Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Decline Of Deep Friendship At College

"I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, 'To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.' A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone. What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it mean to go to school at a place where you’re never alone? Well, one of them said, 'I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend’s.' That same day, as it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson’s essay on friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, 'wait a second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?'

So there they were: one young person who had lost the capacity for solitude and another who couldn’t see the point of it. There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other. But it’s not as if their compulsive sociability is enabling them to develop deep friendships. 'To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?': my student was in her friend’s room writing a paper, not having a heart-to-heart. She probably didn’t have the time; indeed, other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy.

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, 'So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?' Well, I don’t know. But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system."

- William Deresiewicz

Essay in its entirety: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

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