My guest today is Zena Hitz, a tutor at St John’s and the author of an excellent book called Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Her book explores the meaning and the value of learning for its own sake, through images and stories of bookworms, philosophers, scientists, and other learners, both fictional and historical.
That’s the jumping-off point for this episode. We also talked about the relationship between religion and the Liberal Arts, why studying the Liberal Arts has become so unfashionable among average people, and how an essay about Oedipus Rex inspired her to become an intellectual.
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1:37 – What about Oedipus Rex grabbed Zena’s attention and inspired her to pursue intellectualism.
7:05 – What Zena sees as a “good” question in an intellectual frame, and why good materials can get you to them more easily.
9:55 – Why the most profound questions won’t show up at the beginning of your inquiry, and how the common person’s depth of inquiry has seemed to dwindle since the past.
13:19 – How Zena maintains her attention reading books when it is so easy to be distracted.
17:00 – Why it is decadent, complacent, and undermining to ourselves and our community to pursue education only in what will get us work.
23:53 – How people pursued lifelong learning in the past and why it’s even more viable of an option today.
28:07 – What Zena hopes to give to the world at large through her work.
33:51 – How the monumental shifts in wealth and inequality have hindered people’s ability to contemplate ideas they deem important.
36:20 – The differences in solitary and communal efforts to contemplate intellectual topics.
39:40 – Why we shouldn’t be consuming books, but rather engaging directly with them.
44:03 – Why Zena believes that the idea of a patriarchal or caucasian canon is a myth.
49:02 – How education is a means of training your mind while simultaneously freeing it.
53:04 – The affinity between the liberal arts and religion.
55:11 – Where Zena learned how to write and why she has trouble writing if she doesn’t have an audience.
58:42 – How to use writing to improve your thinking.
1:01:30 – Why St. John’s has deliberately set itself apart from research universities.
1:05:33 – The crisis in Zena’s life that kicked off her political thinking and essays, and why she believes that our current institutions are becoming increasingly disconnected from our humanity.
1:13:23 – What brought Zena to religion when there is a historic amount of people leaving it.
David: So I want to begin with an essay that you wrote as a freshman at St. John’s college on Oedipus Rex. Why did you get into that? And how did it help you set foot on the lineage that you’ve gone down?
Zena: That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that before. So I’m delighted. Actually it helps me to think freshly about how to describe my life, which since I wrote about it, my book, can become difficult if you’re asked about it repeatedly. So I came to St. John’s which is the Liberal Arts College, where I teach now and where I was also an undergraduate. I turned up there as a high school student after my junior year, they were running a academic summer program for high school students, where we read a actually, extremely challenging and very random set of books. And among them was Oedipus Rex. And another was Aristotle’s Physics, which is his philosophy of nature. And we read, especially the section on causes, the four causes. So for Aristotle a cause isn’t just the ball hitting the other ball to make it move.
It has to do with a material cause that is, what’s the condition that’s there to begin with that allows the change. What’s the form and the purpose towards which it’s changing. And then what’s the efficient cause what’s the thing that actually makes it do. So I got this very, in a certain way, something which if I heard it from a student now I would not have recognized as a good question, which I think is interesting. I wanted to know whether the four causes could explain what happened to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. So Oedipus starts out, he’s the King of Thebes, he’s top of the world, but he has this plague that’s in the city. And in the process of investigating the plague, he finds out who he is, his terrible history that he is, in fact killed his father and married his mother while trying to do nothing of the kind.
Again, why would anyone ask how Aristotle’s causes applied to this? It’s not in the right context. It’s not the right genre. But for whatever reason, that question got me into the play and thinking about what it was really that made Oedipus do the things that he did. And the standard reading if you read it with freshmen or really any person, if you read that play, you think the gods did it to Oedipus. It was fate that did it Oedipus. He was told as a young person that the Oracle he was going to kill his father and married his mother.
So he fled town immediately and he ran straight into the problem that is, he ran straight to his father in the road who he promptly killed, then met a woman who was his mom and married her. So he does exactly the thing he’s avoiding doing. So it’s got to be the gods. It’s got to be fate. It’s got to be all these things outside of their control. So I was puzzling through this and thinking again, through this, trying to apply these causes from Aristotle.
And I started to think… Oh no, actually Oedipus does all of the things. He brings it about himself. This is who he is. He’s the kind of guy who, if he meets a guy in the road and who he treats them badly, he kills him, just turned out to be his dad. He’s a smart person. He hears the Sphinx’s riddle, he wants to know the answer, so he figures it out. So he’s got a rational mind, he gets angry. He wants to be married and have power that he wants to marry a beautiful woman. So there’s appetites and sexual urge and sexuality that are mixed in there. So I started to see that Oedipus was a human being. He wasn’t distinctive in any way. He was all of us and he was doing what humans do. So that was very exciting. That happened to me in the process of writing an essay.
I wrote two essays, one in the summer program before my first year at St. John’s and the other I came back to it later. And it was in the second one that I had this insight, which was the first time I think I had ever gone into a play, gone into a work, got into a book, not knowing what I was looking for. Maybe using some tools that didn’t quite make sense and coming out with something that really surprised me, and that seemed profound and insightful and true. And that was what hooked me. So at that moment, I thought, this is what I’m supposed to be doing with the rest of my life.
This is all I want to do, is to be in this activity of discovering what the books of the past can reveal to us about who we are and how we can connect with those fundamental questions in a way that’s not a matter of going to the store and buying some knowledge, but a constant process where you’re really trying to understand who you are and what you’re doing in the world. Which I think is a basic human thing, it’s not an academic thing. It’s not a professional thing. It’s just something we do. So that was how it happened. And that was why at that point I became a more serious student and I went to graduate school and all the other things, but that was what Oedipus Rex did to me as a 17 year old.
David: You mentioned that the question that drew you into that you said, “Now.” You wouldn’t think of that as very good question. So then what makes a good question?
Zena: That’s what’s so funny about intellectual activity. You want to make progress. So learning is progress. It’s getting from where you start to some other place that’s better, that’s growth you start somewhere, you get somewhere. But the whole paradox of learning is how do you know what you’re supposed to be getting at when you haven’t started yet? That’s another thing in ancient Greeks, it’s in Plato’s dialogue called the Meno. How do we find what we’re looking for if we don’t even know what it is to begin with? It’s very good paradox. So a good question is one, which it gets down to something fundamental. And you’ve got some grip on where to start from and some grip on where it’s going, but you don’t know exactly where it’s going.
