University Days–Redux

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When I was teaching college English courses, my best students, the ones who really paid attention and were hungry for knowledge and ideas, would often come up to me after a class and say something like, “You brought up the French Revolution today while we were talking about William Wordsworth. This morning, in my history class, Professor X also talked about it. And yesterday, in Sociology, Professor Y mentioned it, too. Did you guys get together and coordinate your lectures for this week?”

Of course, the answer was always “no.” Most professors I know barely have time to prepare their own lectures, much less coordinate them along the lines of a master plan for illustrating Western Civilization. It was hard, however, to get the students to believe this; they really thought that since we all brought up the same themes in our classes, often in the same week, we must have done it on purpose. But the truth was simple, and it wasn’t magic or even serendipity. The students were just more aware than they had been before, and allusions that had passed by them unnoticed in earlier days were now noteworthy.

I’ve experienced something of this phenomenon myself in recent days, while reading Colin Tudge’s book The Tree and listening to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies–two books, one on natural science and the other on philosophy, that would seem to have few if any common themes. In this case, the subject both authors touched on was nomenclature and definitions. Previously, I would have never noticed this coincidence, but now I find myself in the same position as my former students, hyper-aware of the fact that even seemingly unrelated subjects can have common themes.

There’s a good reason why I am experiencing what my students did; I am now myself a student, so it makes sense that I’d see things through their eyes. All of which leads me to my main idea for this post: University Redux, or returning to college in later life. It’s an idea that I believe might just improve the lives of many people at this very strange point in our lives.

I happened upon the concept in this way: after five or so years of retirement, I realized that I had lost the sense of my ikigai–my purpose in life. I am not exactly sure how that happened. When I took early retirement at the end of the school year in 2015, I had grand ideas of throwing myself into writing and research projects. But somehow I lost the thread of what I was doing, and even more frightening, why I was doing it. The political climate during the past few years certainly didn’t help matters, either. And so I began to question what it was that I actually had to offer the wide world. I began to realize that the answer was very little indeed.

Terrified at some level, I clutched at the things that made me happy: gardening, pets, reading. But there was no unifying thread between these various pursuits, and I began to feel that I was just a dilettante, perhaps even a hedonist, chasing after little pleasures in life. Hedonism is fine for some people, but I’m more of a stoic myself, and so the cognitive dissonance arising from this lifestyle was difficult for me to handle. And then, after drifting around for three or four years, I discovered a solution.

A little background information first: I have a Ph.D. in English, and my dissertation was on the representation of female insanity in Victorian novels. I’ve published a small number of articles, but as a community college professor, I did not have the kind of academic career that rewarded research. (I should say I tried to throw myself into academic research as a means of finding my ikigai, to no avail. I wrote about that experience here.) As a professor, I taught freshman English, as well as survey courses, at a small, rural community college. Most of my adult life revolved around the academic calendar, which as a retiree ususally left me feeling aimless, even bereft, when my old colleagues returned to campus in the fall, while I stayed at home or headed off on a trip.

A year and a half ago, however, I found my solution, and although I’ve had a few bumps in the road, I am generally satisfied with it. Armed with the knowledge that I was, intellectually at least, most fulfilled when I was a college student, I have simply sent myself back to college. Now, I don’t mean by this that I actually enrolled in a course of study at a university. I did, in fact, think about doing so, but it really made little sense. I don’t need another degree, certainly; besides, I live in an area that is too remote to attend classes. Yet I realized that if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was how to create a course. I also knew how to research. So, I convinced myself that living in the world of ideas, that cultivating the life of the mind, was a worthy pursuit in and of itself, and I gave myself permission to undertake my own course of study. I sent myself back to college without worrying how practical it was. I relied on my own knowledge and ability (Emerson would be proud!), as well as a certain degree of nosiness (“intellectual curiosity” is a nicer term), and I began to use my time in the pursuit of knowledge–knowing, of course, that any knowledge gained would have no value in the “real” world. It wouldn’t pay my rent, or gain me prestige, or produce anything remotely valuable in practical terms.

This last bit was the hardest part. I was raised to believe, as are most people in American society, that one must have practical skills, the proof of which is whether one can gain money by exercising them. If you study literature, you must be a teacher of some kind. If you play music, you must get paying gigs. If you like numbers, then you should consider engineering, accounting, or business. The rise of social media, where everyone is constantly sharing their successes (and academics are often the worst in this respect), makes it even more difficult to slip the bonds of materialism, to escape the all-consuming attention economy. My brainwashing by the economic and social order was very nearly complete: it was, in other words, quite hard for me to give myself permission to do something for the sake of the thing itself, with no ulterior motives. I had to give myself many stern lectures in an effort to recreate the mindset of my twenty-year-old naive self, saying for example that just reading Paradise Lost to know and understand it was enough; I didn’t have to parlay my reading and understanding into an article, a blog, or a work of fiction. (Full disclosure: having just written that, I will point out that I did indeed write a blog about Paradise Lost. You can’t win them all.) One additional but unplanned benefit of this odd program of study is that it fit in quite well with the year of Covid lockdown we’ve all experienced. Since I was already engaged in a purposeless aim, the enforced break in social life really didn’t affect me that much.

What does my course of study look like? Reading, mainly, although I know YouTube has many fine lectures to access. I read books on natural science (trying to fill a large gap produced during my first time at college), as well as history; this year, the topic has been the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. I study foreign languages on Duolingo (German, French, a bit of Spanish) while occasionally trying to read books in those languages. I have participated in a highly enjoyable two-person online reading group of The Iliad and The Odyssey (thanks, Anne!) Thanks to my recent discovery of Karl Popper, I foresee myself studying philosophy, perhaps beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I’ve taken FutureLearn classes on Ancient Rome, Coursera classes on The United States through Foreign Eyes, and several others. I’ve listened and re-listened to various In Our Time podcasts. I have taxed the local library with my requests for books from other network libraries, and I swear some of those books haven’t been checked out in a decade or more. To be honest, I don’t understand a good part of what I read, but this doesn’t bother me as it used to do the first time around. If I’ve learned one thing from serving on the local city council, it’s that you don’t have to understand everything you read, but you do have to read everything you’re given. Sometimes understanding comes much later, long after the book is returned–and that’s okay.

I’m not sure where this intellectual journey will lead, or if it will in fact lead anywhere. But I’m satisfied with it. I think I’ve chanced upon something important, something which society with its various pressures has very nearly strangled in me for the last thirty years: the unimpeded desire for knowledge, the childlike ability to search for answers just because, and the confidence to look for those answers freely, unattached to any hope of gain or prestige. It takes some getting used to, rather like a new diet or exercise program, but I’m pleased with the results at last, and I am enjoying my second dose of college life.