President Ramaley's Bookshelf: July 2011
Now that another academic year has come to a close, I find myself thinking a lot about teaching and learning and what I personally have learned this year. The question sits in the middle of my thinking and tends to wake up whenever I pick up a good book. It usually isn’t very long before the world opening up in that book connects to something else I have read or a conversation I have had recently with someone wise and wonderful. Pretty soon, the voices are interacting with each other in my imagination. If only I could assemble the authors around a table, offer them a cup of coffee and sit back to listen to their talk.
Early in May, the Chronicle of Higher Education carried an essay by William Deresiewicz entitled “A Jane Austen Education.” The essay was a delightful rumination on the very different way the author, then a graduate student, reread Northanger Abbey as he began to prepare to write his dissertation. It detailed how his interactions with an especially beloved professor and the lessons he was now able to see in the book eventually came together to inform his approach to teaching. Possessed (yes, I meant a double entendre here) of a Kindle e-book reader, I immediately downloaded the entire works of Jane Austen and opened up the text of what I, too, recalled as a light and pleasant book that I had skimmed through quickly in a college course a long time ago when I was about the same age as the heroine, so to speak, of the novel. With Dr. Deresiewicz as a companion, commenting quietly in my mind as I reread the novel, I took a very different lesson from the book that heretofore was just a dim pleasant memory. As Dr. Deresiewicz puts it, “Learning to read…means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you’re looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all of the time.”
As usually happens, reading the essay and then rereading Northanger Abbey reminded me of three other books I have read recently. The first one was Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer. This is a delightfully short book, easily read on a single plane ride or during a quiet evening. As she recounts a series of experiments and stories about what it means to pay attention, Langer takes the glazes off our minds and reminds us that, as my favorite philosopher Yogi Berra is alleged to have said, “You see a lot by looking.” For Langer, mindfulness is a concept that stretches back to the ancient Greek philosophers. That idea, naturally, led me to remember another book I had recently read entitled Examined Lives - From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. In this book, Miller starts out by saying that “Once upon a time, philosophers were figures of wonder” and their insights were conveyed to others, including future generations, by accounts of how they led their lives. Texts like Lives of the Eminent Philosophers as retold by Diogenes Laertius offered ways to study what underlies the propositions or pronouncements of famous thinkers and what it means to lead an examined life. (No, I have not tried to download that one. I have to draw the line somewhere!) The large questions our predecessors asked are not that different from the ones we ask today, at least when we take time to be mindful—What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? How shall we govern ourselves? What does it mean to lead a good life?
That set of questions leads me to the last book that came to mind, Exploring Happiness. From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok. As Bok says in her Preface, we become who we are in large part by how we respond to the shifting circumstances of our own lives and the times in which we live. We are not likely to agree on what it means to be happy but by the time you have spent some time with Bok you will have some lovely ways of looking at the world and will have thought about them in the company of some very fine minds. You will learn about how recent findings about the human condition by social scientists and neural scientists link back to the long-standing traditions of thought developed by philosophers, religious thinkers, historians, poets and storytellers across the centuries. You will have a much richer repertoire, a deeper and more balanced way to read the world around you, and you will have experienced the lessons we can learn by keeping our eyes open all of the time. That is the lesson I learned this year.
Essay: A Jane Austen Education
Book: Northanger Abbey
Book: Examined Lives From Socrates to Nietzsche
Book: Exploring Happiness, from Aristotle to Brain Science