an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Letters with a Young American Student – “Follow What You Love”

The below is a letter received from a young college student who I first came to know when she was a girl age 6 or 7. She is now studying in a small community college in the USA, and her letter reveals common complaints and conditions concerning American education.

October 29, 1996 [Mt. Shasta, California]

Howdy Stephen!

Large wet snowflakes fall outside the window, collecting on the existing three inches that blankets the ground. It has snowed often on the mountain already, but this is the first time in town. I was glad to get your correct address and to find out that you at least received a part of my message. Our housemate purchased a computer and a connection to the internet, since I last wrote to you. You can write to me at this address now.

So I’m going to the College of the Siskiyous again, after taking the year off from school, last year. Not being one who particularly enjoys the school environment, I often feel as though I am being trained to jump through hoops and to follow the stunted way of learning through textbooks and lectures. I do have two good teachers and I am enjoying my Psychology class. I am enrolled in Humanities, Psychology, Computer Science, and Intermediate Algebra. My feelings of unenthused hoop jumping have to do with the subjects at hand. Humanities would be interesting, but my teacher lectures in a monotone and is very rigid in his assignments. I like my Psychology teacher and his class. But computers and math don’t excite me. Ha ha, I’m on the computer right now! So if I had some pottery classes, some science courses and photography, then I would be interested in my classes. Also after attending the Zürich Waldorf School, I have less tolerance of our own public school systems.

I am living in a house in the woods of Mount Shasta...

Please tell me what you are doing and paint a picture of what it is like to live in Moscow. Perhaps you also could offer advice on making general education classes more fun!

Love, S.

Moscow, November 2 1996

Dear S.,

I was glad to get your e-mail recently – suspect that I will be shocked at how much you will have matured since the last time I saw you when you got off that train in Switzerland, with those funny tennis shoes on. Before I attempt to give some requested picture of life in Moscow, I want to immediately engage the question of education which you raised – “making general education classes more fun”. There is so much to say, that I am sure I shall write insufficiently...

Strange but true – and this is a humorous example of the discoverable depths of life and world which are around us – the word “fun” comes originally from an English word for “fool” – fon. Its current sense, of amusement and merriment, begins only in the 18th century. But this is (as the Russians express it in English) “a trifle”, in the greater story of humanity. “Humanities” (derives from homo, the earthly being of man, related to humus, earth and humble) has been my “major” for more than two decades, though I first also found interest in psychology as you have (understanding yourself?). Your teacher’s “monotone” and “rigidity”, sounds to me like a mind in premature rigor mortis; though it is absolutely typical of current educational conditions, as perhaps you are already recognizing. (I consider much “new age spirituality” – in its airy-fairy, cloudy, more surreal versions – as a reaction to the death in the academic world’s “humanities” of a vital idea of man, and the sleepy, doctrinal beliefs of religions.) What you must endure now, as an education, has a long story behind it – one which few professors prefer to refer to, recognize, or even acknowledge. Sometimes in decades past the situation was better, sometimes worse. But what you are facing at your community college is the after-effects of a virtual catastrophe. (I experienced much the same as a student 20+ years ago – and only when I, much later, read a history of US education/universities, did I understand what I had experienced as a student.)

There are several things to say, the main one being that no college or university will ever much successfully educate you or anyone else, because the individual (categorized as a “student”) must come to their own fire about learning. Teachers can inspire. They can bring knowledge to life – but all education (educere – to lead out [of ignorance, not knowing]) must come to being alive to the individual. (No small problem when most public education today is directed towards masses passively learning.) Meanwhile critical science conquered creedal religion (theology) as the core of the “humanities” by ca. 1900 in most of the universities in the USA – and you experience some of the result. The “death of God” has also taken the vital force out of any ultimate truths, meaning, order and coherence in the various divisions of the “humanities” in academic life. The universities have become permeated with categories, testing, and learning information – facts not passions (and teachers have followed). If you merely passively await an education, you’ll never become “educated”. And the pile of (seemingly-irrelevant) dates, facts and figures you need to pass tests in your classes will soon fade from memory. But the fact is that the history of mankind is a real living story of life and death, love and joy, suffering and pain, the search and struggle for meaning...and few passionate, deep scholars or teachers can endure the mild-mannered, bureaucratic, departmentalized, skeptical niceties of agnostic academic life. The best, most creative and passionate teachers, can rarely endure mediocrity, or routines, hour plans, schedules, etc.; so they are out, others are in. Imagine that a lecturer became so on fire, that he simply continued his “lecture” for 4 or 5 hours! How would the educational bureaucracy (with their time-slots of information, to be dispensed in 45-minute “units” over the school “terms”) like that – even if the lecture’s contents were brilliant and profound? Imagine what it means that a Ph. D. was not originally needed to teach. In Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (1990), Page Smith, the late, great historian of America, cites the American philosopher and psychologist William James on its questionable nascence:

William James (1842–1910)
William James (1842–1910)
There seems little doubt from the perspective of the present day that the introduction of the Ph. D. as the so-called union card of the profession was, if not a disaster, an unfortunate and retrograde step. William James was dismayed at what he called “the Mandarin disease” of the Ph. D., a “Teutonic” invention, completely foreign to American ways. “To interfere with the free development of talent”, he wrote, “is to obstruct the natural display of supply and demand in the teaching profession, to foster academic snobbery by the prestige of certain privileged institutions, to transfer accredited value from essential manhood to an outward badge, to blight hopes and promote invidious sentiments, to divert the attention of aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations....”

