Slouching Toward the Therapeutic University: Part 3

Tom Wood

  • Article
  • April 01, 2009

Part 1
Part 2

A Personal Experience

When I read the passage about W.T. Harris in Left Back about the importance of self-alienation in education, I was reminded of a personal experience. It did not concern ancient Greece or Rome, which Harris had in mind, but Tsarist Russia. But my experience, too, involved an experience of self-alienation, and it came to me as a revelation.

The revelation occurred in 1958-59. I was twelve or thirteen years old at the time, and living in Châteauroux, France, which is located about 150 miles south of Paris. My father was an officer in the U.S. Air Force and was assigned at the time to the Déols Air Base there.

Though it was a small base at the time, it had a library, though the library, too, was small. When I started writing this piece I had hoped to find a photo of the library on the Web. I didn’t find that, but I did find an article that mentioned the library by a Lew Paxton Price, who was a captain in the Air Force whose squadron in 1965 had frequent TDYs (temporary duties) at the Déols Air Base. Price remembers the base library as “large and well stocked.” (It must have had an extraordinarily good selection of scientific works, because by reading them Price claims to have found the unified field theory that had eluded Einstein; we are told, however, that his unified field theory has been ignored by mainstream scientists because it is “nothing like mainstream physics wanted it to be.”) I certainly do not remember the base library as having been large and well-stocked, but maybe Price’s memory is better than mine, or maybe it grew considerably in the seven or eight years that had elapsed after I was there. I do remember it as having been stocked in 1958-59 mainly with popular paperbacks (Louis L’Amour Westerns were very popular), some encyclopedias, popular magazines like Time and Life, and popular women’s magazines. It also had, as I eventually discovered, a selection of serious literature, and yes, some books on science and technology.

One Saturday morning, having nothing better to do, I was scanning the shelves of the library and pulled off a volume entitled Crime and Punishment, by a Fyodor Dostoevsky (it must have been the Constance Garnett translation), took it to a hard wooden table and chair and began to read—about a very disturbed young man named Raskolnikov. I found myself increasingly absorbed as I followed Raskolnikov through a city called St. Petersburg. Strange ideas pass through Raskolnikov’s head. He visits an old lady who is a pawnbroker, then stops at a seedy bar and listens to a long, maudlin, self-castigating monologue by a drunk. The drunk tells Raskolnikov that his alcoholism and profligacy have led his daughter into prostitution. Raskolnikov leaves the bar. He wakes up the next day in his room (actually a closet about six paces long) and reads a long letter he has received from his mother, who lives a good distance away from St. Petersburg. The letter makes him even more distraught, because (as he surmises) a rogue is going to take advantage of his family’s impecunious circumstances to marry his sister. This infuriates Raskolnikov. It also humiliates him, because his mother and sister are relying on him to do well in the university, and have made great personal sacrifices to send him there. Raskolnikov has lost interest in his studies, which seem irrelevant and meaningless in the context of the social conditions he sees around him. Raskolnikov’s own thoughts have turned in a very nihilistic and not very coherent or intelligible philosophical direction. The reader suspects that these morbid thoughts and preoccupations are connected with the protagonist’s malnourishment and poverty.

After reading the letter from his mother, Raskolnikov leaves his claustrophobic little room to escape. Once outside, his attention is attracted by a young girl who is apparently not quite in her right mind, either. Raskolnikov surmises that she has recently been raped or taken advantage of sexually. He notices that a foppishly dressed thirty-something male has his eyes on her, and concludes that he has roguish intentions towards her. Raskolnikov tries to get a policeman to intervene to frustrate the man’s intentions, but then later changes his mind on the grounds that it’s a dog-eat-dog world anyway. Who is he to help? Why should he help? he asks himself. He forgets about the girl and the predator. He heads towards an upper-class section of the city that is located on a island, where there is more greenery and where he will feel less stifled by the crowds of people that are everywhere in the tenement section of the city where he lives. He leaves the road, heads for some bushes, lies down, and falls asleep.

Then Raskolnikov has a dream.

It is a truly horrific dream. It is set in Raskolnikov’s home town, and takes him back to his childhood. In this dream, a bunch of rowdy and heartlessly cruel tavern brawlers and revelers mercilessly beat a horse to death. The dream is told unsparingly and in great detail. Dostoevsky’s description of the dream takes up several pages of Part 1 of the novel.

By the time I had gotten to Raskolnikov’s dream on Petrovsky Island, the world of the imagination that Dostoevsky was spinning had become more real to me than the library and the wooden table at which I was sitting. But the dream changed everything.