So it can’t be on the one extreme, totally formulaic where you’ve got a template that you’re matching something to, but you can’t be so disconnected from what you’re asking about that you’re just throwing words around and you don’t know what you’re doing. So I suppose when I said it wasn’t a good question. What I mean was, I think there was a way where I was just throwing words around that is I thought that these two books, one was about causes and one was about the trajectory of a person’s life. I thought, surely they’ve got something to say to each other, but what I say was a bad question that’s what I mean.
It was only by good luck because I was dealing with such good material that I was able to find something despite starting from that point. So in other words, a good question is essential, it’s important, it’s crucial, but it’s not the end of the world. If you’re dealing with the right material, you’ll find your way one way or the other you’ll stumble onto the right question even if you start from the wrong place. So I find that very mysterious and very interesting, but that’s how it seems to me to work.
David: I think that there’s a paradox within the liberal arts or a knot that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to untangle and I still haven’t been able to, it’s like pair of headphones in my pocket that I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to make straight. And when you started the Oedipus story, you talked about how random that was, how it almost felt very disconnected from the other things that you were exploring, but you ended it basically saying that Oedipus was extremely human.
He was one of us. And I think that in the liberal arts, it is maybe even through the disconnected nature that we can have a wide enough aperture in a story that it can speak to the human condition, rather than just the specifics, like what you mentioned of how to navigate a grocery store. Maybe that’s too specific, too relevant to the day-to-day to actually be able to wrap its arms around what it means to be alive.
Zena: I think that’s right. And I think one of the things that’s mysterious about these inquiries in liberal arts, is that the thing which is most universal, most obvious, most clear is somewhere far along in the inquiry. It’s not right at the beginning. So there’s something about who we are as human beings that’s always hidden from us. And yet somehow we can get underneath what’s hidden, what’s deceptive, what’s in some way not obvious.
And we can get to some core understanding that was in a way in front of our eyes all along. It’s very profound. It’s very weird. It’s very hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. So I’m always happy to talk to people who have experienced it in the hope that they can help me even clarify what exactly we’re doing when we do this.
David: Except there’s something really peculiar, which you turned me on to. And this is in your book. When you go back to the Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes, you talk about how normal people used to appreciate these things in ways that normal people don’t now. What is going on there?
Zena: I’ve wondered about that a lot. And of course, I don’t really know the answer. So I know from my study of these historical movements and periods that it’s possible for us. And this is one of the reasons why we study history and why we study old things we find out what’s possible. We find out that it doesn’t have to be the way that it is. But if I ask myself, why is it that ordinary people don’t seem to connect in the same way with these old books as they used to. I want to say on the one hand they do. So it’s just not something we talk about or think about. So there’s actually, if you scratch the surface. So I found since publishing this book, for instance, tons of people come to me and they say, “You know what? My uncle was an auto mechanic, he never finished college, and he knew everything about X, Y, or Z.” Or “My father was an immigrant he was a taxi driver, but he read every piece of literature he could get his hands on.” Or “My mother had eight kids, but she knew more poetry than anyone earth.” So you hear stories like this when you look for them.
So to some extent, it’s still true. To another extent I think we’re all doing less of that because of entertainment technology. So I think television was one big blow and the internet has been another big blow. And when you look back at when these things were really flourishing, it was before all that. And so I think our forms of entertainment and our forms of information gathering have… This is very cliched. It’s not anything original to me, but I think it’s true. They’ve diminished our capacity for attention or capacity to think, our capacity to sit with something for a long time, our concentrating ability. So it’s harder for all of us to sit down with an old book and just to read without looking up every 10 seconds to look at our phones or, you know-
David: How do you do it? I mean, how do you do it for yourself and also working at St. John’s, how do you deal with this for 18 year old students who are part of the YouTube generation?
Zena: So this is what’s really interesting. So I, like everyone else get distracted. So I have no special gifts for conquering distraction. I have no recipes. There’s tons of people out there with programs for avoiding it and I’m sure they’ve got a lot to say. I’ve never succeeded in a routine that overcame discretion. I think what I do have, which I’m extremely grateful for is extensive experience with studying and thinking and reading seriously. And that experience gives me the knowledge that it’s pleasurable, that it’s enjoyable, that it’s worth it, that it’s exciting, that it’s dramatic.
That is I’ve developed over time, thanks to my education, which I was privileged to get, a taste for it. And that taste motivates me to pull myself out of my distractions. And it doesn’t always work. If someone’s taking over the white house, it’s going to be hard for me to concentrate, but I know that it’s there. And I think a lot of what I worry about now with young people and with the way that education is, is that they don’t know it’s there. And it’s very hard to motivate yourself to go after something that you don’t really know what it is.
And you don’t really know that it’s enjoyable and you don’t know that it’s worth it. That’s one thing. So one thing is the objective, I think educationally and culturally and personally just to build up the habits, just to get ourselves to that place enough that we know it’s worth it. Same thing, people that exercise a lot do, right? Me, I’ve never done it. I hate running, but everyone I know who loves running, it’s painful at first. And then you get to that point where you start to feel what it’s doing for you. You get somewhere else.
And that motivates you to get past the entry barriers. So entry barriers are one thing. The second thing is, and this I think is something that is not totally unique to St John’s, but it is unusual we create a culture. So it’s very hard, our reading list is very demanding. We read a lot. Sometimes I sit back and I think how on earth can we ask people to do this? And the reason why we can ask them is because they’re all doing it together. It’s something everyone is doing. They’re all reading the Iliad in two weeks.
So they’re going to read the Iliad in two weeks because people in their dorms, people in their classrooms, people ahead of them in the program, they’ve all done it. So it has to be something cultivated like that. If you have a contemporary university, that’s much more consumer-oriented, that is, “What on the menu would you like today?” You’re not going to be able to choose the most difficult, rewarding things. You’re going to choose to some extent the things that are easiest.
David: But isn’t the liberal arts decadent? Shouldn’t we just go to college, get a job? Isn’t money the most important thing? And isn’t that what we need to do if we can’t quantify it? It’s just not worth actually studying these things. And you know what? There’s so many people who are in debt and so as a society, we should just help people go to college, get a job. And until they do it, these questions… Who cares about Oedipus? That’s just a distraction.
