaching triangle in the play. 

The Love of Learning.  As we create whole new houses of learning outside the schools and colleges—in the bookshops, on C-Span, with the free newspapers now handed out at bus-stops—we will be taxed to rediscover what learning is all about.  It’s an end in itself, not something to get you somewhere.  Learning is meant to give you a rich life even if you are going nowhere and seeing nobody. 

It is assumed that in our free-market system we are motivated to move mountains because we have the hope of making a buck and of getting to the top of the mountain.  That’s certainly part of it.  But, as well, life is as much about craft.  We often do things simply to do them well.  That’s what gets lost in education when it turns into a system.  There’s a reasonable chance that education will not improve nationally unless we can restore love of learning, no matter how much money we throw at the problem. 

P.S.  Both the Lawrence Scientific School and the Med School were loosely affiliated with Harvard back in the 19th century.  We consider this fact rather important for several reasons.  Harvard is a clutch of baronies today as a result, which may explain why it is so poorly managed.  But we also suspect more learning can take place in a university town where there is the right kind of federalism and experiments can occur without the heavy hand of administrators stomping out creativity.  It is our experience of Harvard—and many other universities—that the faculties (headed by very political academics) often settle on correct thinking and correct research approaches, smothering renegades who march to a different drummer.  It is for this reason, we think, that the larger universities have fallen behind innovation-wise.  In a sense, James got in the back door, and this was a stimulant to his greatness.  In the present day, we are discovering that systems that are too tightly woven, no matter how well-engineered, cannot adjust to new realities and adapt to new, better ideas. Harold Bloom, the great literature critic, has chosen to leave his library to a small New England Catholic college. 

P.P.S.  Richardson is married to the writer Annie Dillard.  They got married in the Unitarian Church in Concord and obviously have a liking for the place. 

P.P.P.S.  Richardson actually spoke on November 30, 2006 and C-Span was simply replaying the talk and Q&A.  He went to Harvard and got his Ph.D. there.  His mother resides in Concord. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Should you be interested in the history of American education and want to learn, for instance, that our public education system is a rather new invention, then make sure you consult Lawrence Cremin. For instance, see his American Education: The National Experience

P.P.P.P.P.S.  There have been countless stories told of researchers in the Boston community who could not get funding or tenure because they were not pushing official theory.  One of our favorites is about Kilmer McCully, who worked on the connection between homocysteine and heart disease when cholesterol and the Framingham study were all the rage.  He was soon put out to exile, his Elba a VA hospital in Rhode Island. Of course, his thinking has now been validated. 

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Hegel, as we have said in “Big Beliefs Make Big Men,” was a mentor to John Roebling and can be said to have had a hand in the building of the great Brooklyn Bridge.

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