The academic life now follows science (skei- to cut) – by “murdering to dissect”. Life, world, nature, the story of mankind – leading up even to those silly people who currently fantasize space ships inside of the lenticular clouds of Mt. Shasta – is a unified story. A “tragic drama” as Page Smith described it. It is life – not departmentalized lesson plans. Here the universities in the USA have dis-integrated the world, dissected nature, deadened life, and abused love, passion, and the search for knowledge, truth and understanding. A good teacher is an alive, learned, excited and exciting, inspiring individual – and the best ones know that education is a real life quest. You – like millions of other students – are studying, unfortunately, at a morgue of sorts. Life and mind are not broken into dissected departments; nor are they quite so dead (monotonous and rigid) as, for example, your “humanities” teacher makes them. (Perhaps he is a weak soul? Or just accepts his teaching profession’s current mediocre standards of person and passion. I might guess that he treats history as some sort of external impersonal story the information to which the students must learn like more or less dead facts?)

But self-education – deep, serious, subtle – is a long process; and probably must begin, at least in the American conditions, with humbly admitting one’s ignorance. If you need a college degree, endure the college conditions as an external necessity. But use the place for your own education; do not let it abuse you. Good, inspired teachers (some do exist in places) must also endure the huge educational bureaucracies of rules, regulations, plans, etc., as well as the disbelieving, dispassionate intellectual analysis and information that are the main character and substance of what passes in most of the world today for academic life.

Popular American culture is, unfortunately, permeated by a very high level of ignorance, ahistoria and cultural illiteracy. “The last straw” for me in America, was giving a lecture in (“politically-correct”, “the alternative culture center”, “new age”) Santa Cruz, California, comparing the cosmologies and anthropologies of Thomas Jefferson to that of Dionysius the Areopagite/Dante/Steiner. The “university-educated” audience did not have even the most basic “humanities” background to understand what I was trying to say. (The educational system’s fault?) Their ignorance meant that I was subjective, specious, eccentric, or elitist. And it must be understood that the “humanities” are concerned with the story of mankind – our living human story, which university education has today most often murdered, displaying just the dissected corpse in testable pieces. So to hell with California, I said. It was not a casual decision to come to Russia.

Russia still has a much more serious intellectual system, plus a tradition of the respected ideal of the lonely, passionate scholar, or philosopher (even before the Soviets took over) – the lonely individual seeking knowledge, God, truth, understanding... In California I often heard, from otherwise sympathetic people, that I had read too many “intellectual” books. In Russia I have been criticized for inadequate exposure to many books – including American literature! (Mt. Shasta is, frankly, a “touchy-feely” (and “spiritual”) kind of place – certainly not one for many earnest, deeply- and broadly-learned people – but such conditions are so wide-spread and common in much of America today that it is rarely even considered.)

The human being is historically thought to be made up of spirit, soul and body. Mind and knowledge (and education!) are always therefore related to the “spirit” (confer Plato’s nous for example), whereas American culture (especially in its mass face) tends towards turning the soul towards the body primarily, or exclusively. But if God, spirit, knowledge – and that which survives death – are immaterial, America’s material and physical preoccupations may be somewhat spiritually unwise – seriously speaking. (But, you understand, I am a bit of a “madman” to California, because I have read “too many”, serious books.)

To make “general education” more “fun” – that is, more alive, inspiring, enjoyable – “follow what you love” (to quote my friend Page Smith again). Whatever interests you, study it – but deeply, and more and more and more. Yet, instead of specializing narrowly, follow the subject’s deeper elements and aspects, which will always lead into the broader and deeper knowledge, questions and ideas of life. While pottery is for doing, for the physical, calm, creative activity; even photography (in its more artistic depths) should lead into the deeper questions of beauty, of aesthetics, etc. Sciences are informative and interesting; but they do not often lead into a unified world-view– or rather, they are at base a soulless “materialism” which in fact rejects the “humanities” as illusory in fundamental essence. There are basically two competing world-views: a “spiritual” (which includes all religions and such) vs. a material. Everyone faces the questions of human existential meaning – including boring or stupid, as well as inspiring professors (be they in the sciences or the humanities) – and the more you know, the more deeply you live. This explains much of the superficial, mass mentality and culture of America, since broad and deep knowledge is not popularly recognized or even respected as important or high. (But I must warn you S., the more you know, the more you will feel as well – including possibly suffering.)

As you can see around you in the USA, it is very possible to enjoy life physically – and know next to nothing of culture, literature, history, philosophy, art, etc., of America or elsewhere. In this way the human being is lived as just somewhat more than an animal body, with the soul, the mind, the person (with their human interests, attentions and occupations), turned mostly towards satisfying it one way or other. Meanwhile there is a profound tradition – profoundly unknown, or acknowledged, in the USA’s mass culture – that the inner life is originally from and kindred to the immaterial. (The word “man” comes from mens- to think.)

Tell me, S., more about your school experience! How many of your friends in your classes are really interested in history, the story of philosophy, religion, ideas, the ontology of arts, etc? And if not, why not? Could you write and tell me, in some detail, about your view of your generation’s interests?

(Are you a part of “generation X”? In fact, what is “generation X”? I heard about it on the news when I was in the USA in August. What does this refer to?)

In general I would like to hear your thoughts on all of this. Why, by the way, do you think that your Zürich Waldorf year was so much better compared to your experiences in the USA?

So, I can really only offer you the simple but difficult advice to change your expectations, attitude, and perspective towards the college. Actively search out the best teachers; avoid the rest. Education, general education, will only ever really seriously be what you undertake to do yourself. But if, as Professor Page Smith said, you “follow what you love”, you will probably have fewer problems with its being enjoyable and “fun” (even if you must still endure some jumping through “hoops” to get a college’s degree.)



P. S. I did not quite get to the topic of Moscow. Is this all too abstract and philosophical?

First published in the magazine English, #11, March 1998, p. 12.