I was stunned—simply stunned. I had never encountered such writing—never even suspected that it existed. This, I said to myself, is real writing. That dream, which set the stage for the key event of the novel that happens almost immediately afterward, and that concludes Part 1 of Crime and Punishment, haunted me for days and changed my life.

When I read those pages of the novel, I realized for the first time that there was such a thing as Great Literature. From that point on, I had no interest in reading anything but Great Literature, because I quickly learned there was a lot of it, that time was short, and that it should not be wasted by reading anything else. In retrospect, I could have understood relatively little of what I needed to know to really understand the novel—but that didn’t matter, because from that moment I wanted to learn what I needed to know to appreciate this kind of literature. For that reason, too, I have always dated my own interest in literature and things of the mind generally to the reading of Crime and Punishment, and I still have a special feeling for the novel.

I do not mean to make a fetish out of Dostoevsky. I simply want to draw attention to this kind of experience, which I believe is fundamental to liberal education. That experience can come in many forms. For some, it will be provoked by other writers and artists. For some, it will be provoked by the power and beauty of a mathematical theorem or a scientific discovery or theory. The particular form it takes matters much less than the essence of the experience, which involves the power of the human intellect to take us out of our own narrow selves. That, I think, is what W. T. Harris meant by “self-alienation,” though Harris, as I have pointed out, seems to have had his eye on preserving the classics in American education, and concentrated his attention on ancient Greece and Rome rather than Tsarist Russia or any other place.

Harris’ term “self-alienation” seems perfectly appropriate here, because I cannot point to anything in Crime and Punishment or in Dostoevsky’s own life that from the point of view of student-centered education was personally “relevant” or “meaningful.” As for Raskolnikov: I have never been impoverished or malnourished, and have never killed anyone or plotted to kill anyone. As for Dostoevsky: I have never had a close brush with death before a firing squad; been arrested by the state police (or any other police); been condemned to exile or imprisonment; had an epileptic seizure; or been addicted to gambling or alcohol. I do not share Dostoevsky’s obsessive and overwrought personality.

What is true for me is undoubtedly true of virtually every student who has ever been assigned Crime and Punishment in a high school or college course. And from the point of view of student-centered education, with all its rhetoric about emphasizing what is “meaningful” and “relevant,” it is very hard to see how the assignment of such a book could ever be justified. From the point of view of the therapeutic university, a work like Crime and Punishment is likely to be seen as simply irrelevant. We can imagine crowds of undergraduates asking querulously: Why are we reading this?

Of course, there are lots of answers that an instructor can give to this question—and that faculty members undoubtedly have given—though it seems to me that all the answers except those like W.T. Harris’ simply kick the can down the road.

Here are some of the reasons that professors might give their students to justify the assignment of Crime and Punishment:

  • Dostoevsky is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest and most important writers of all time. Most of the great writers of the twentieth century paid tribute and acknowledged their indebtedness to him, including Joyce, Proust, Gide, Mann, Kafka, Hesse, Woolf, Faulkner, and Hemingway. This makes Dostoevsky important enough to read if one acknowledges that other great writers of the twentieth century are worth reading. (Even Einstein is reported to have said “Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss!” – a remark that has puzzled a lot of people.)    
  • Crime and Punishment is important from a purely formal or structural point of view. When Dostoevsky began writing the book it had the form of a first-person confession, but this led to technical difficulties. He later rewrote all of Part 1 and the rest of the book using an objective narrator who is very close to Raskolnikov’s own subjectivity. Because of this less than omniscient narrator the reader is often unsure how to distinguish between Raskolnikov’s febrile imagination and objective reality. 
  • Crime and Punishment is arguably the first and still the greatest psychological novel that has ever been written. Robert Louis Stevenson compared the reader’s impression of delirious confusion in the book with enduring an illness. Much of the weird and uncanny power of the novel is due to its unusual narrative structure. 

