Lost in thought?

Tonight I should be joining a zoom discussion of Zena Hitz’s lovely new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I’m not–or I will only be in and out, as I flit from chores to bedtime rituals and back again. Not that I couldn’t just put the TV on and check out of the household evening routine. After all, that’s what the kids are doing now, as I write. I am not going to draw up a chair with a glass of wine for a chat about the intellectual life with a load of fellow academics because we are the proverbial choir. I’d rather save my evening away for a discussion of such a book with other mums and people who work with primary school children.

Why? Because–and I don’t think the author would disagree with me here–the problem that reaches its apex at universities begins before the first year of school. It wasn’t surprising to find that my ethics students looked puzzled when I asked them whether they had come to the university because it was the only way to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. (A few gave me a knowing look, and smirked. But they didn’t raise their hands, either.) It wasn’t surprising, because from quite early on in primary school, pupils are taught to write ‘L.O.’ and to state the learning objective at the top of pages. (I caught my then 8-year-old daughter doing this at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and had to exercise tremendous self-restraint. CGS is about listening, not learning objectives!) Someone, somewhere, has decided that children are really just miniature adults, who like to be told why they are learning something, as if learning wasn’t something worthwhile for its own sake.

As I have said, the author would not disagree. And my colleagues wouldn’t disagree, either. But the people who have time to write the books are not the ones who sit with the 7-year-olds who are struggling to develop reading fluency and struggling even harder to understand why they need to learn to read fluently. If reading is about learning school stuff, and learning school stuff is about doing well on tests, and doing well on tests is about being employable (I kid you not, I saw a 7-foot by 3-foot poster in a primary school hall that indicated skills and traits that made a person more appealing to prospective employers), then if your dreams don’t tend in that direction, learning just isn’t important. Love of learning for its own sake has been squeezed out of the curriculum, and it isn’t just professors in the humanities that have noticed. It’s just that professors in the humanities are the people who have time to write letters to periodicals, and journal articles, and books.

I am not one of those people. My life is complicated by the needs of my children, who are extraordinary in sometimes demanding ways, my own struggles with basic sanity, and an impatience with injustice that remains as hot and irrational as it was when I was seven or eight. ‘But it’s not fair‘ I still protest, in spite of all the grown-up arguments for why it is what it is. So I am no good at explaining to the real grown-ups what’s wrong with the grown-up world. (This is the point at which somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that I should retrain as a Montessori teacher pops up, and I quash it with a memory of trying to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with boys between the ages of six and nine: I was rubbish!) And I also have a CV that appears ‘thin’ to people in the academic world; I look at it and wonder when I had time to write anything. 

Thus, I am opting for a different sort of evening. When I have finished my chores (the kids have done their share, I promise) and everyone is settled, the chances are very good that I will lose myself in Trenton, NJ* rather than Princeton. And tomorrow, I’ll get up feeling regretful that I missed the opportunity to have grown-up conversation about the intellectual life and its pleasures. I love learning and I don’t need an ‘objective’, but I am more at home arguing with my nine-year-old about whether the tree is a silver birch or a paper-bark birch (I don’t always win) or insisting that my 13-year-old son explain to me why fireworks explode in the microwave rather that just being entertained by the fact that they do. (Why do fireworks explode in the microwave? I could make up some stuff that might not be far from the truth, but I’d really like to know.) So, if anyone knows why fireworks explode in the microwave (beyond the basic, ‘because they’re explosives, silly’), let me know.

And thanks to all y’all who read my blog post last night and let me know. So wonderful to know we’re not alone.

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