Andrew M.H. Alexander

Callard and Brooks on education, aging, and “heterodidacticism”

4 September 2021

Towards the beginning of covid, David Brooks published a college graduation speech in The Atlantic, forgettable except for two chilling paragraphs:

A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin.1 The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks. Have you ever noticed that 70 percent of the people you know are more boring at 30 than they were at 20?

I’m reminded of a travel piece Brooks wrote in 2015, in which he hopped aboard one of those “Around the World by Private Jet” package tours and made a similar lament about the intellectual proclivities of his fellow passengers:

What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. … In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious. … Nobody was trying to prove they were better informed or more sophisticated than anybody else. There were times, in fact, when I almost wished there had been a little more pretense and a little more intellectual and spiritual ambition. … The guests were delighted by the intricate wall carvings in the Royal Harem building in Istanbul, by the vegetables in a Turkish restaurant, by 15 minutes of opera in a Russian palace. But over dinner, they mostly spoke with their new friends about their kids and lives back home, not about the meaning and depth of what they had just seen.

Meanwhile, Agnes Callard, the U of C philosophy professor who writes a monthly column for The Point, gave her take last month on the purpose of a university:

A university is a place of heterodidacticism. … An autodidact is someone who learns best on their own, by teaching themselves things. “Heterodidact” is a word I made up to describe the rest of us, for whom learning and knowing is a social activity.

The things we’re trying to do in schools are things that, for most of us, are unnatural:

The things people long for are: safety and security; fancy vacations and luxury goods; honor, power and acclaim; the warmth of family life and human connection. They want these things even when they don’t have them—often, the less they have them, the more they want them. People don’t long for intellectual goods. You know the joys of intellectual engagement by experiencing them, and as you step away from them they fade from view. There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction.

The intellectual goods that we’re aiming at in school—they’re things that we need some amount of compulsion and mutual self-reinforcement to get:

… I rely on my students and colleagues—including my dead colleagues, such as Aristotle and Plato and Leo Strauss—to redirect me when I lose my way. If I had left the university after college, I believe the intellectual life I occasionally glimpsed as an undergraduate would have faded into a nostalgic memory.

There’s nothing in your DNA that makes you a philosopher, nor is there some regimen you can run through to transform yourself into one. The closest we have come to devising a system for attuning a person to the intellectual life is to surround her with others aiming at the same thing for as long as the relevant parties can continue to afford it, and hope for the best.

She gives the example of teaching the Iliad:

I could give you a hundred more examples, but I’ll restrict myself to one. The previous quarter, I taught a class on courage, and we read Homer’s Iliad. I think the Iliad is one of the greatest things ever made by human beings, but I hadn’t read it in at least seven years. Why not? What was stopping me from picking it up? For that matter, why am I not reading it right now? The answer is that it’s hard to read the Iliad. Have you ever tried? It takes so much energy. All those epithets. So many tendons being unstrung by spearpoints. I am not some special kind of human who just sits around reading the Iliad for fun. I’m not that different from the students I teach. They get their energy from me, I get my energy from them. That’s how a university works.

  1. He’s talking, almost certainly, about “The Hedghog and the Fox.” Mr. Anderson assigned that essay for Intro to Philosophy at Ithaca High; I never took the class, but J. did, and I vividly remember her loving the essay and making me read it. I assume the college in question is Yale, where Brooks taught a class on “Humility” for a while