Tutor at St. John's College
Before Zena Hitz became a tutor at St. John’s College, she was a rising star in the ranks of American academic philosophy. Educated as an undergraduate at St. John’s and later at Cambridge and Princeton, her career as an academic began unraveling after the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Her attention was torn away from Plato scholarship and toward activism. She eventually found her way to a Catholic religious community in Ontario, where she lived for several years before returning to St. John’s. She has since become a vocal defender of liberal arts education and the life of the mind.
Zena relates this history in her recently-published book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, an impassioned defense of a “useless” intellectual life lived for its own sake. She has also published essays at The Imaginative Conservative, Modern Age, First Things, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She joined me over Zoom to talk about her book, the radical egalitarian roots of American liberal arts education, and the crises facing higher education.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph M. Keegin: I’ll start with a broad question. Why are the liberal arts good for the working classes, for the oppressed? How exactly can the promotion of intellectual life contribute to a more egalitarian society?
Zena Hitz: Those are two really different questions, I think. The intellectual life is good for the working classes because it's good for everyone, and working class people are human beings. It’s a basic kind of answer: it's good for humans, working class people are humans, so therefore it's good for them. What fueled the working class self-education movement—so far as I know about it, which I'm still learning—is that it offers an alternative view of oneself than one would get from standard social life. I think this is particularly distinctive for working class people or any member of any oppressed group, people who for whatever reason are “on the outs” in society or the bottom of the scale. Standard social life is competitive. There has to be someone at the bottom: the working class, minorities, people with disabilities. And in the stories told by historians, we see that these people find intellectual life enormously restorative. It helps them define who they are and helps them to ground a different sense of themselves: a deeper, more authentic, richer, and happier sense. And a freer one, I think: it opens up a realm of freedom that is denied to them by what I'm calling standard social life.
I love reading the first-person testimonies about what learning meant to Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, what it meant to the working people of England when they put together their trade union Plato and Shakespeare reading groups. They speak very eloquently about how it matters to them. So I want to emphasize that my view about this is based on first-person accounts: it’s not a theoretical construct, wishful thinking, or sentimentality on my part. It's me trying to listen to what was said about this and figuring out how we can reconnect with the reality that those people report.
As far as egalitarianism is concerned, it's not unrelated to questions about the working class—but these days, the problem is bigger than just what you'd call the working class. We've gotten ourselves into a situation where we have an intensely hierarchical notion of learning. It's partly an accident of the internet, and the idea that information is at your fingertips—as information. If you have a question, you go online and find the answer—which means that there's someone out there who's deciding what the right answer is and putting it in a place that's considered authoritative. And we, the information consumers, have no access to that information and no means of actually evaluating it.
That’s a very dangerous situation in a variety of ways. It's dangerous economically and politically, and it’s dangerous for our human well-being. This is a way my thinking has developed over the course of writing about these things, and it comes up toward the end of my book because I’d started to notice with more clarity what was going on in my environment. My students were coming to me and expecting me to tell them the answer to some question, and feeling a deep discomfort with having to figure something out for themselves.
I think it's dangerous because bad people—who are always out there—can always exploit this: they can simply decide for themselves what counts as knowledge. This gives them an enormous capacity to manipulate populations. But it’s even worse than manipulating them directly: we've always been manipulated by news media, rhetoric, and stuff like that. It’s as old as anything. But what feels distinctive to me in this new environment is that loss of confidence in oneself—that is, you think of learning as something that someone else has to do for you and then give you the results, so that you know what to do next. That's a basically unfree way of doing things: someone else is setting the agenda, telling you what you should know, telling you what counts as knowledge. They’re not letting you rely on your own inner, question-asking resources. We all have fundamental questions—or small questions—about the way the world works, the way our lives work. But we also have the capacity to recognize what feels to us like answers to those questions, even if they're provisional—and even if it takes some training of our habits.
