June 10, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” – John Baker, The Peregrine
”Learning is a profession….” – Zena Hitz
2022 Fellow in Ideas David Yamada recently wrote a book review that inspired me. Per his suggestion, I quickly read Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. A number of Hitz’s ideas also struck a chord with me. Rather than give a full review, which has already been done, I simply want to share some quotes that ring true to me.
Among other topics, her book investigates: education, human dignity, social responsibility, happiness, and the source of intellect. I am interested in all of these things (and more!). Of particular interest to me is the way that learning intersects nearly all fabrics of our lives. I often work with young children, who are naturally curious. I revel in the way that they learn, without shame, fear or hesitation. They ask the questions on the top of their mind. So, if humans are naturally curious, then why do we tire of questions as we age, particularly of questions that pose the biggest problems? I want to find ways to reinvigorate that curiosity in all ages without turning off the natural, instinctual, and personal questions. In short, I want to inspire questions, contemplation and dialogue. Many thanks to Zena Hitz for offering her contemplative insights about the path toward and reasons for developing the intellect, and to David Yamada for introducing me to her ideas.
The following quotes are from Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz. (I left the page numbers for easy reference.)
“When we understand that real learning is hidden learning, that learning at bottom must be withdrawn from the pressure to produce economic, social, or political outcomes, we then face two major difficulties, both practical in nature. First, how exactly is hidden learning achieved or nurtured? How can it be extricated from its technical, professional, and political distortions? It is evident that our human core – our inner resources for thought, reflection, and contemplation – cannot be nurtured by mass education, whether that be online learning or large lecture halls. It must be nurtured person to person….” (23)
“Intellectual life is not a merely professional activity, to be left to experts. Because its central goods are good universally, it belongs in taxicabs, at the beach house or book club, in the break room at work, in the backyard of an amateur botanist, in thoughtful reflection whether scattered or disciplined, as much as or more than it does at universities.” (24)
“It is true that Aristotle conceived of contemplation too narrowly: sophisticated philosophy of the kind he practiced himself forms the core of his notion of happiness. But it is evident that contemplation can be the relishing of the beauty of one’s family and its common life; the sophisticated calculations of the physicist; the admiration of the curve of the wood being shaped into furniture; the nun singing the Psalms five times a day; the therapist or teacher poring over their human examples.” (44)
“Mary contemplates the Bible, whereas Einstein studies the mathematical structures of nature; Weil, geometric objects; Gramsci, literature and politics; and Malcolm X, history, philosophy, and religion. What do these activities have in common with one another? And yet, the sort of intellectual activity we are interested in does not seem directed at simply anything: sitting on the couch while restlessly flipping channels does not seem to fit the mold. Something about the inwardness and the complexity of these activities suggests depth rather than surface.” (71)
“The critic George Steiner writes of how we are answerable or responsible for what we take in or understand. He argues that it is appropriate in responding to any work of art or any form of human culture to take it personally, to invest oneself in it. To read and inquire as a free adult is to take on the awesome responsibility of allowing oneself to be changed.” (79-80)
“‘The world’ that we sought initially to escape turns out to be in us, part of our inbuilt motivations – not outside us. To exercise the love of learning is to flee what is worst in us for the sake of the better, to reach for more in the face of what is not enough.” (95)
“While the heights of excellence are a crucial part of the mind at leisure, they are only one part. The fact is that anyone can take the insights of others into their own mind and make them their own, without a special capacity of discovery. Imagining, reflecting, pondering the fact of one’s own susceptibility to illness and death can be a part of the most ordinary life. We are all subject to the realm of fantasy, and thus to illusion; but we all have the capacity to see the fantasy broken up by reality, to see things as they are. Our humanity is not a profession to be left to the accomplished few.” (101)
“So far, learning is like any other work or leisure activity: preoccupied with a shared object, we forget our differences. Any meaningful activity allows us a space to connect that is beyond the merely social, the garnering of approval or of favors, the establishment or reinforcement of authority, prestige, or status. But something beyond the community offered by meaningful work or leisure is offered in the realm of the intellect. Books, ideas, ordinary reflection on life – these are all ways to think about what we have in common as human beings. They can be ways for us to think about ourselves and our way of being in the world; about human strengths and weaknesses; about the nature of love or the nature of knowledge; about family, community, and authority; about the point (if there is one) of human existence. We ourselves become the objects of the study, and expertise becomes beside the point or even an obstacle.” (106)
“It was the prospect of somehow holding the whole world within oneself that led Plato and Aristotle to think of the intellect as something divine, as offering the furthest heights to which a human being could reach.” (186)
“The social use of intellectual life lies in its cultivation of broader and richer ways of being human, in shaping our aspirations and our hopes for ourselves. It is obvious and widely noticed that literature provides a broadening of our perspective: we sympathize in our imaginations with human beings different from us – people of different races, genders, religions, times, and places. But the same is true of mathematics and science. It is surely part of what it means to be a human being to think mathematically and scientifically; by studying these subjects, especially through the thinkers of the past, we see from the inside magnificent and strange human possibilities and modes of comprehension.” (188)
“The intellect provides an intrinsically unpredictable guide to life, one with its own integrity and independence. If it is wholly subjugated to economic interests, whether personal or public, it will rationalize preexisting agendas rather than reshape them.” (189)
“Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch – they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions.” (196)
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