Zena: So I get the sense from the way you said that you didn’t quite mean it sincerely, but I do hear it.
David: Don’t worry.
Zena: I do hear it and I want to put it this way. I actually think it’s the reverse. I think it’s decadent and self undermining and deeply counterproductive for individuals and for us as a society, as a community to send our kids off to be trained for the thing that everyone thinks is current right now. So if you’re thinking that your education is for job training, what are you thinking about? You’re thinking about the jobs that are available right now. I’m not that old, I mean, I’m older than I used to be. But 15 years ago, when I was in graduate school, going to law school was a really hot ticket. You went to law school, you got a good high paying job.
You know what? That’s not really true anymore. And now people say, “Well, it’s coding or it’s engineering, or it’s this track or that track.” But what we’re doing when we follow that kind of lead is we’re allowing other people to dictate what counts as a job, what counts as meaningful life, what counts as success. And all of us need to be a part of figuring out what work is, what our communities need. What’s the next big thing?
And we do that by cultivating ourselves as human beings. One of the best ways to do that is through great books. It’s not the only way, it’s the way that I’ve done so I promote it because it’s my path. But all kinds of learning modes of human development, they need to be done for their own sake to develop us, to help us to see different possibilities, to shape our imaginations, to shape our thinking, and our insights, and our reflections.
And that way we become free human beings and not just people on whatever track our universities tell us or our employers tell us we should be on. So I feel quite strongly that it’s decadent and complacent and self undermining, not to seek out the best education that we can for ourselves and for our kids, because that’s the future. The future is not going to look like what it looks like right now. And do we want to be a part of that future or do we want other people to tell us what it is? I think that’s the kind of choice that we have.
David: Why is it so hard to study these ideas when you’re older? This is really what I take serious issue with, the fact that these great books at St John’s… I mean, I could go into masters, I could go get a PhD, but I think of it a lot, like a church or something. Basically, what we do is we say this, no church would say you can only have a serious relationship with God, our entire congregation from 18 to 22. But you can keep building that relationship with God. If you’re Jewish now, reading the Talmud, if you’re Christian reading the Gospels, go read Maimonides. But you can only do that from 22 to say 30, if your intention is to become a priest. That’s basically what we say,
But then if you’re older than 35 or 40, you’re not allowed back in the academy. And if you come back, legally, you’re allowed. But everyone knows that if a 55 year old gray haired man comes and sits in a college classroom with a bunch of 19 year old kids, it’s just creepy and weird. So why have we built a system where we only let people study these things for 12 years? Where if you go to church and you say you’re 70 years old, you’re 15 years old they have programs, they have everything for people of all ages.
Zena: So I think that’s great. Actually, I had never thought of that analogy before. I think it’s wonderful and it actually goes back to what you asked about earlier about whether it’s decadent to go for more than job training for your university degree. Because one of the things that a liberal arts education does is prepare you to learn for life that is, it prepares you to be a lifelong learner. That’s what you want from an education. Again, you don’t want to just go to the supermarket of learning and buy something off the shelf. You can do that, do it any time there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s stuff that can be bought that way. And it’s good.
You can learn to code, you can learn calculus, you can learn various tasks and that’s part of being a learner too, but what you’d really want to be is someone who’s always learning and a really good education gives you the tools to do that. And that’s because it’s a way of cultivating you as a human being in the same way that religion is a way of cultivating you as a person of faith through life. There might be certain initiation rituals in different religions, but you’re a Jew, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim your whole life, not for just a period of time.
So one of the things I think we really desperately need is ways of bringing adults into liberal learning. So we need to have resources. And this is another thing that those historical record is useful for. Working people used to form associations. You go down to the Mechanic Institute forms a library, who are they? They’re mechanics, but they have a library, they have reading groups, they read Plato on Thursday evenings, they play chess on Mondays. So we need to form groups like that for learning. And to have it be integrated more into our daily lives.
Now I want to be realistic here because there is something special about those years, 18 to 22, you learn a ton, you grow a ton, you mature a ton in those years and you take in more than you do later in life. It’s a wonderful opportunity to just soak a bunch of stuff in that you’re going to take with you for the rest of your life. That’s one of the reasons why I think for one thing, I understand that we may be moving away from four year colleges. I think something will be lost if that happens, because it really is transformative for many people, this four year period. So maybe you can’t do that at every stage of your life.
After all, you have kids, you have a job, you have various commitments, which bear on you, which don’t give you the leisure to study that way. But you can always carve out some piece of your life for study. But what we need is ways of building communities around that. Reading groups, study groups, informal classes, informal networks, just ways of connecting with one another to learn. And that’s one of the things I’m hoping comes out of all of this mess in education right now.
David: I have a story that I want to tell after this, but talk about the mechanic institutes and what they were, because I think that they’re a really good example of what you’re talking about. Communities, clubs, institutions that allow for a lifelong relationship with liberal learning.
Zena: So I’ll say a little bit about it. I’ll bring out another aspect of them which I think is important and which I’ve said a bit about, but maybe haven’t emphasized. So one of the things that’s really striking… So what happened is, this is something that happens starting in the late 18th, early 19th century in England, and then in the US, and it coincides with the labor movement in England and in the US. So it’s working people, industrialization and all of the changes that that brings about in what it means to be a worker and what kind of community you have to have as a worker.
So one of the things that… And also at the same time, you have a rise in literacy. So you have more and more people are learning how to read. So you have formal education, which is something for rich people. And it’s classical education at this point, it’s Greek and Latin classics. And what happens is working people who are connecting with one another for various reasons, they’re connecting to form associations to fight for better conditions, better working conditions, to lobby for higher wages, a shorter work week, an end to child labor and so on, to help protect one another.
You have primitive workers’ comp kinds of communities where everyone donates so that when one person gets injured, another person doesn’t. So there’s all of these workers associations. And one of the things they do is they look at what aristocrats are doing in their schools. And they say, “Well, we want that too. We’d like to learn like that too.” What’s so inspiring about these movements, and there are men and women and people of all walks of life and huge part of immigrant culture in the early 20th century in the US.
So people from all over the world. They look at what counts as education and citing and they say, “We want that.” They don’t say, “Oh, look, education is for the rich so it’s not for us.” They’re not passive, they’re active. They see something they want and they get it. So the works get translated. People gather together and they read together for their own reasons.