So it's that dimension of humanity that is crucial, both for individuals and for any egalitarian society. Ideally, everyone in a community is building something together, and everyone has a role and a contribution to make. But over the past few years, I've been increasingly shocked by how inegalitarian our society has become, and by how much power we've ceded to a very small number of people who have enormous economic and political power and power over our knowledge-systems. What counts as learning, what counts as knowledge, what we need to know, what we should know, what kind of learning should be funded, what kind should be supported: all of this is being taken out of the hands of out of the broader collective and put into the hands of an increasingly small group of people. That's not a conspiracy theory: I don't know what the forces are that are at work there. My suspicion is that technology and economic consequences that follow create an opening such that things turned out that way without anyone really intending it.
Joseph M. Keegin: In an article you wrote for The Tablet, you call these new conditions for learning “a strange form of authoritarianism.” I thought that was a really beautiful and accurate turn of phrase.
Zena Hitz: I feel more and more like I live in authoritarian culture: we want other people to tell us what to think. Everyone’s very angry, for instance, because the epidemiologists have not told us what to think and how to act. That's a very weird phenomenon. Epidemiologists are just scientists. They know more than we do, and they have expertise—but we still have to evaluate the things they tell us, take responsibility for our actions, and make choices as free people. They can't do this for us.
I see a lot of Corona-politics like this: People are constantly asking each other, “Why don't you make them wear a mask?” And I wear masks, I believe in them. But we're no longer thinking of this as a joint undertaking. We're thinking of this as something that the powers-that-be need to take responsibility for and control at the finest level. That’s not the way of thinking that I grew up with or that I like to see in public life. And I think the cultivation of intellectual life can help, because if properly cultivated, it builds a person's confidence in their own judgment, and their own ways to seek out information. Any person who can read can go read a stack of epidemiology articles. They won’t understand everything they're reading, but they'll get something out of it—and the more they read, the more they’ll understand.
There are no rigid walls in knowledge: there's nothing that simultaneously makes some people able to know and other people not able. In principle, knowledge is simply available to us at some level. And it needs to be in order for us to make choices and to live freely and collaborate on a shared common good.
Joseph M. Keegin: I've been reading a lot of Ivan Illich lately, and he has a great critique about how modernity is a historically peculiar situation in which people gleefully think of themselves as being little more than cogs in a system. It’s a strange historical development. Nobody wants to take responsibility for their lives: we love to be put into place by a system, and we find that place comfortable. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the increasingly widespread use of the word “systematic,” the coronavirus politics regarding epidemiology. But this is also often the way that we think about education, right? As a system we’re absorbed into.
This connects to something else I’ve been wondering: how do academic institutions—and institutionalized education as such—contribute to and degrade the intellectual life? I wonder how this functions both at the level of the individual and on the level of culture as a whole. What are some ways in which the academy has contributed to the loss of intellectual life, and to its promotion? Are there any particularly good trends or examples out there?
Zena Hitz: That’s a complex question. I’ll start with the good stuff: There are a lot of signs of hope. I saw an interview with Yuval Levin today, who's written about the decline of institutions, and he says that it's a sign of hope that things are so bad. No one's happy with higher education right now, which is itself a sign of hope. But beyond that, one of the hopeful things I’m noticing is people are building smaller institutions, either within major universities or adjacent to them. And that's where the liberal arts are being preserved. So that's one strategy that people are enacting in the current environment, where the larger institutions are increasingly bad at supporting liberal arts.
So people are building small organizations and philanthropy- and grant-funded institutions: programs like the Morningside Institute at Columbia and the Collegium Institute at Penn that bring in a lot of people who are really excited about liberal arts. When you build smaller communities within larger ones, you have a refuge for people to go to from those institutions. I think that's really positive, and I hope this trend continues to grow. Of course, things are weird right now because the necessity of online learning makes any kind of community-building extremely difficult.
