Review: Lost in Thought

Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A defense of the love of learning for its own sake, for how it enriches our existence as human beings.

Zena Hitz grew up in a house full of books. Curiosity, lectures, exploration, family conversations. All of this prepared Zena for an academic career, with the stimulating years of graduate school followed by a faculty position. And then the let down:

In exchange for my comfortable salary, excellent benefits, and ample control over my work schedule, I delivered preprocessed nuggets of knowledge in front of a crowd and doled out above-average grades upon their absorption. The teaching that formed the central activity of my professional life seemed nothing like the lively and collaborative pursuit of ideas that had enchanted me as a student. (p, 17).

It led to three years in a Catholic retreat center, a process of discerning a vocation. She describes a journey of asking whether the love of learning may be defended for its own sake. She examines the things that may lure one away from this, as she was in her early faculty career: the love of money, social recognition, and spectacle. She takes a deep dive into the life of learning, the experience of refuge known to every bookworm, the inwardness it cultivates, in which she holds up Mary (thought in ancient times to be a reader), who understood that “a virgin must conceive” and so was prepared for the angel’s message. She is reminded of how learning gets at the core of what it means to be human–the common human experience that binds us together. She considers the uses of of the apparent uselessness of learning. Dorothy Day is a particular exemplar, whose service, advocacy, and imprisonments were sustained by her inner life of learning and prayer.

She wrestles with elitism. Is the quest for learning simply a preserve for the elite, those with enough time and money to do so? She recalls the workers libraries and the hunger for intellectual life of many who were not college educated. What she doesn’t address are those at the lowest rungs of poverty whose time and energy are devoted to surviving. As others have argued, there must be some time of leisure to pursue thought for its own sake. Perhaps this is as good an argument as any to pursue the eradication of poverty.

In the end, she comes to a renewed embrace of the intellectual life. She concludes:

I have argued that intellectual life properly understood cultivates a space of retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place. We step back from concerns of practical benefit, personal or public. We withdraw into small rooms, literal or internal. In the space of retreat we consider fundamental questions: what human happiness consists in, the origins and nature of the universe, whether human beings are part of nature, and whether and how a truly just community is possible. From the space of retreat emerges poetry, mathematics, and distilled wisdom articulated in words or manifested silently in action (p. 185).

She longs that universities would become places once more where this would occur. I found myself wondering, though, whether this was ever the case en masse in colleges and universities or whether some gravitated more to this life than others. And for this to occur today amid the explosion of knowledge in every discipline, would this not require either extending the undergraduate degree to six years or more of full time studies, or making graduate education even more common? And this goes against the grain of our cultural imperatives of equating education with preparation for a job, and the pressures to shorten, not lengthen this time.

It makes me wonder whether the impetus must come from somewhere else in a soulless technological world. At one point, churches were the place where learning was preserved in Europe, learning not only of scripture but Aristotle and Plato. It is hard for me to see this arising from churches of the present day and it seems unclear, apart from the outposts like St John’s (where the author is a tutor) and a few others, mostly private institutions, where this might come from in the world of higher ed. Will our bookstores and libraries become the modern day athenaeums where those hungry for more than being instruments in our technological apparatuses seek refuge and insight? Will we find the resources to sustain these places and those who curate them? And who will teach the disciplines of careful thought? Will a title like Lost in Thought even make sense? I fear if it doesn’t we will have lost what makes us most human, what gives meaning and texture to life, that separates us from the automatons increasingly capable of learning but unable to derive any pleasure from it.

Learning in Peace-Time?

This morning I had a chance to re-read C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time?”, a sermon he gave at the outset of World War II.  He made the observation at one point that it is never the case actually in war that we focus only on war.  He writes, “Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” In other words, we will always be thinking of the significant (and commonplace!) matters of life.  He goes on to argue that if we suspend serious intellectual and cultural activity in such times, we will only replace it with worse–“if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones.”  All of this is part of his encouragement to those whose calling is student during the war.

I equally wonder about the question of learning in peace-time?  War in some ways raises really important spiritual and philosophical questions.  When we are at peace, we often are more inclined to think about where will we eat? What movie will we see this weekend? Will I buy this shirt or that? What I wonder about in these times is whether our comfort and relative affluence results if anything in our being more distracted by the commonplace and content with the banal? When it seems that “life is good” do we resist the demanding intellectual and aesthetic work required to break new intellectual and aesthetic ground?

Lewis as a Christian appeals to a basic Christian precept of “doing all to the glory of God.”  He contends that this does not mean forcing all intellectual life to be “spiritually edifying” in some way.  Rather, he writes:

I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.”

Lewis reminds me that we all have appetites for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  What the passion for God’s glory in our work does is encourage us to give these to the best and most worthy things–to read (and write) good books rather than bad. We often talk around the educational world of “lifelong learning.”  One of the questions that I often wonder about is what drives us to continue to learn, to grow, to change?