Letter to a Young Intellectual

for Madeline Frohlich – happy birthday

Dear Madeline:

Humid air yesterday and today weighed us on campus down. It refreshed at first. Before – too much dryness, an annoying cold. A breeze and some accompanying warmth, moisture and sunshine invigorated many. Then we started feeling sluggish and sleepy. I got little done yesterday, a bit more today in the air conditioning.

I am surrounded by students who seem to work at things not many others take seriously. Students here pride themselves on mentioning things about Thucydides, papal encyclicals, Auden. Sometimes this means being comically divorced from the most basic news. One student, three weeks after the BP oil spill, confessed having no knowledge that anything happened in the Gulf. They read a lot, often very quickly. I remember when one read something like 100 pages of Nietzsche in a night. They attend a lot of lectures where smart and insightful things are said frequently. There is mandatory attendance for most classes. Many people here date in a somewhat serious manner. They come from large families where being asked “when are you getting married?” is a question that comes from nearly every family member.

Even here, though, virtually no one has taken an interest in Xenophon. People sometimes ask me about it and then forget what they’ve asked. One gentleman, who I must have told what I’m working on about 30 times over a period of years, still asked recently and I said something completely different.  Now any complaints about my campus – if I have any complaints – would probably hold true for a number of schools. Climates of opinion create expectations and habits. A certain degree of achievement can be had and measured within those climates. Nothing is wrong with this. In fact, it’s essential for the functioning and production of a number of institutions.

Still, when someone like you takes an interest in Xenophon – something I had trouble getting people who do classics to give a damn about – it’s like everything else in the world is insignificant. You were in high school and wondering about women in the ancient world. You certainly had and have a set of activist concerns. And you’re reading about women in Sparta one minute, my little comment on the Oeconomicus the next, about Percy and Mary Shelley later, asking me about Heidegger, telling me about Australian politics and your coursework, and enjoying every minute of it.

You don’t realize how rare a student you are. In my life, I’ve come across only a handful like you. That handful makes the world better many times simply by being themselves. Because there are so many students, quite a few are pale imitations of ones like you and sometimes are well-disguised. There are plenty of people I thought more devoted to bettering themselves who quit when the grades or material rewards diminished, let alone ceased to be around entirely. Being a genuine student – someone who wants to learn what life is about – is far more than hitting the books or even using one’s free time to read. It’s all about the questions one asks.

This critique extends to teachers. You’ve started university and they’ve got lots of information, stimulate lots of discussion. You’re not going to believe this, but most of what you learn are things you would learn on your own anyway. That doesn’t mean to be ungrateful, just as one should never be snob to one’s peers. But it means that for a personality like yours, your learning is your first priority in a way the rest of us can only admire. There are going to be many times where artificial expectations will hold you back from exploring the library, talking to someone worthwhile, going elsewhere to see things firsthand. Your grades may suffer. You might also compose an article or essay that brings injustice to light. You might tell a story that preserves a memory. You might think something that appreciates the truly human.

The most ludicrous aspect of our time is the joining of the words “education” and “business.” This isn’t to say capitalism is bad: the problem has been there longer than the sophists. It is to say that education is an investment in a deeper sense than any of us realize. You are the future. You’re going to show us what a truly intellectual climate can do.

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