At the same time, universities are very complex and my experience with them is limited to a few types. I have broader experience than some people, but the university system is so huge and fulfills so many different purposes. I always get in trouble when I talk about it because I've neglected some massive sector of higher ed—like agriculture schools, hotel management schools, things like this. These aren’t worlds I've ever moved in, so they’re hard for me to talk about. But I think that basically what's happened is a kind of insecurity on the part of academics: a lack of confidence that learning for its own sake is valuable or worth defending. This was especially true when I was first writing. I felt very frustrated because I couldn't find any defenses of what we were doing that wasn't based on some further end—like making money, career training, critical thinking skills, social justice, and the like. None of that seemed right to me. A lot of people who should be sympathetic have lost their confidence. And the institutions have become more bureaucratic, more metrics-driven. And those metrics aren’t necessarily connected with any social good. So there's a pretense of social good, but the modus operandi is to find some metrics which make us feel like we've made things better rather than worse. You get metrics that drive narratives, narratives that generate metrics, and so on—and the narratives tend to be short-term and disconnected from the needs of the people involved. This is true across a wide range of industries and not just higher education, but higher education is the thing I know.
So all of that, I think, feeds the insecurity. You've got to go to these administrators and defend what you're doing on a metrical basis, which is very unnatural for a humanist. So for someone like me, I know at the end of every year, at the end of every semester, that what I've done has been enormously worthwhile. There's no doubt in my mind: it's absolutely transparent. That's because I do a very personal kind of teaching and learning, and I see the effects close-up. But if you asked me to try to quantify that, I couldn't do it. There's no metric I could apply. And if you were to try to measure the student satisfaction that I see, I don't know that you could find the right questions. There's too much variety in each individual—too many different ways that the good is experienced—to really get anything useful.
But something else that’s happened in a lot of institutions is that there's a loss of trust in the people who are working on the ground. In a previous era, even 20 years ago, a college professor would be trusted to make his or her own judgement about the value of their work. But now, that trust is gone: They've got to justify themselves to their administrators because the administrators have to justify themselves to the donors and the donors don’t trust the people on the ground anymore.
Those are just some of the problems facing higher education. They're very serious, and they’re very deep. But what they make difficult is not necessarily doing good teaching or learning. You can carve out a space in almost any institution and do something good, if you're determined and principled, and if you have your own grounding outside the institution, know what you're doing, and know not to just follow along and do what you're told. I know tons of people like this. The universities are full of dedicated teachers who are breaking their backs to teach their students, and the failures of institutions don't affect that. Nor do they affect innovation of the kinds I was talking about earlier, where people form little institutes and communities outside. What I fear is that these failures take all that stuff out of our common store of conversation, so the liberal arts become a niche thing for a few insiders that can’t be connected with the broader public anymore.
Joseph M. Keegin: I was looking back at that passage from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois that you use so beautifully in your book:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”
It’s a gorgeous and inspiring sentiment. But in the paragraph directly before this he makes a plea for black colleges and universities to not just devote themselves to technical training and the skills of money-making, but to the liberal arts—because black people also deserve access to the fruits of humanism. In his terms, they deserve to become men. So DuBois wants newly freed black Americans to have access to the same kind of humanistic liberal education that white aristocrats have, because this kind of education is good—but now, as far as I can tell, the thing he was arguing against being patronizingly imposed on black people has become the universal condition of education, the supposed “right way of doing things.”
Zena Hitz: I think that's right. Of course this kind of education originated with the aristocracy, with upper-class people. But I have difficulty understanding why we can’t see that there might be a very good reason why the aristocrats wanted this kind of education: that is, they wanted it because they wanted the habits of mind, the mental freedom that made them rulers of themselves—and then, of course, of others. Of course, the “of others” is the part that we, as egalitarians, want to keep out of it. But for these members of the working class and the labor movement in the US or in the UK who started these different self-education projects, they were thinking like DuBois: they were thinking, “I want to be free like those people. I want what they have.” So to me, there's something crazy about saying, “Rich people have used this to aggrandize themselves and dominate others, so no one else should have it.” My question is, well, is it good or not? If it's good, everyone should have it. If it's not good, then no one should have it.
There's something funny going on that I've never understood and that in that way of thinking. And it just fits with my experience as a teacher and my experience reading these first personal accounts—that is, there is such a thing as liberation. You do not have to be completely subject to powers that be. Sure, it's limited, partial, qualified—whatever. But it's real. And it's a significant improvement in your life. And people should have it. I really think it's that simple.