There are reading groups that have been documented for African-American groups in the South, people who were shut out of ordinary means of education. They gathered with one another, they read stuff that they wanted to read, they educated one another. So this is the spirit of what I call… I always think of the Mechanics Institute because I’m from San Francisco and there’s still a Mechanics Institute Library there. So it’s probably the first instance in my mind of it.
But that’s the spirit we’re talking about, where people take charge of their own education and take charge of connecting with one another and decide what they want to learn and learn it and make it their own. And we’re very passive in our culture we’re very susceptible to what central management wants us to do or to think. And we think everything has to be influenced through central management. And part of what is needed for education is for us to take charge of it ourselves.
David: I’m from San Francisco too. And I grew up running around that Mechanics Institute-
Zena: Isn’t that great.
David: And what happened was, I was reading your book and I didn’t realize what the Mechanics Institute was because I was like six years old, just running around the place. My grandpa used to go in there for all of his events. And he wasn’t a mechanic, he worked in advertising, but still kind of that working class thing. And he passed about a year ago. We’re going to get him a bench inside the Mechanics Institute.
Zena: Isn’t that wonderful. How touching. No, I remember, was my high school photography teacher told me about the Mechanics Institute Library as a place to go. And I remember going in there once and just being just in awe, there was people playing chess and the sense of leisure and community. And why are people doing this? It’s not a way to make money. It’s not a way to advance yourself. It’s just part of being a human being. And that’s what those old institutions, I think, can teach us.
David: But I think that there is this undercurrent of utilitarianism in the educational experience now. I saw that in roughly the 1960s, 70% of students went to college to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, 30% to get a job. And now those numbers have flipped. What’s going on there? 70% of people now trying to get a job.
Zena: So I don’t know, again, I feel like my work in this area is really to say what I think the ideals are and why they matter and not to speculate too much about the historical causes. Because I think for one thing, it’s not really my expertise, but for another thing, I think it can be discouraging. That is, if you think about everything as being necessitated historically, you don’t think, things could be different. So I think there are some historical causes, for instance, it’s very economically different.
So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically. And of course also more different kinds of people are going to college than you used to be, which is a good thing in principle, I think.
Unfortunately, I think the way that the colleges have handled it is by thinking they have to adapt what they do to what person coming in happens to want, rather than keeping the quality the same and bringing everyone up to that quality they just reduce everything down. And again, there may be economic reasons for that it’s not obvious to me. But I’ll say another reason why I think there’s a change, and this is one that actually in a funny way, gives me hope, even though you’ll see why it’s a little mixed. The middle of the 20th century is the Second World War, and that was the second major catastrophic war in Europe in 20 years in a single lifetime.
So you had two unbelievable human-made catastrophes in Europe, and that caused… In these places which were… If we look at them now, very sophisticated, they had music, and art, and literature. I mean, there’s a natural tendency, maybe it’s especially European, but we think of these things as being savage, primitive, barbaric. And it turns out that we were always like that and we didn’t change and maybe we even got worse with all our sophistication. So there’s a deep existential crisis that strikes people when they face those events. And when you’re seeing these huge global changes, colonialism is collapsing and different nations are emerging as independent.
So I think people really were struck and wanted to think about what their lives really meant. That was of course also fueled socially, culturally speaking, by this huge influx of Jewish refugees from Europe to the UK and the US which really dominated universities until about 20 years ago. And these were people who had been very close to the existential crisis, they were survivors. They brought all of this European culture from its pinnacle.
And they used all of those tools to really reflect on what it meant to be a human being in this age and who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? And I think we’ve lost touch with that as the memory of the events has faded. But I think things are getting catastrophic, and again, we’re getting some of that existential sense back. So that’s why I say it’s a funny kind of hopefulness because it’s a hopefulness, it’s based on same thing. It had natural response to things getting a bit worse and that forcing us to think about who we are and what we’re doing, what we’re about.
David: I had a conversation with a friend the other day and he’s talking to me and he goes, “So what do you make of your generation?” Like “I have no idea. That question too big, you go first.” And he goes, “Young people are extremely interested in questions of morality now in ways that wasn’t true for boomers, and that that is one of the defining characteristics of these young people now, this generation of digital natives.” And I think that really speaks to what you’re saying.
Zena: No, I think that, to be honest, my experience, especially since writing the book and hearing back from people about it, people are just so hungry for this stuff. We have these standard things that we say about what the general culture is that it’s all online, it’s all social media, it’s all superficial, it’s all click after click. But we also have to realize this, that, that’s making people self-consciously unhappy. They know it’s not what there is, they know there’s more, and they’re looking for it. So I’m encouraged by that too. I know that people will respond when things that are more substantive are brought to them.
David: You talk about how… I know that you studied some of the differences in the way that Aristotle and Plato think about human nature. And you specifically point to the way that in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about the highest end of human life being contemplation. And to the extent that that’s true, maybe we should be extremely concerned about how the places where people go, who are the most ambitious, these cities, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles. The fact that real estate has gotten so out of control is a serious problem, because that necessarily means that we have to focus on the utility of money over these ideals of a contemplative life that you’re speaking about.
Zena: I think that’s really true. And I had that brought home to me relatively recently. I’ve lived on coasts most of my life. I mean, now I live usually in the DC area, but I’m from the West Coast. But I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.
So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.
You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.
The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.
David: I want to dive into when it comes to being lost in thought that implies a solitude of learning. And you talk about the paintings of angels from the middle ages and the renaissance, and specifically Mary, and how that points to a life of intellectual withdrawal that you need from the world to cultivate your inner life. But then on the other side, there’s a much more Socratic method of a very social kind of learning. So when should we be receding and when should we be social and in dialogue in order to study these ideas?
Zena: That’s a great question. And it’s something which I think I speak in one way and then the other, because I’m trying to capture these two aspects of what I think intellectual life is, and they’re both present, but they seem to pull in opposite directions. So it’s a bit delicate. It’s a bit of a tight rope to walk when I talk about it. So on the one hand, I think it has to be withdrawn, it has to be solitary, intellectual work, intellectual life, studying, and thinking, and reflection for a couple of reasons.
