Although we all talked about keeping in touch, we knew it was really a goodbye dinner.
Most of us had graduated a month earlier, and the professor who had brought us all together — a wry man with round glasses, whose favorite cufflinks looked like a rabbit and a top hat, and whose classes I’d taken every semester since I started college — was taking a sabbatical during my last year. His self-designated cult of a dozen students had disbanded, and suddenly the prospect of seeing his house, something we would have chattered over like Hollywood gossip a year before, had become something I wanted to delay as long as possible. I didn’t want him to relinquish the authoritative distance he’d maintained between himself and his students; I didn’t want to be able to leave him behind with everyone else when I graduated.
As the initial awkwardness of seeing each other in that context was sloughed off with wine, the conversation at my end of the table turned from trivialities to our career plans. In the comfort of each other’s sympathy, we talked with a fatalistic sadness about how unrealistic we’d been in school and how ridiculous we must have seemed to our parents, and we reassured each other grimly that we were all doing fine; we were confused, of course, but we were where we were supposed to be; this was what people did, and each of us was, if not exceptional, at least “on track.”
But when our professor figured out what we were discussing, he was immediately disturbed; I thought his voice was almost angry. “What are you all so afraid of?” he demanded. “You all have degrees from a great school, and you grew up in a first-world country with perfectly nice parents. Get it into your heads that nothing really bad can happen to you. You’re not going to get into such deep shit that your parents can’t get you out. Don’t dive straight into your careers and prepare for retirement, for God’s sake: travel for a while, get a grant or work at a bookstore, make rent, learn a language, fall in love!”
We raised a flurry of protests, which he dismissed with a “Bahh!” and a wave of the hand. “The great writers you all respect so much would never have taken that attitude,” he insisted. “They were more interested in what they might find in the world than in what it might do to them; and they were right to be that way. Christ, I’m considered such a big conservative on campus, but even I can’t see why you all don’t want to turn on, tune in, and drop out!”
We pointed out, in dispirited but emphatic voices, that we weren’t the great writers we’d read in his class, and that we knew it, and that it seemed absurd to try to live by standards we held them to; that we saw no point in the effort if we knew from the outset that we’d never do as well as our idols; that the attitude he was suggesting was reckless and self-important; but those argument, so bedrock to us, seemed not to affect him.
“Look,” I finally said, playing my trump card, “Have you ever ridden the L train at night? You know what that’s like — you look around and you realize that every person on that train has the same ideals and aspirations as you, or nearly. It gives you the creeps. The more you look at them, the more you become determined to do whatever it takes to avoid being that way.”
“You know — being oblivious of the extent to which you’re a product of your time and your education and your socioeconomic background, thinking yourself unique because you spend your Saturdays reading Heidegger in McCarren Park, when you’re really just like everyone else. It’d be throwing away everything our parents gave us —”
“Oh, who cares?” he interrupted. “It’s great that they sent you to college, but it’s your life! You owe them certain debts, of course; but your life — that’s your own. And you’re responsible for it. I’m going to hold you to that — all of you. I’m not going to let any of you come back to me in ten years and tell me you didn’t have a choice.”
“What if I became ‘responsible’ for a hedge fund?” I asked bitterly. It barely sounded like a question.
“I’d disown you.”
Walking home in the dark, my friends and I discussed how odd a note we’d ended on. I realized that we were being a bit unfair; to sentimentalize the class the way we’d wanted to, and to hold a small wake for it over our professor’s penne primavera, would have meant concluding that it had been a futile exercise, enjoyable while it lasted, but fundamentally no better than entertainment. No wonder our mentor had been angry. We were telling him that nothing he’d given us was going to last. His threat of disowning took on a literal meaning when I considered the intangible things he’d given us as an inheritance of sorts; to disregard it would be to deny our origins, the things that had mattered to us — the things he’d stood for.
What were those things, exactly? I could remember how thrilling, how important, each new idea and text had felt the first time I took his class, but couldn’t remember why I hadn’t been bothered by the L-train problem back then. I could see that what I was trying to understand was why we lacked his sense of inspiration and he lacked our sense of fear, and how the two were related; but the sources of both were opaque to me. Understanding the problem and finding its solution were starting to look like the same thing, and I didn’t know where to start.
My best theory at the moment involves a New York Magazine article from a few years ago about the perils of praising one’s children. Social scientists were finding that, counter-intuitively, children who were complimented for their talent and cleverness actually became more afraid to take risks than the children who were praised only for the amount of effort they made — or not praised at all. By way of explanation, they theorized that after being told that they were “smart,” trying something new now posed the risk of revealing to these children that they weren’t actually that smart; but for the kids who’d been praised for working hard, failure only reflected insufficient effort, while each success proved how much they were capable of. There was much less risk; they were better able to maintain a sense of their own potential independent of the outcomes of their efforts.