And there's something about telling people that they shouldn't want it that’s disturbing to me. My friend Anika Prather has a PhD in education and just founded a Christian classical school for the black community outside Washington, DC. She finds all of these first-person reports from these great black Americans have them saying, “I learned to read, and then I learned to think, and then I was free. I made it my own. And then I became James Baldwin, or Malcolm X, or whoever.” All of these people had this type of education and found it immensely valuable. Anika says that when she started to study the Great Books, she’d been told that they weren't for her. That’s another thing that is all too common nowadays: this attitude that “those white books are not for you.” And we should be very disturbed about telling oppressed minorities that a certain group of books aren't for them. That language should be chilling to us, and we have to be so grateful for those voices that honestly report their experience with genuine education.
Joseph M. Keegin: Of course, Frederick Douglass has a great speech about how education was of the utmost importance to him, right? Even Marx talks about this: he's always invoked as if he detests the cultural productions of the upper classes. But he has a great passage somewhere where he says explicitly that he wants the proletariat to be able to enjoy Wagner, operas, and so forth. So any kind of criticism of inequality that concludes that we all just need to drive tractors instead of making and appreciating art has always struck me as silly.
We’ve spoken with each other a fair amount about the wonderful history of liberal arts schools founded in the early early- to mid-20th century, and the kinds of attitudes held by the founders. Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan at St. John’s, an institution near to both of our hearts, had been schooled in this tradition. And there are a handful of other examples: the Wisconsin Experimental College, the People's Institute in Manhattan, the British Workingmen’s Institutes, etc. It seemed like there was a time when there was this vision of the liberal arts as something that should be available to normal people—that the poor, the oppressed, and even just totally average people can get a lot from a liberal arts education. And then something happened over the course of the 20th century where a lot of these institutions either shut down or changed direction. I’ve been wondering about this for a while. Do you have any thoughts on why this happened? What changed?
Zena Hitz: I don't really know enough about that and I'm a little reluctant to speculate about it, knowing as little as I do. But I suspect a lot of it has to do with the entertainment industry and tech: first television, now the internet.
In the age of the book, life just had way fewer stimuli. So in your day-to-day experience, you just don't get a lot of exciting visual or auditory images, which is a very good condition for doing really serious reading. Ordinary life is boring enough that reading a book can seem really exciting: something like Dickens or Dostoyevsky, these super cinematic writers, would be almost like eating candy. They can effect complete transportation into another world.
But the story is more complicated, I think, because it probably has something to do with the fate of the labor movement in the US, which I don't know enough about. The UK has kept some grassroots intellectual culture, both as a vestige of this older labor movement—labor has remained a part of political life there—and because they're generally better at keeping stuff. And it’s probably bound up with the fate of labor movements, grassroots movements, and the fate of civil society more generally, which has undergone a lot of fluctuations: the flattening of the 50s, the growth in the 60s, another flattening in the 80s. And now we’ve been in a trough for a long time, and things are very different.
The most disturbing prospect I could imagine would be that the “powers that be” have found a way to hide these goods from people who might benefit. Again, not in a conspiratorial sense—but in the sense that things always move on the tracks toward the advantage of the people in power, right? And there's all kinds of ways that that can happen: the decline of primary and secondary education, for instance. Right now we have large groups of people who really don't know what they need to do to live meaningful lives. I think that's why we're seeing the levels of suicide and opiate abuse and all kinds of stuff like that. Remember that there aren’t that many voluntary associations anymore, and that all of these things have been in decline for a long time, for various reasons.
The spirit that shines through in those historical accounts is the spirit of voluntary association and spontaneity. There's something so beautiful and energizing in them—and for whatever reason, people are currently either ignorant or beleaguered, and they've lost touch with that. But it may change given the way how bad things are now, so be hopeful.