One is that our default mode in social life is outward directed in a bad way. So it’s where do we stand with respect to the social environment we’re in the current moment? So in a certain way, our default mode is sort of the high school cafeteria. It’s like, “I can’t sit with the jocks, I’m not cool enough, but do I have to sit with losers? Maybe not. Maybe I can sit with a halfway between the…”
So we have this constant competitive status marking thing that dominates our attention when we’re in a default social mode. So for one thing, you’ve got to pull away from that. You can’t escape from it ever, completely. It’s part of who you are, but you want to have a part of yourself that’s withdrawn from that where you’re doing something different, and where you’re connecting with yourself as having a value that’s independent of how other people are judging you.
That’s part of it. And also in a way, I’m a big believer in intellectual community. One of the reasons why I like books as a model of learning is that there’s an author in the book who you’re connecting with when you open it. So there’s something communal, even just in reading a book. You’re in a corner, reading a book, but there’s someone with you, it’s the author.
And the author is introducing you to other people, people the author knows. And the people that they’ve read and you’re entering into this social world, the people may be dead, but it’s other minds that you’re interacting with. And there’s nothing like sitting around, talking with other people, friends, fellow students, colleagues, whatever about books or ideas. It’s great way to learn, the best way, nothing ever beat it.
On the other hand, if you think about those collective experiences, either the encounter with me in the book or me in the reading group, it starts with me, my question, my desire to learn, my desire to understand, that’s what brings me into that group. That’s what makes me open the book. It comes from me somewhere deep in me as an individual. And furthermore, it ends with me. So I come away from the reading group, I close the book and I have to reflect on what that means for me in my particular path through the world.
So this is all by way of trying to capture that, on the one hand, we really need to connect with ourselves as people with our own sets of questions, our own trajectories, our own sources of meaning. And that also to realize that we can’t really develop who we are, we can’t grow and learn without the help of other people. So I switch back and forth, sometimes I emphasize one thing, sometimes I emphasize the other, but they’re both really present for me in thinking about why learning matters.
David: I have been thinking a lot about what is it about the liberal arts in particular? Why do we study the liberal arts? And on 41st and Fifth in New York, there’s Library Walk. And when you’re on that sidewalk on both sides of the street, there’s just little plaques. And they have quotes about reading from great scholars of the past. And my favorite is a quote from Descartes. And he says that, “The reading of great books is a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” And what the liberal arts are, is that you consume all the greatest thoughts that have ever been had, and then you build on top of them.
Zena: So I think that’s perfect. The only word I would quibble with you about there is consume. Because if you think about it, a conversation with an author, a dead author, is a lot like a conversation with a living person. You don’t consume the things that you talk to your friends about. Interact with them, you confront them. Sometimes you just clash with them, right? Sometimes they say something and you’re like, “What on earth just came out of your mouth.” That can happen when you’re reading a book too, that’s also… So it’s you encounter another person’s way of thinking and it works best when you really try to step inside that person’s eyes and ears for a bit and see, try to see the world as they saw it.
That in turn, as you’re doing that, you’re not losing who you are, because you go back into yourself and you take on whatever insights you got while looking through the other person’s eyes and you add them to what you’ve already experienced. And that in turn allows you, as you say, “To add to it.” Because each person’s journey through the world is going to be distinctive, and you’re going to go someplace different from your reading of Oedipus Rex, or Descartes, or Malcolm X, or whatever it is.
You’re going to go someplace different than anyone who’s ever read those books before. And that, I think, is also really important. Sometimes people when they talk about great books or the great books. They talk about it as if it’s something fixed and rigid, like it was determined in the past, and we’ve just got to read all the same books that everyone’s always read. And that’s really not the way it should be. That is we have to be active.
We have to be aware and reverent of all of these people who have thought and written such brilliant, wonderful aides to learning, but we also have to respect our own desires and our own interests in learning and feel free to make of these authors what we want to make of them. That’s one of the things I think that’s so inspiring about the Mechanics Institute stories is these books weren’t meant for working people. They were meant for aristocrats, almost always. And the working people decided they didn’t care and they made of it what they were going to make of it. And what they made was something different and something new and something even better than what had been before.
David: You’re getting at another really interesting paradox and something that I think we’re having a lot of social discussions around. I was auditing a philosophy class at Columbia this year and on the library on the southern part of the main square, the 12 male names have been covered up with 12 female names to basically say that the canon should be both male and female.
And what you’re saying is there is the canon, and then there’s these other readers who we should be looking at. And in the St John’s canon, it is very dominated by men. And so I think that there is a paradox of saying, “Okay, let’s read the canon.” It’s almost like the Jenga of human thought, the tower that was built. Because if you study these writers, they were influenced by these other very influential writers.
And when there wasn’t as much information as we had today, people really built on the same people over and over and over again. Whitehead says, “All of philosophy is just a footnote to Plato.” And so you take that and then you get this very patriarchal view of the great books. And then there’s the other where people also rightly say, “These great books don’t speak to the kaleidoscope of the human condition.”
Zena: So again, I want to just take a… I mostly agree with that, but I want to take just the issue with just a little bit… I would have put it a little bit differently. That is when someone like Whitehead says that philosophy is the footnote to Plato. I think it helps to think about what that really means as far as who was Plato and what does it mean to be his footnote? The responses to Plato are a kaleidoscope of possibilities. They go all over the world.
There are not just coming from Plato, but modes of thought similar to Plato that come out of India from very different background texts, but which seemed to be going in the same direction. And then Plato goes through Judaism and through Christianity and then he goes into Africa and he goes into parts of Asia and he goes into… The canon is much broader and much more of a story of a kaleidoscope of peoples making sense of their world with the materials of the past in their kaleidoscopic ways.
So I think the patriarchal canon is a bit of a myth. It exists sometimes in the minds of people who think about canons, but it doesn’t really exist, in my experience, in canon authors. So here’s another example, which I think is a bit clearer or at least to me, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, the Black American Canon. So a canon is just a set of books that are connected with one another.
So someone reads this, and someone reads this, someone reads this, and you have a set of connected books. It’s called tradition. So if you look at the great Black American authors and writers and thinkers, they’re almost all classically educated. Sometimes formally, usually not formally, usually by the skin of their teeth. So Frederick Douglas Wright teaches himself to read in secret he’s forbidden by his master to read. And somehow he gets his hand on this book of orations, which are orations by dead White guys, they’re not meant for him.
David: And his master gets really bad because he says, “If you keep reading this, you will be unfit to be a slave.”
Zena: Exactly. So Frederick Douglas reads these dead White guys and he becomes not a dead White guy or a slave, but Frederick Douglas, he becomes a free person. Even very radical characters, Malcolm X Huey Newton. These are people-
David: You got to tell the Malcolm X story. It’s so good.
