May 13, 2022
Thanks to 2022 Fellow in Ideas, David Yamada, for today’s post.
Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz
As the humanities and social sciences face core threats fueled by higher education budget cuts and political divisions, they are conventionally defended on vocational and practical grounds. The liberal arts, so the argument goes, provide a strong grounding for successful careers by teaching students how to read, think, and express themselves clearly. They also help students to better navigate the broader society in which they will live and work.
Dr. Zena Hitz, however, offers a different case for liberal learning. Hitz is both a graduate of, and full-time tutor at, St. John’s College, which since 1937 has offered degree programs grounded in a Great Books curriculum. Hitz invites us to engage intellectual life for its own sake, “stripped of its trappings of fame, prestige, fortune, and social use.” Through a mix of memoir and exposition, she makes her argument in a compelling volume, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.
At one point in her life, Hitz was successfully building a conventional academic career. This included taking a Ph.D. at Princeton and obtaining teaching appointments at traditional universities in Canada and the U.S. However, she would also experience an existential crisis, prompted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Shaken by these events, she found herself pursuing a sort of dual internal track. One track blended “intellectual work with money, status, and privileges.” At times, this meant giving up “the ability to think freely and openly on a topic” to preserve her “hard-won position in the academic social hierarchy.”
The other track sought “to break out of the world of the library” and to engage service, faith, and the lives of everyday people. This led Hitz to develop a practice of community service, convert to Catholicism, and live for three years in a Canadian religious community that was “poor, humble, unglamorous, and very much lacking in intellectual resources or opportunities.” Ultimately, she returned to St. John’s as a full-time tutor.
Against this backdrop of experience, Hitz urges us to embrace intellectual life, not for purposes of advancing vocation or social change, but rather for personal enrichment. Equally important, this life of the mind should be available to all, not just the most privileged. Hitz summons a wealth of witnesses in support of her call, ranging from predictable authorities such as the ancient Greek philosophers, to folks like Mendel Nun, “a fisherman on a kibbutz in the Galilee” who “found ancient stone anchors as he fished and collected them into what is now a small museum.”
In addition, Hitz asserts that intellectual life supports human dignity, whereby “the love of learning opens up dimensions of humanity that might be hidden in ordinary life and to which common experiences are hostile.” And because dignity “shines through most clearly in difficulty,” she offers examples of how people have pursued learning as a form of refuge while facing incarceration, destitution, or mortality.
In calling for changes in how we approach learning, Hitz does issue a few knocks against traditional post-secondary institutions. This engagement sometimes seems unnecessary, distracting us from an argument that stands better on its own. Lost in Thought offers an overall thesis of richness and complexity that merits standalone consideration.
Indeed, there is more depth and nuance to Lost in Thought than this brief review can adequately convey. Not surprisingly, the book has stoked deep conversations and debates about the roles of the liberal arts and sciences. Zena Hitz has given us a deeply personal think piece that should appeal to anyone who wishes to contemplate the value of liberal learning to society.
Dr. Zena Hitz’s website may be accessed at: https://zenahitz.net.
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