Joseph M. Keegin: The weird thing here, though, is at the same time that America began to experience a rapid decline in social capital and the dissolution of voluntary associations and reading groups, increasingly large numbers of people began to enter college. There are more people now than ever enrolled in higher education. So though the liberal arts are reverting back to a luxury of aristocrats after having been briefly understood to be a good for all people, on the other hand there are more people in college than ever. So I’m finding myself wondering how these things are entangled with one another.
I’m thinking here, too, about the essay you wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic hiring policies and the cultures of academic departments. One thing we haven’t really touched on is the extent to which the culture of academic departments themselves might simply be hostile to intellectual freedom out of fear of relinquishing their expert control over information.
Zena Hitz: The question about the more people going to college is interesting: what that should mean is more people getting the best of college, but I think what it really means is that there are more and more things called “college,” with less of a concern for quality.
There are two things happening here at once: on one hand you have the growth of student body, on the other the growth of bureaucracies—which are probably not unconnected to the growth of the student body, but are also connected to other things like the increase of regulations, changes in working culture, and so forth. For instance, if you look at a place like St. John's, that has kept its customs for a long time, as a faculty member you're meant to be on campus three evenings a week, spending untold hours talking to students. It’s great, of course, but what does that imply? Either you're not married, never will be, and you don't have any children, or it means that your wife is at home looking after the kids and you're expected to be gone all day. It’s a big cultural change with obvious benefits to it—to have fathers be more engaged parents, to have mothers have more opportunities for work—but it brings with it a change in the amount of dedication that a faculty member is going to put into their institution. And that means that administrators become more attractive and administrative work less attractive to a faculty member.
In the old days at St. John's, not only did we teach three evenings a week, we also had faculty meetings every Saturday morning. This is your life. There's no pretense that you have anything else to do than work for this college. So that’s a major cultural shift.
I also think universities’ overemphasis on research has distorted the type of education that they're offering and has permitted a shift away from basic educational teaching. And truthfully, I like research—I love scholarship. But there's too much of it. Everyone knows that: there's more than anyone can read. And there's something weird about that being the point of your academic life that takes priority over your teaching. It’s a dynamic that’s more true the higher up the food chain you go—it’s most true at elite institutions and less true the further you go down—but that definitely has a big distorting effect. People have this idea that focusing on the research is what they really want to do and teaching is a burden, which in turn creates this kind of underclass of teachers.
Joseph M. Keegin: The undergraduate institution I went to was this tiny little state school in southern Indiana, Indiana University Southeast. Everybody who's there knows that it's a teaching position: it’s a very unprestigious place to have a job. It was only years after graduating did I realize that the faculty are really engaged with students because they simply don’t have the same kinds of publication requirements that you do in more prestigious schools. I had been completely ignorant to the intensity of the demand on research that exists in basically every other institution—and then, of course, I went to St. John’s, which also has no research requirements for tutors. And neither of my parents went to college, so the idea of a university as a research factory has been mostly alien to my experience—something I heard about from friends or through the grapevine but never encountered until I befriended graduates of “better” schools later in life.
Zena Hitz: There's another side of this story, which is that doing only teaching is bad for you. The best teaching is something that comes out of an active intellectual life that includes one's own individual projects. So in a way, that’s the truth in the emphasis on research: that it's good for people to be thinking for themselves and working out their thoughts in-depth, and this ideally flows over into teaching and gives their teaching some richness. But what St. John's has in its structure—although it's been hard to live it out the past few years—is that instead of understanding research as being something publication-oriented, a countable contribution to an outside academic community, it’s understood that tutors need time and space to study their curriculum, which is in itself super interesting. This fosters a very close connection between the curriculum and the kinds of things that you would study on your own. This is also different from a lot of conventional universities that are often based on the sciences, where you find a very big divide between what a professor would talk about with fellow scientists and researchers, and what they would teach a class full of freshmen. Part of the idea of the St. John’s approach is to minimize that difference, so that tutors are working ideas out for themselves and then bringing these questions to the classroom.
Joseph M. Keegin: From the very first day I stepped foot on campus at St. John’s, I knew it was different, immediately and recognizably so. The kind of status the tutor has in the classroom is unlike anything you will encounter at any other institution—especially the fact that tutors are expected to have genuine questions, to be genuinely perplexed, rather than simply having all of the answers ready-to-hand to bestow upon the attendees of their lectures.