Zena: So Malcolm X was, I think his parents were activists. It’s not like he invented activism from whole cloth, but he had a rough… His father’s murdered, lynched by white supremacists, his mother… His family’s broken up by the Welfare Office. And he, like anyone with that background, he ends up in a lot of crime related activities, ends up in prison and reads the whole prison library basically and reads Western classic, reads Eastern classics, reads the history of Africa.
And he becomes a completely different person. He becomes who he really is. And that’s another example of someone who… He didn’t read Plato in prison, which I’m sure he did. He didn’t read it and say, “Oh, slavery is good. And the people in charge are correct about everything.” He reads it and he makes of it what he wants to make out of it. He combines it with his experiences and becomes his own person.
So we have to think of books as being like food. You digest them and they become you they don’t make you into something else. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful what you eat and we shouldn’t think about it, and so on. We should be thinking about what to read and what not to read and all these things, but we shouldn’t underestimate our freedom as readers and our ability to take books that were meant for sometimes horrible purposes and turn them into something liberating and wholesome and beautiful. We can do that. That’s what human beings can do.
So I’m very sympathetic with those who want to see the full kaleidoscope of humanity through culture and books, and who don’t want to think of education as being this rigid thing, which has been already determined by somehow grandfathers of the past. But I really don’t want us to lose track of our power as readers to transform what we read and make it into something often totally at odds with the intention of the book. And if we trust that, if we have faith in that, then I think a lot of the heat around the canon wars would decrease. And we would see things more clearly.
David: There was a recent quotes article about St. John’s, where you work. And I love this quote, it trains your mind and frees’ it at the same time.
Zena: Yes, I think that’s really… I mean, isn’t that what we all want when we want an education. So on the one hand, we want to be trained. You’re not free. So if for instance, you’re set free in a supermarket, you don’t know how to cook, and you don’t know what good food is. You’re not free. You’re not free until you have some habits and some knowledge of what your goals are.
And some skills, you know what to eat, how to eat, what are you eating for? You need to have a way of life. Then you can go into the grocery store and figure out how to shop. So freedom doesn’t mean being left to consume whatever content you can find. It’s getting some skills that will then allow you to really function as a free adult, as someone who can make choices and get out of scrapes. And re-imagine the world that you’re living in.
And it’s honestly, sometimes I think that reimagination is the most crucial thing that we learn from old things, just to be able… We often feel so trapped. We think things always have to be the way they are, and you just need to cultivate your imagination. That’s a type of freedom that really is crucial. Even when you can’t do anything it’s crucial if you can re-imagine, if you know that things don’t have to be the way they are, even if in the moment you’re powerless, you have a kind of freedom that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And so, anyway, this is the kind of thing I hope that we can recover in our educational institutions.
David: So much of this idea of what should we study in terms of the spectrum between data utility, and then just the liberal arts, the Malcolm X strategy, which you point so eloquently, can actually work and really develop you and have that education be a grounding for some really powerful things in the world. And it’s amazing because it goes back to this ancient tension between Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, Jefferson, founder of University Of Virginia, basically says, “Let’s go with the liberal arts.”
So Jefferson’s all the way on the other side and he’s like, “No, let’s do University Of Pennsylvania be a bit more about utility and think about what maximizes profit is also what maximizes your own morality. And that makes you a good person.” I’m belittling what he’s saying a little bit, but really just to exaggerate it and really illustrate the tension between the two of them.
Zena: And I also don’t want to… I actually love the practical. I love a beautifully made bridge, a new invention, all kinds of practical things. Medicine, I’m a big fan of modern medicine may shock people, but I think antibiotics are terrific. I’m glad we have them. So I’m not by any means thinking that we should all abandoned practical pursuits and think about the deep stuff all the time. But I think that we’re missing something.
If the deeper fundamental questions, aren’t a basic part of how we’re thinking about ourselves in the world. Even if it’s something we only get to from time to time, if we only have a chance every now and then to sit back and think about what we’re really doing and why. I think that’s crucial for us. We can’t be only practical that’s just not possible for a human being.
David: Is there a way of reading the modern liberal arts as religion for secular people in that religion forces you not to focus on the practical for one day a week and the liberal does that too?
Zena: I think it’s definitely an affinity between liberal arts and religion. And I think you’re right that part of… And that’s another way of thinking maybe about the historical situation. Why was the mid 20th century so great for liberal arts and why have we lost it? It was a time where religion was really shifting. So there’s a lot of people leaving religions.
So it comes into the gap as a way for us to fill what might’ve been fulfilled by religion, what might be by other people or in other places or times. I do think that… I mean, myself as a religious person and a lover of liberal arts, I like to think that there’s really room for both, both are crucial, but I do think you’re right that even if you think about what I was saying earlier about how we need to withdraw out from the realm of competition and connect with who we are, our intrinsic value.
That’s very much something that a religion can give you, and traditionally does. And religion, I have to say is more universally applicable in these matters, that is anyone can join the major religions. You don’t need to know how to read. You can have very severe disabilities that would make it very difficult for you to do learning of the kind that I’m talking about and God is there for you. So I think in a way, religion is a broader thing under which liberal arts fits. But I also think that liberal arts is a way for people who struggle with religion, who can’t find their way into religion for them to access a lot of those goods that religion does provide for people.
David: As a professional writing teacher I am here by mandated to ask you how in the world you wrote this book? So what have you learned about effective writing that works for you? And then we can talk about how you teach it and get into the relationship between writing and thinking.
Zena: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer honestly, is I don’t really know how I wrote it. I never learned how to write. I mean, I took composition class in high school, but I think I already had a lot of basic writing ability before that. I think honestly, I learned to write from being a lifelong reader. I think I read a ton as a child and as an adult. And I think that that is really… I learned by imitation.
I don’t have techniques and I, myself, I find it absolutely nerve wracking the prospect of undertaking a book project without knowing whether anyone will care about it. So I wrote an essay on education and learning and intellectual life, one short essay that I was able to do on my own initiative. And fortunately, an editor at the press noticed it and invited me to write a book and I would have to point out, I said, “Well, okay, sure. I’ll write a book, if you want it I’ll write it.” But that was a huge help for me to have someone offering me an opportunity and telling me that there was a market for it, and that people were interested in it.
