Lost Learning

Lost Learning

A Classical Education, part four.

Aeneas & the Sybil in the Land of the Dead [detail] — Jan Brueghel the Elder

Not too long after entering college, I became a lapsed classicist. As this essay illustrates, I look back on my prelapsarian era with nostalgia and regret. Indeed, through the nearly five decades since I left Mr. DaParma’s immediate orbit, I’ve spent a considerable number of hours, albeit intermittently, looking back—through the mundane but often happy haze of making a marriage, raising kids, finding a living, sometimes winning friends and influencing people, sometimes not—on the learning I’ve lost, not just in Latin and Greek but in other disciplines as well, always hoping to pick up a thread I fear has escaped me for good, one I might follow to weave my thoughts into some larger fabric that could provide comfort as the years pass away. Fortunate to be a bookseller, and to have arranged a good part of my working life around discovering—and articulating—the salient qualities of my wares, I managed to remain in conversation with ideas and images my learning had introduced me to, no matter the distance I spoke across to reach them, nor the noisy demands of getting and spending that made it hard to listen for their reply.

Still, even when we’ve left it far behind, the landscape of our early learning shapes the way we see the world. Like a painter who limns the riches of nature by making a view, we make our meaning as much by looking as by study: a landscape, after all, is not a feature of the natural world, but a human frame that organizes it. Just so, books are landscapes of knowledge, and sentences scaffoldings our minds can grasp within the shapelessness of all we cannot comprehend. Perception is always emergent, understanding in large degree fortuitous—that’s the nature of human apprehension. The eighteenth-century aphorist Chamfort best summed it up when he said, “All that I’ve learned, I’ve forgotten; the little I still know, I’ve guessed.”

And keep trying to write down, Chamfort might have added, if his métier was not concentration and the sound of certitude it brings, but rather the more exploratory intentness that, for example, Cicero’s periods enact. I’m aware that, as a mode of apprehension, much less communication, the periodic sentence is long past its sell-by date. The digital imperialism that now exploits our attention, the culmination of decades of media- and market-driven stripping of cultural reserves and institutional resources, has no patience for thoughts in the process of becoming, only for reactions that can be provoked and dismissed with a tap: three millennia of sophisticated, open-source human expression—syntax, semantics, subtlety—overwritten by a row of emojis and “smart replies” that don’t engage realities so much as strike through them as if they are items on a not very important to-do list, a list one never gets to the end of because a machine is adding tasks to it all day, every day, with or without our input. We’re sucked into a here-and-nowness of intellect as well as impulse that makes study passé and the friction of schooling suspect.

“We seem somehow bored with thinking,” I heard the insight collector Maria Popova say on a podcast with Krista Tippett. “We want to instantly know.” Popova continued:

I remember, there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation—even in that we skip forward—is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning.

The meaningful is the opposite of the trivial, and the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation, and the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives.

It’s the promise of our age of algorithms that we can find enlightenment through efficiency, that elaborating a complex arcana of data can make living seem simpler than it is, if only by amassing enough mediating ubiquity, and consequent economic leverage, to insist that it become so. Thomas Aquinas and his fellow Scholastics might have been at home in our technocracy, their urge to codify belief with syllogistic legerdemain resonating with digitalism’s tautological programming of human being into predictable patterns. What Petrarch knew, and recognized with the force of revelation in the pages of Cicero’s letters and literary writing, is that life is messier than the Scholastics allowed, that knotty logical exercises lack the wherewithal to weather the exaltations and terrors of life and death. A catechism never fits an organism.

In the economic and engineering mindsets that hold our world in an ever-tightening vice (one that’s crushing all it grips, material or metaphysical, into the waste product of rites of sacrifice and exchange), optimization is privileged over all other qualities. The optimizing imperative presupposes precisions of definition and quantification that lived experience—as opposed to experience’s monetized or datafied avatars—disputes morning, noon, and night. The quest for certainty that economic and behavioral models demand maintains a feedback loop in which every input is skewed by its tracking. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” is a useful mantra as far as it goes, which stops at those states in which we truly live: doubt, fear, endearment, hope, loss. Productivity can be a sedative for fright, more practical, if less credible, than prayer.