Speaking of St. John’s, I want to ask about the very idea of “the Great Books,” keeping in mind this question of egalitarianism we’ve been pursuing throughout the conversation. It’s obvious from the personal accounts of people who have spent time with certain books that there exists a class of books that are truly special and simply better than other, more frivolous books. There’s a reason why people write books about how Dante, and not Fifty Shades of Grey, changed their life for the better.
So I’m wondering: Is there a problem of endorsing an inegalitarianism of reading material, for the sake of achieving egalitarianism of education and of society? Is that a contradiction?
Zena Hitz: I’m less into talking about the Western canon as being a set of common knowledge which we should all encounter, that there's some set of books that everyone has to have read. What I am invested in is thinking that, well, there are different kinds of books. There are books that are entertaining and distracting. There are books that are good—not only entertaining and or distracting, but also help you think about something or are artistically splendid in some way. And then there's a type of book that provides an education on its own.
It’s very difficult to understand this if you hadn't had the experience, personally, of reading one of these books—particularly with a group of people—and feeling yourself change. And it really happens—it happens to our students all the time. But it seems to me that once you’ve lived this, you know what a Great Book is, and you know it because it's educated you. And the reputation of a Great Book is essentially just the received wisdom of the people that have been so educated, and their invitation for you to join them. Right? So what makes a book an education is exactly its ability to invite you into conversation as an equal.
This kind of distinction is clearer, I think, in movies. I hated movies for a certain period of my life: I went for 10 years not watching any movies. Now I love movies: I'm a film buff and some people even call me a film critic, but I went a decade without watching a movie. And I remember watching a movie that was, strictly speaking, bad, and at the moment in the story where I was supposed to cry, I cried. And I thought to myself, “This is outrageous! These people have just learned the buttons to push, so that I cry. I don't want to sit here and be manipulated by these people!” Likewise, merely entertaining and merely distracting literature is something which is bringing you into a fantasy world by manipulating your emotions in a certain way and giving you a certain kind of emotional distraction or emotional relief. That's not a bad or evil thing to do, but it's not learning as such on its own.
And I think that there are books that have the intention of inviting you in as an equal, to think through some questions with the author. But it's actually really difficult to write a book like that. There are lots of books that are pretty good, but then they end up with some shortcoming because they fall into a trap. Dickens is a good example: he’s an incredible writer, but he, like Steven Spielberg, will just fall into some tricks. He's such a good entertainer, so good at pulling the heartstrings of his audience, that he just lets himself go and loses track of himself.
This may sound paradoxical, but I think it's true: egalitarianism is just a very, very difficult thing to do. It's difficult to build institutions that are egalitarian; it's difficult to write books that invite readers as equals. I realize there’s some irony here: there are books which are egalitarian in the sense I'm talking about that are, on the surface, very elitist. Aristotle's Politics, for instance, with the discussion of natural slavery. But you are right in there with Aristotle—you are thinking with him, he tells you what he's looking at. You can evaluate his evidence, you can draw your own conclusions, you can go on an inquiry with him. You can spend a lot of time thinking about how he sees the world, and you'll benefit from that. So it’s not the content, exactly, but somehow the approach to the book that grants it this quality.
So it's very difficult to write a book like that, very difficult to build an egalitarian institution. That’s why their direction is always toward falling apart, right? That’s not to say that they always will, and I hope that we're about to start rebuilding them. But it's, it's a real challenge. It's a discipline, it's a fight. It takes a lot of exercise of human capacity, and a lot of chance and good circumstances.