There was an audience for it. I see in here, people who write and then send it out to a 100 people or 200 to a 1000 people. And I don’t know how they have the psychological, emotional wherewithal to do it. So, anyway, I don’t really know how I did it. I will say this, if it consults anyone who’s in the middle of writing a book right now, there was a lot when I was writing it, I knew it was going to be an unusual book. I knew that I had to take a tack that was a bit personal because I wasn’t comfortable with the other modes that were available to me.
So there’s a couple of types of books like this. You can write a philosophical argument based on first principles, where you establish some definitions and some theoretical structure, and you make an argument on that basis. You can make a historical argument. This is who we used to be. This is who we should be. This is how we’ve gotten here. This is how we get out of it. You can make a social sciences databased argument. I didn’t feel comfortable with any of these modes. I thought, look, I’m going to talk about who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen. And I want to share with my readers, not just me as a biographical subject, but me as a thinker.
So part of the book is memoir, part of it is stories and anecdotes that illustrate the kind of thing I’m thinking about. And the other parts are interpretations of old books in a way that I’m hoping invites the reader into thinking about books themselves. So I wanted to invite the reader in to think with me on my level, I didn’t want to take a position of authority that felt false to me. And I didn’t know what I was doing. And it was very difficult and it came together in the end, by what felt like magic.
David: That sounds like everything I’ve ever written too. So we’re on the same team.
Zena: Good. That’s great.
David: So students at St. John, they ended up writing 25, 30 essays during their four years, maybe more. What do you tell them about how to use writing to improve their thinking?
Zena: So there are different factions on this question. I’m very much a… Especially for undergraduates, I think people should write to express their thoughts. That is, I think there’s often too much on the format of the expression, citation formats, and five paragraph essays and introductions to conclusions and thesis statements.
And what I really want from a student essay is a piece of thinking. I want them to start somewhere, formulate a question, and I want them to work from that to something else to some other place that’s different from where they started and to do that as simply and clearly and as directly as possible, and to use evidence and examples and use a text if that’s what you’re talking about, use examples from life, if that’s what you’re talking about.
So I’m very lax, relatively speaking on everything technical. And I really try to get at what the student is thinking, what they’re interested in, what they care about, and what they’ve learned from trying to write that essay. Now, I have a privilege of doing that at St. John’s because our classes are very small. We have a tradition of meeting with each of our students after their essays, and we also have a tradition of them choosing their own topics.
So that’s very good environment for this particular type of thing. But I tend to think that, thinking and writing are very close together and you don’t want to act as if there’s a formula for writing when there really isn’t one for thinking. So why would you expect it to be any other way? So it’s very, in other words, it’s very person to person. “What’s this person thinking about and how can they communicate it?” And I think that’s really the question about writing as far as I’m concerned.
David: If I look at university there’s two things that I think define 20th century intellectual life of these institutions, and the first is the way that research has taken over as the predominant function of the university. And then also, and this is what that book which you hyperlinked and then I read a lot of it, The intellectual Life Of The British Working Class is really critique of the way that in the 18th and the 19th centuries, novels, and scholarly work was quite accessible to the average person. And then you end up in the 20th century with people like Mark [Cousy 00:59:55] and a bunch of critical theorists who are just impossible to understand. So how is St John’s both moving in those directions and a reaction to those things?
Zena: So St. John’s has always set itself against a research university. So we don’t do research. I do a little bit of research because I like it. It’s a hobby of mine. I did it for a long time. I enjoy it. I think it’s important, but it’s not particularly encouraged by my university. And I like it that way, because I don’t think in the end, if I had the choice, I’d say my teaching was the public good that I’m contributing more than the scholarship and specialized scholarship does not really contribute to teaching in my experience. So one of the things we do at St John’s that I think it’s distinctive and I’d like to mention, because it’s not something you see everywhere.
The distinction in academia is often posed as between research institutions, where faculty are given the time and the resources to do their own thinking versus teaching institutions where they’re sort of slaves of the enrollment and all they do is churn through their five classes a semester. There are four sections of intro and one section of this and get as many students through the diploma mill as possible. And I think that St John’s recognizes what I think is true, which is that to teach well, you need to be pursuing your own intellectual interests, but those don’t need to be in the direction of scholarly research.
They can be finding your way into a new area in which you might never be an expert. It could be working through some set of things you’re teaching in a more detailed way so that you get more insights into it. There’s all kinds of ways where we can develop intellectually as individuals that aren’t just being part of a teaching diploma mill, and also aren’t scholarly research. So I think that’s a very undervalued approach and something that’s worth thinking about
David: What got you to write your dissertation on criticisms of democracy among different thinkers? Why was that something that was of such interest to you?
Zena: I started writing a dissertation on self knowledge in Plato and Aristotle. And actually I think that work was better in the end than the work I did on democracy, but I had a sort of early midlife crisis that was connected to the bombing of the World Trade Center. And I felt that what I was doing was useless and I needed to do something that was connected to real people’s lives. And so I went through a series of deliberations, I thought about quitting academia and doing human rights work. Then I thought about doing political philosophy straight up rather than classical philosophy, which was my specialty.
And I finally settled on this compromise, which was to do classical political philosophy. And the question about democracy just seemed like an interesting juicy topic, which of course it is. And I enjoyed a lot and learned a lot from doing it and ended up moving into all kinds of ancient political theory questions that I’m still thinking about in a lot of ways, but that was how it happened, it happened out of a personal crisis in the moment.
And it’s funny looking back now, it’s funny how different it feels if I were wanting to write something relevant now in that area, I want to write about what’s good about democracy, not about what’s bad about it. But at the time there was a lot of very self-congratulatory democratic theory running around, and I thought it needed to be a little bit punctured. But now I wouldn’t do that because political philosophy is always connected to real life politics. And actually I love democracy and I want it to flourish. So I don’t want to go too hard on it.
David: Do you want to talk about that crisis?
Zena: My midlife crisis or the crisis in democracy today? Which of those crises?
David: Whatever set this off for you.
Zena: The crisis that I had that was, I think, the more interesting thing, maybe that I have a more distinctive outlook on than someone else who might put on your podcast who knows more about democracy is current crisis. But for me, I think I had spent most of my life in a library. I’d gone to school uninterrupted for years. And I was a grad student at Princeton at the time, it’s always been a very high prestige elite institution, but at that point in philosophy was really extremely high prestige competitive elite. And I loved it.