Measurement abstracts meaning from context, making it more manageable but less far-reaching: it keeps life within predetermined lines. The digital instrumentation of behavior and the consequent commodification of behavioral data—a perhaps unintended but nevertheless ruthlessly exploited outcome of big technology’s relentless programming of our time’s every tick—gamifies our desires for the benefit of a new clergy, one hell-bent on exiling experience from any framework but the one it creates for its own ends.

The context the new clergy most abhors is time, the medium through which, as Maria Popova suggests, minds move toward knowledge. The in-the-moment newsfeeds that have commandeered every aspect of public and private lives, from streets emptied by the novel coronavirus to the food on our dinner plate, strip past and future from whatever is presented, surfacing it in a scrolling amnesia where each element, whether acknowledged or ignored, is badged with a manufactured urgency before it’s whisked out of view by the algorithmic wizard. Time and its network of significances are exiled from the eternal present, where we are sold indulgences in the form of distraction, and our distractions as well as our interests in turn are sold for profit.

“Talk of ‘being in the present’ or ‘living in the moment’ has become part of our contemporary language,” writes Hisham Mitar in A Month in Siena, “But the present offers no options; it insists on our attention. It is relentless and knows that everything is contingent on it.” What shape that everything takes, however, what that contingency connects to, depends upon what we bring to the present to counter its insistence. That’s what an education seeds and cultivates, leading us out of the present, into the past and the future, so that we’re not in thrall to the itch of internal feelings or the incitement of external pressures. The sociopathy of our social networks is a symptom of education’s failure as much as technology’s triumph, for the latter has been enabled by a culture-wide surrender of the forces of learning to the slash-and-burn advance of troops bearing the standards of transactional utility, popular influence, and market dominance. The only knowledge ultimately required is to know the score—cash, audience, share price, and similarly delimited markers being the values deemed worthy of attention. No thinking required, no learning needed: both will just get in your way.

The internet didn’t invent this trend, but the imagined networked idyll technology still touts has exacerbated its influence by making all the world’s knowledge an amusement park of distraction, while monetizing all the world’s disinformation with unchecked greed; scale always has a finger on it. Crowdsourcing the commonweal, it turns out, is not such a good idea, at least not when the platforms empowering it are controlled by reckless technocrats “applying standards acquired within a limited area to the whole of human experience.” That last quotation is from “What Is a Classic?”, a talk T. S. Eliot delivered to the Virgil Society in 1944. The consequence of such blinkered but hubristic expertise, Eliot continues, is a confounding of “the contingent with the essential, the ephemeral with the permanent.” In our era, it has accelerated the decline of institutions—legislatures, courts, hospitals, colleges, churches, financial markets, the press—so weakened by their own corruption and complacency that they are unable to withstand the violent and sociopathic energies a brave new world of convenience and disruption has unleashed.

“Institutions, laws, systems, customs, creeds, conventions, are the bony structure of social life,” wrote Samuel McChord Crothers a century ago. “Without them we are jelly-fish indeed, and the prey of every passing circumstance.” A more pertinent comment on the civic calamity the coronavirus has exposed would be difficult to pen. The body politic, compromised by underlying conditions, is as vulnerable as any individual; institutions that are, or should be, our attention spans, able to have and hold and protect through time the many truths—some congenial, some contradictory—a community relies on, can no longer concentrate the courage or cunning needed to repel the torrent of passionate intensities assaulting them. Frantic with distraction, they’ve lost the threads of their own legacies and despair of ever finding them again. Like so many of us, they’ve lost the power to attend, and so our public life is filled with absences, a vacuum of vision and values. Missing in that empty space are the tens and tens and tens of thousands dead, victims of the pandemic—unnamed, unmourned, often unburied, almost unacknowledged except as data points in graphical projections predicting mortality in an infinity of facelessness.

Lost learning may appear irrelevant in the face of this. But I can’t help thinking of a sentence of Dr. Johnson’s every time I witness the day’s news: “the remissness of his education had left him without any rule of action but his present humour.” What’s true of a man can become true of a nation; and if you don’t think there’s a price for such remissness, look for all the absent dead.


More of A Classical Education:

1: An Ancient Dictionary

2: In Search of Cicero

3: Composing a Life

5: An Exchange of Gifts

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