But something happened in art in the ‘60s where the particular experience is seen as irreducible, or beyond what could be universalized. I think this is probably seen in someone like Simone de Beauvoir. The particularity of experience becomes seen as something that differentiates and divides—and though I think that particular experience of a particular group or type of person matters, it seems to me much more closely tied to what's human and what's universal than the opposite. So to me, an idea of the universal doesn't feel flattening, it doesn't feel like it's erasing differences. It feels like an illumination. It's a bridge of understanding. When I read Malcolm X's autobiography, for instance—or Zora Neale Hurston, or James Baldwin—I feel like I've met someone like me, a human being. That doesn't mean he’s not different from me: he has a very different set of experiences that I will never have. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a bond of unity between us. And I suspect that literature, writing, and thinking don't really make sense when you get rid of the universal.
Joseph M. Keegin: There’s a peculiarity where the universal is actually the most concrete thing, right? That's the strangeness of it. The things that we take as being universal are both enormous and transcendent and also the most tiny and obvious elements of life. Take, for example, pain: pain is at once both the most concrete, particular, and ultimately limiting possible experience, but also one that connects you to everybody who’s ever lived.
Zena Hitz: You’re right: it's very puzzling. It's very mysterious.
Joseph M. Keegin: Can you recall the first book that you encountered that was an education in itself?
Zena Hitz: I read a lot when I was a kid, but I don't know whether that reading really educated me. The book that I remember really losing myself in—that is, finding modes of inquiry that seemed infinitely fruitful—was Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. I read it the summer after my junior year in high school. I was in a high school program at St. John's and I wrote an essay on it and something kind of pulled me—and then I wrote a much more extensive essay later my freshman year. That, I think, was really the moment of something more like maturity, where I saw that you could just sit with this book forever and it would never stop teaching you. It was an incredible, transformative, life-changing experience to realize that. It wasn't about me and my freedom, exactly: it just revealed to me that there's so much to think about. The dimension concerning freedom is something that I've actually only started to articulate recently. I think it was happening when I was younger, but I wasn't tracking it in the same way.
The conversations at St. John's were liberating because they weren't for a purpose. That is, we could move out of the realm of speech that controls, manipulates, and marks status, and we could talk in a different way that I definitely experienced as liberating. But that was less maybe about the books than the process of conversation, and about the type of community where you’re able to get into these serious conversations and there's not a fixed agenda.
Joseph M. Keegin: I definitely remember reading Eliot’s Waste Land as a senior in high school and feeling it open up the sort of plurality of the world to me that I'd never seen before. It kind of drove me crazy, but in a new way that felt good instead of awful.
So one last question. Besides your own book, are there any books or texts you can recommend to someone who wants to learn more about this tradition of liberal arts rooted in egalitarianism or liberation? Or even more explicitly rooted in a movement for working class emancipation?
Zena Hitz: There are two books by Jonathan Rose I’d recommend. One is The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes—even just the first chapter is really eye-opening. But he also has a book called Reader’s Liberation, which is more recent and involves a wider set of examples. It's a little terse, and I think that's why it's not considered particularly accessible: he kind of assumes that you understand what's so fascinating about these stories. But they're incredible stories.
But I'd also like to say that there are two other books that are roughly contemporary with my book which are very similar in their purpose. One is Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare—which is very similar to my book but based in literary studies—and then Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing, which is something similar for mathematics. I was so delighted to discover these people: I didn't know that they were around, I thought that I was on my own in the world. And it turns out that there are other people out there who not only think this way, but who recognize that we are in an important crisis concerning the loss of a way of thinking about intellectual life as a common human heritage, as something that any human being can do. Not because it gets them a job, not because it gets some status, but just because it's good.
Joseph M. Keegin: So not only reading connects you to a community of people, but writing does sometimes too, right?
Zena Hitz: I think I could say something even more extreme than that: I think that writing is really for lonely people. I have wonderful colleagues at St. John’s, so I'm much less isolated than some people are. But if I had enough people to talk to about the stuff I cared about, I’d never write anything. But I never do, so I write stuff, and then I discover all these people to talk to. It's great. It really is a way of building community. I didn't know that before I did it. I thought it was a utilitarian way to effect influence. I didn't realize that writing meant discovering fellow travelers.
Joseph M. Keegin is the Society editor. He is a graduate of the St. John's College Graduate Institute (Annapolis) and former teacher currently working as a bookseller in Chicago. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.