Our professor had called us “too full of fear,” and we had hardly denied it; but if that was the problem, I had to wonder how so many of us had gotten that way so fast. It’s certainly true that we live in a praise culture to a degree that our parents didn’t, and that praise most often takes the dangerous form of flattery; but although I was proud of my pet theory, I had to admit it seemed unlikely that we were all spoiled by our parenting. The gap between our parents’ behavior and our parents’ parents just doesn’t seem wide enough to account for the vast difference between our attitudes and the teens’ of the last generation.
If anything, I think it has to do with the way we’ve become accustomed to living with an awareness of how large the country is, and how insignificant we each are. If there’s anything our generation has had unique exposure to, it’s the scale of the events of our lives. I first noticed it when my sister was applying to colleges. She was spending most of her time preparing for standardized exams and filling out common applications, the same way I had; and I realized that the awareness that you’re competing with every other student in the country creates a sense that you’re fitting yourself into some kind of national, or even global meritocratic scale, accepting a ranking. That, in turn, gives you the sense, even (or especially) when you do well, that it’s your value, not your effort, that’s being measured; or, more poisonously still, that your effort and motivation are themselves results of your upbringing, and somehow no more “your own” than your intrinsic intelligence and talent. (I also think this has to do with the reason determinism is such a popular philosophical topic for students in my generation, which I’m told didn’t use to be the case.) This sense of fatalism, this focus on our limitations, is the same effect that the wrong kind of praise has; but we’re getting it, paradoxically, from the tools we’re supposed to be using to succeed.
Thinking about my own trajectory, I could see that I’d sunk into that mentality when applying to colleges, but had managed to escape it under the guidance of inspiring professors; and now, looking into the chasm of the job market as graduation approached, I had lapsed back into it, along with the friends I’d acquired in the interim. I suspect that the same thing happened to the rest of my classmates, and to my whole generation; that this might be how we became so preoccupied with the feeling that we’re “on a track” — with ranked colleges and neatly-labeled degrees, and, according to some data, with sexual normalcy — in a way that many of our predecessors, even ten years earlier, weren’t. It’s directly proportional to the growing influence of the Internet, standardization of the college and job application processes, and our increased awareness of the rest of the world.
David Brooks’ brilliant piece in The Atlantic two years ago, “The Organization Kid,” makes the point neatly. After interviewing college kids all over the country, he painted a bleak picture of our generation: heavily goal-oriented, we see our education as a means to an end; we’re deferential to authorities and don’t consider it to be worthwhile, usually, to challenge the systems in place (which implies, I think, that we lack idealism); we micromanage our time and disparage slackers and rebels-without-causes; we feel deeply indebted to our parents; we dress to appear as humble and unassuming as possible, even as we pressure each other to stay hip. Brooks took the same inferences we made on the L train and found the research to support them, and the numbers are hard to refute.
But what his data doesn’t capture is the misology, in Plato’s sense of the word, that underlies, and even explains, all of those tendencies. I don’t know a better phrase for it, so please bear with me for a nerdy moment: in the Phaedo, Plato’s Socrates theorizes that people might become “misologists” (meaning “haters of philosophical dialogue” in Greek) the same way they become misanthropes. Misanthropy is when a person concludes, after investing himself in a number of friendships and being disappointed each time, that our social instinct can only make us unhappy. Likewise, misology is the conclusion, after we become disenchanted with a number of ideologies in succession, that our own intellectual instincts only make us miserable, and that the desire to understand our world is vain rather than wise.
Socrates saw misology as the worst thing that can happen to a person, and his antidote was to be careful about the premises we accept before committing to a philosophy, so that we don’t feel so let down each time we realize, yet again, how little we really know. But unlike Socrates’ interlocutors, today’s students don’t have a dozen rock-star philosophers competing for our loyalty, pitting their views against each others’ at regular intervals. Instead, we have a legacy of literary viewpoints that are handed to us piecemeal, often without explanation, throughout the process of our education. Students in my generation have had to piece together their ideologies for themselves; and on the whole, it seems to work out all right. It certainly leads to less dogmatism, with the exception of the odd Ayn Rand devotee. But it also makes it a lot harder for us to talk to each other. If you have to explain each step of your process to anyone who wants to understand your views, you’ll find that very few people are interested enough to grant you their time; and even worse, you’ll have no help developing your ideas, because nobody else will be working on them with you.
