On Distinction

The other night Luke and I were out for coffee, and our conversation, as it always does, turned to teaching, reading, and thinking.  He was telling me a story about a friend of his, who is struggling through the life of the junior academic.  "I don't have time to read," complained the friend, who spends most of his days preparing for new introductory courses, writing grant or other applications, and generally jumping through the various hoops laid before him.  In short, he's too busy being a professor to be the kind of professor that would be able to do the things he always imagined and dreamed about doing, namely, reading, writing, and thinking.

Today I read Glenn Harlan Reynolds essay in the Washington Examiner, and was struck by a similar problem well known to students.  He writes:

First -- as with the housing bubble -- cheap and readily available credit has let people borrow to finance education. They're willing to do so because of (1) consumer ignorance, as students (and, often, their parents) don't fully grasp just how harsh the impact of student loan payments will be after graduation; and (2) a belief that, whatever the cost, a college education is a necessary ticket to future prosperity.

Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already.

A New York Times profile last week described Courtney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt -- debt that her degree in Religious and Women's Studies did not equip her to repay. Payments on the debt are about $700 per month, equivalent to a respectable house payment, and a major bite on her monthly income of $2,300 as a photographer's assistant earning an hourly wage.

And, unlike a bad mortgage on an underwater house, Munna can't simply walk away from her student loans, which cannot be expunged in a bankruptcy. She's stuck in a financial trap.
In both cases, the professor and the student have bought (literally) into a dream: the dream of freedom.  Freedom to work, to read, to think.  In both cases, the dream has turned out to be a nightmare, with endless layers of bureaucracy and personal and professional relegation.  Both have sacrificed their lives to an institution that promised one thing, and delivered quite another.

It's funny.  The thing both of them want, or claim to want, is available to them if they are willing to give up something not insignificant: prestige.  You can decide to work a lesser job, but in doing so have the time and space to follow your passions, to learn, to read, to think, to make.  You can, if you decide to condescend, go to a lesser school (or not go to school at all!), and find the time you need to follow a course of study as deep and broad as you like (there's a line I love in "What is Called Thinking?" where Heidegger tells his students to spend the next 10 years reading Aristotle--that's not something you do in the context of a school!).  But you have to give up distinction.  You have to give up being important.  You have to give up brand recognition, titles, and degrees.  However, if you're actually interested in what you say you are, that shouldn't matter, right?

It does matter to most people I know.  Very few are willing to get on an unmarked walking path when there is an institutional highway right over there.  Increasingly we're entering a time where it's possible to do what I'm describing, to self-educate, to do things outside the context of institutional modes of learning, to be in the world but not of it.

Also funny to me is the fact that the desire for distinction, if that's what is really driving so many of these people (and I believe it is), is not going to be possible by following the path of everyone else.  If everyone goes to the same schools, takes the same courses, does the same things, there will be no distinction possible.  But, if you strike out on your own, if you read different books and read in different ways, if you follow paths which don't fit nicely in the course of a semester, you've already become distinct.  You don't have to do anything else than simply be doing things that way to have achieved what you wanted.

Luke is a useful model for me in this.  Here's a guy with a philosophical and critical mind that seems to go in every direction.  Yet he's chosen to give up on being a famous professor and writer, and instead to stay home and raise his boys.  He's emptied his life of all sorts of things that the world says are important; and interestingly, in doing so, he's found room for all the things the world is seeking.  One reads by reading.  One thinks by thinking.  It's just a matter of taking, making, finding the time.