Crime and Punishment and Dostoevsky provide an excellent entry point to a whole host of interesting psychological, historical, and literary questions, including the following:

  • What is the connection between religion and morality? Is it true, as some have alleged Dostoevsky to have believed, that if “God does not exist, everything is permitted?” 
  • What is the nature of religious and mystical experience? (These were of great importance to Dostoevsky; he thought a lot about them and he had them.)  
  • What is epilepsy? (Dostoevsky was an epileptic.) Can one dismiss him as a philosopher, psychologist, or writer just because he was epileptic? 
  • What is the connection, if any, between sickness and abnormality and artistic genius? Thomas Mann believed—and he wrote about Dostoevsky in this connection—that sickness and abnormality are connected with artistic genius. Joyce made similar remarks about Dostoevsky and artistic genius. Were they right? 
  • What about addictions like gambling and alcohol? (Dostoevsky was additcted to both.) 
  • Which later writers were particularly influenced by Dostoevsky, and why? There have been and are other great writers who have thought that Dostoevsky is overrated and who plain don’t like him. Who were they, and why did they think he is overrated?
  •  What is the Russian Orthodox Church, and how is it related to the Roman Catholic Church and Western European Protestantism? To what extent was Dostoevsky’s Christianity a specifically Russian Orthodox Christianity? 
  • Tsarist Russia, a repressive and authoritarian and regressive state, produced a relatively large number of great writers in the 19th century. Besides Dostoevsky, there were Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, and Chekhov, to name only the most prominent ones. On the other hand, the Soviet Union produced only one great writer who was a Bolshevik: Michail Sholokhov (the author of And Quiet Flows the Don). Apart from Sholokov, 20th century Russia produced no great writers, except those who were in revolt against the Soviet state, and whose writings were essentially political tracts as well as novels. I am thinking here of writers like Varlam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose monumental The Gulag Archipelago is perhaps the greatest work of non-fiction of the 20th century. 
  • What are the connections between great literature and the societies that produce it?

All these questions and issues provide reasons for thinking that Dostoevsky has a place in the curriculum. But this kind of rationale also misses the point—or at least can very well miss the more important point. One can imagine all of these questions being assigned on an exam or as subjects for a term research paper. Students can learn how to handle these kinds of questions, and students like the ones that Epstein had at Northwestern can learn to handle them very well. But why should they? As I’ve said, the above reasons just kick the can down the road. Why should the student care about any of the things that are given as reasons for reading Dostoevsky? If a student can question the assignment of Dostoevsky, she can also question any and all of the foregoing reasons for reading him.

In real education—real liberal education—it is not just a matter of learning to jump through the hoops (though being able to do this is very important, and if higher education does nothing else, it has succeeded in doing something that is important enough). Real education is not just a matter of mastering a series of academic exercises: it is a matter of passionate engagement. One must feel these things. It is a matter of the self being challenged to grow through the encounter of writers and thinkers of genius. It is a matter of the self that the student brings to college being challenged and stretched beyond itself by the learning experience. It is a matter of what W. T. Harris’ called self-alienation.

Perhaps what students should bring with them when they come to college is a kind of existential anxiety or dread. Perhaps they need to approach it with a sense that it is a dangerous place: not in the sense of the kinds of incidents covered by the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act, but in a purely intellectual sense and perhaps even spiritual sense. Of course, students bring enough of the normal, expected anxieties to campus with them as it is, particularly if they are away from home at a four-year residential college. How well will they do academically? Will they be accepted by their peers socially? These kinds of anxieties are real enough, but the university experience needs to provide another anxiety as well: a kind of existential dread and anxiety that comes from the encounter with the intellectual content of the college experience. Students should feel when they come to college that they are embarking on an intellectual and in some sense profoundly moral and spiritual journey, and that they can’t be sure where they will end up at the end of it.

It is the duty of the university to provide this kind of academic culture. This culture needs to be deliberately fostered. It needs lots of care, attention, and nourishment. Now immensely powerful cultural forces are at work running against it, so extraordinary efforts will be required to enable it to survive. Without real care and attention, there is a danger that the whole notion of the university that I have been trying to describe and develop here will strike future generations as quaint and naive.

A university is about self-discovery, but in a sense quite different from anything that goes on in person-centered therapy. It involves, as Ravitch says, stepping away from one’s immediate experience and viewing it with a critical perspective. It involves stretching the self and the mind with the thoughts of the great minds of the past and present. What is wrong with the therapeutic university toward which we seem to be slouching is that it contains no real passion of the mind. Students are not asked to stretch themselves to embrace the minds of the great writers, thinkers, and scientists of the past and present. Instead, all of these tend to be shrunk to the dimensions of the selves that people bring with them to the university. This is unfortunate, and a cause for alarm.

Any student who fails to get heavy doses of what W. T. Harris called self-alienation in the course of his four years of college should ask for his money back. If the university cannot provide the kind of experience that I had, luckily, on a cold winter day long ago in Europe, when a life was transformed and a mind came to life through a chance encounter with a writer of great genius, it cannot be worth very much.

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