It’s not the betrayal of our mentors so much as their abundance and relative impermanence that threatens us now. We slip through the hands of one teacher after another through grade school and college, and eventually we slip out all together, just as we slip through the books we read too quickly in preparation for the exams we forget once they’re over. If many of us are misologists, I think it must be because we’ve come to realize how lonely it is to attempt an intellectual life in a world whose structure doesn’t accommodate it, in a world where you’re worth what you can produce, and if you fail, there’s always someone else waiting to step into your place. On top of that, most of us have had to contend with our own parents’ insistence that their own idealism in the sixties and seventies only proved impractical, and that their decision to abandon it has been for their children’s — our — benefit.
But, even when it’s not pursued alone, intellectual life is lonely, at least historically; and it seems to be necessarily so, because to pursue it in earnest you have to give up your reliance on validation, even in the form of the respect of your peers. Unfortunately, this kind of independent-mindedness is something my generation finds uniquely difficult, because instead of seeing our own industry as capable of providing us with whatever we need, physically and intellectually, we see the feedback of others as reflecting something true about our potential and our limits.
I’ve been writing an advice column in an online newspaper for about a year now, but when the restlessness that was incited in me at the dinner party failed to dissipate over the course of a few weeks, I wrote to an advice columnist myself. As a woman, a writer, and a person older than myself, I thought she might be able to tell me how one can derive the motivation to keep writing, knowing that you’re not the next Dostoevsky or Nietzsche or Roald Dahl, and that even if you were, there would be no guarantees — how to manage your feelings such that the L train no longer sucks the sincerity out of you. She gave me the kind of answer I deserved (anyone with a blog can be a writer!) and later, my boss pointed out that the question hadn’t been fair. I had essentially asked her how she managed to cope with being a mediocre writer; and her answer was that if I was one, I’d have to accept the same lot as all unoriginal thinkers. Although kind and ostensibly optimistic (especially given the question), it wasn’t an answer that extolled the power of effort to improve one’s work; nor was it particularly motivating.
It occurred to me that independence was part of the problem. I was asking people with credentials — professorhood, authorship, apartments and income — to tell me why I shouldn’t take my parents’ advice, why not to take anyone’s advice, regardless of their credentials. I was being intellectually lazy, looking for shortcuts, in trying to figure out what it is to be an intellectual, and how, and why, to become one.
So I decided to approach the problem from the opposite angle: instead of figuring out what was wrong with comparing myself to strangers on the subway, I decided to figure out why the kids in the New York Magazine study who were praised for their effort continued to make an effort, what they were pursuing. And suddenly, the answer was obvious. They did it for fun. They had nothing better to do — and who does, really?
Socrates himself had no particular visions about what he would accomplish when he sat in the marketplace; he wasn’t waiting for a deal from Doubleday or a tenure-track position. He was just trying to take his mind as far as it could go, for his own sake, so that he’d know that he had; and it made him a better friend, a better tutor, and a better citizen, his highest ideals. Although he’d never found proof that anyone knew anything valuable, Socrates still seemed to understand that misology was self-defeating because, if accepted, it would cause us to stop trying to learn things; and that would guarantee, beyond a doubt, that we never could. On the other hand, to walk bravely towards his own ignorance at least allowed for the possibility of getting wiser, however remote; and he found that worth fighting for, “in word and deed,” to the death, as it turned out. However little Socrates considered himself to know (a rife question in certain circles), he could at least claim that all of his logic was his own, and that he could reproduce it on demand, from start to finish; and that lent him a kind of conviction in his decisions that few of us ever achieve, even when his decisions earned him a suicide sentence.
For Socrates, the reason to write, to think, to make the effort to live intelligently, isn’t because of what you hope you’ll achieve — even though it is at the same time — but to avoid the alternative, which is not to try. By this logic, we should approach the refinement of our thoughts the same way we approach learning languages: we do it in the hope of being able to do more than we could before, not because we expect to speak better than people who are already fluent. If you measure your success from the perspective of a native speaker, then yes, it’s a pointless effort; but if you finally found a friendship in another language, or read a poem, or just order off a menu, you’ll know, beyond a doubt, that you’ve learned something. And if we can learn things that will enable us to treat the people we love better, or give our friends better advice, the effort will be worthwhile.
When I write my advice column now, I find myself trying to tell people to fall in love — with philosophy, with each other, with poetry, with a city — to find the things that make them know who they are, what they want, what they’d “fight for in word and deed.” Because once you have those things, how good you are isn’t the problem. Once you have something the pursuit of which is its own argument, your goals and your motivation cease to be separate problems. You don’t need praise or validation from others; at most, you might need an audience. But if you care enough, I suspect that that part will work itself out.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.