Parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity: an essay on the liberal arts

10 mins read
Graphic by Steve Sekula

What follows is a series of related thoughts, in four different keys, about your lives as students here, in relation to the current questioning of the liberal arts. All four keys circulate around the idea of time.

Changing computers

I recently upgraded my email program to Thunderbird 24. Likewise I bought a new Mac whose OS X system made mincemeat of my out-of-date OS X 10.5.8: I advanced to OS X 10.9—probably the highest I’ll ever have, though there remains a chance I’ll get to the 11 series.

This familiar scenario involves the technological world we operate in (verb deliberately chosen). Such a scenario uses only one tense, the future, and is concerned with only one kind of activity, progressive. Moving invariably from outmoded system to updated one, it enacts a temporality of unceasing improvement. Its model of time is amnesiac—the past is to be junked, the future is its replacement. Eventually that future will likewise be junked—to make room for a yet more efficient one. The temporality enacted here is no loss, all gain. The pursuit of science is in large part modeled on this temporality. It lives in the future, battening on ever more successful experiments and procedures. Its banner is progress.

3 a.m. voice

Several days ago—while thinking about the invitation to write something for the Swarthmore Review—I decided not to use the contrastive example I had earlier planned on: a meditation on my 3 a.m. voice. On certain nights, unpredictably, I’m liable to wake up about that time, suddenly bolt awake. My mind is working hard, sending me messages it wants me to hear, even though I’d prefer to be asleep and dreaming. These uninvited messages compose my 3am voice. I had planned to claim that any model of liberal arts education that fails to acknowledge the 3 a.m. voice is a failed model. But I decided to scrap it when I realized that no model of education could justify itself by addressing that voice. More about this later.

I soon realized that choosing to scrap this contrastive example was itself the revealing thing.  I scrapped it because other more pertinent scenarios came into my mind and seemed more rewarding. This mental activity—juxtaposing earlier thought-processes and scenarios against later ones; working out the trade-off of loss as well as gain—actually captures something of the real life of thinking, feeling, and living, as well as the real life of most disciplines. The key distinction between the two scenarios is how they address time.

In the computer scenario, the passage of time is magically reconfigured. Upgrades are always superior, nothing is lost. Is there any wonder we cling to this romance of progress always in the wings?  But our lives themselves take place in unrepeatable time; advances co-exist with losses, help to make the losses bearable. Even first-year students are laden with such losses, and many seniors are currently facing losses of a magnitude they haven’t yet figured out how to accommodate. The computer model is of limited help for thinking the realities of life-time.  What we sorely need are intricate negotiations, balancing acts, smarter trade-offs. We need—all throughout our lives—to manage life-decisions for which no OS X exists.

Spending and spending

It is mandatory today to speak of how much money parents spend to send their children to a liberal arts college like Swarthmore. How can this spending be justified?  One hard-to-resist justification involves recourse to the computer model of time. It urges young people to figure themselves out swiftly and then, as much as possible, to instrumentalize themselves into productive entities that will rise and thereafter succeed. As though all that money spent on your education could be recuperated only by the even greater amount of money you’ll make after college, thanks to that education. On this model, the curriculum figures as the runway you need for the take-off you require to justify the money that has been spent on getting you here in the first place  The curriculum becomes that which you will most effectively make use of—later—when all that spending will eventually be recouped and converted into profit.

But there is another kind of spending that is diffuse and beyond recuperation; none of you is unfamiliar with it. It is the ongoing spending of your life, your irrepressible sense that the choices you make now have consequences, and those consequences will have further consequences, and you may run out of time before you have handled all the consequences. I see this concern as not just or even mainly about recouping earlier spending. It is rather about getting what you came here to get—although “getting” is the wrong verb because what you want to get is ultimately immaterial. Qualitative rather than quantitative, it has no dollar coefficient. It involves becoming a more resourceful, more valuable version of who you were when you entered at eighteen. It involves as much exposure as you can manage to the wide range of pursuits for making sense of the world and your position in it—pursuits that compose the curriculum.  It concerns how the natural and human worlds have been understood, and how they might yet be understood (so many models for this, so many angles of entry), as well as how the self has been understood, and how it might make yet be understood.  Four years is barely enough time to engage such a curriculum. If quality is on your mind, you want to engage the curriculum liberally rather than instrumentally—as an opportunity to open your mind and enlarge your heart, rather than a blueprint for eventually recouping your family’s spending. The deeper kind of spending is beyond recuperation anyway. Is that ongoing loss the reason why so many engage in retributive fantasies of monetary recuperation?

Parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity

James Joyce penned (in “Ulysses”) that gorgeous phrase about the brevity of human life, before he was 40.  Now that I am some 15 years older than Joyce when he died, I am keenly aware of the truth of his phrase. The remarkable thing is that you recognize this as urgently as I do or Joyce did. You would not worry about which curricular choices to make if you weren’t aware—even in your first September here—that your time is irreversible. You are spending it without cease, and that’s fine, you’ve got lots of it to spend. But you don’t have limitless time, and that 3 a.m. voice tends to be a wake-up call asking you if you’re spending it right—if you’re making the best choices (intellectual, emotional, spiritual), if you’re developing into more than the person you were when you arrived, if you’re learning to engage more rewardingly the people, pursuits, and ideas that surround you.  This “more” is revisionary and qualitative, both backwards and forwards looking. Only revision and qualitative reckoning can engage the nonstop spending of your lives. Such engaging can’t stop the spending—nothing can do that—but it can make it more valuable. You will devote much of your lives to learning how to do, and these four years at Swarthmore will contribute—massively but indirectly and unpredictably—to that activity. Fundamentally, though, the parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity that is your time here centers on your learning better how to be.

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