It was fabulous I was very successful and very happy. And then that moment when those towers were bombed, which is hard to recover for someone who didn’t see it as these things always are, I suddenly felt that there was more of the world than what I had been living and that somehow my life had to respect that. So it was a long crisis. I was not a believer at that point, a religious believer. So one of the things that happened through my working out of that crisis was I became one. I struggled with academic profession for a long time.
I left it for a time. I joined a religious community, but I do think, and this was one of the stories I wanted to tell in the book, that in a way, this kind of crisis has never fully resolved. You’re always trying to find a way to connect with what’s real. What’s needed to do the work that expresses who you are in a way that’s sensitive to your community and its needs, which are always hard to see. We don’t want to see suffering. We don’t want to see crisis. We don’t want to sacrifice ourselves. So we always have to fight to see that.
On the other hand, I do feel like one of the things I saw through my journey over these years of working through this crisis was that, teaching and learning are fundamentally human goods. They’re like, you think about a soup kitchen just gives food to hungry people, or has a clothing room for people who don’t have clothes. It’s very similar to give people opportunities to learn. It’s not different in kind, it’s not decadent, it’s a human need.
And as long as our teaching or our academic work is connecting directly with that need, which is not easy, but it’s possible. As long as we’re connecting with that need, then it really is meaningful and worthwhile and fulfilling. But our institutions can get disconnected and we have to fight to reconnect to make sure that our work is responding to the needs of our community. I think that’s one of the things, honestly, if I had to say, what’s wrong with higher education right now in a sentence, I would say it’s not connecting with what people really need.
David: Keep going on that. So in what way, I mean, you talk about the metrics driven nature of these bureaucracies a little bit, but in what way are these institutions not connecting with humans?
Zena: There’s a scale problem. So learning, as far as I can see, is almost always personal. If you think about how you learn karate, you got a karate teacher. See, you already know it, you learn piano you get a piano teacher, that’s one-on-one or a very small group instruction. The person has the skill, is a model they model for you what it means to know it, they watch what you do, they give you input in time feedback.
They give you advice that’s tailored to your particular moment, your particular progress, your particular objectives. That’s the way learning works. It can’t be done on a factory scale. And that’s what our universities have been trying to do. And that’s incidentally not just true for liberal arts. I think it’s also true for math and science. You can pass on some skills in math and science on a large scale, but you cannot train someone to think mathematically or to think scientifically except through personal mentoring.
So we’re trying to do something that can’t be done and we need to step back and think about how we can actually do the thing that the institution is meant to do. Because frankly, there’s a lot and I don’t want to get… This isn’t the kind of thing I like to complain about too much, but these institutions get a lot of resources, public and private.
They get it for a reason, namely, to serve some public good. If they’re not doing that, if what they’re really doing is running multi-million dollar sports corporations, or are self perpetuating administrative bureaucratic machineries, then they’re not worth the money that we as taxpayers, or we as philanthropists are putting into them.
So I think that honestly, as much as higher education has been talked about and complained about, I don’t think people have really looked face on at just how bad the situation is, and just how far-removed our institutions have gotten from what they need to be doing. And I say that with one qualification that is that there are tons of people who work against the grain of their institutions and who carve out little spaces for stuff to work. And I don’t want to disrespect those people because they’re what’s making the whole thing worthwhile at this point. But we do need to think seriously about reform and how to rescale these institutions so that they do the work that they’re supposed to do.
David: There’s a really weird inversion happening where we’re scaling our institutions and they’re becoming more expensive. You would think that for the karate example, if there’s a lot of personal attention, things then become more expensive. But what you’re saying is the scale and the increase in cost are happening in unison, which indicates that something is deeply wrong there.
Zena: Something is deeply wrong and there are people again, who will have a sophisticated economic account of how that happens, and I think they should be listened to and taken seriously. I don’t have that account. So I don’t think anyone’s doing this on purpose. It’s happening through… Bureaucracy grows by something like a natural force. And we need to think about what those are and try to think about ways of interrupting them. But I do think that education is not a dispensable part of a community, it’s essential. And those of us who work in education are often too invested in our own institutions and the way we’ve always done things to see clearly what’s going on.
And those on the outside are rightly, very frustrated that you can get in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. And no one can tell you why you did it. That’s not an acceptable state of affairs and everyone knows it. So anyway, again, everyone knows where in some kind of crisis, and I think one of the things I just want to be clear about is I think scale is a huge part of the problem.
David: I want to go back to what you were saying about religion. What took you to religion and what was the door that brought you in? I’m really interested in conversion experiences so long as you’re open to discussing it. And I think that what’s particularly interesting is, it’s as if you look at the statistics people are leaving religion and so what brought you to it? And it might be interesting to even talk about the epistemology of religion and as a contrast to the materialist empiricism of science.
Zena: So in a way it was a very ordinary experience converting for me. So I didn’t fall off a horse or have a vision. I found myself as I was starting in college and then into my twenties, I found myself that I was more comfortable around religious people. My closest friends were all religious, even though I had not been up in any religion, I was brought up in a very secular environment.
So at some point I started to take that seriously and I thought, it would be good to have a religion. And I think honestly, a lot of conversion takes place that way. It’s less commonly maybe associated with friendships, more commonly associated with someone gets married someone has kids. They’re like, “Oh, am I going to raise my kids in a religion? I guess we better find a religion.”
So I don’t think that that impulse should be score. And I think it’s very serious. And I think it testifies to some very practical, basic longing that we have to be a part of a community that connects us with fundamentals. What goes by as most important and provides for us some kind of refuge from everything else that’s going on in life. One of the things that was most attractive to me about the Catholic church, which was what I converted into, the moment when I made the decision to join was I went to mass in the place… I was living in Alabama at the time.
And I went to mass and there are so few Catholic churches in the South, because it’s traditionally a very Protestant area. So everyone has to go to the same ones. You’re packed all in for miles around into this one church, because it’s also growing very quickly, even though the churches aren’t keeping up with it. So there were people from all over the world became clear within a short period of time, very different political backgrounds, very different economic backgrounds.
And they were all gathering at this place to worship. And somehow that struck a chord with me that idea that there might be a human community, which was not just economic, not racial, not ethnic, not social, not cultural, but somehow a place that we were as human beings before God, it was witnessed to me by the way that particular church was. So that was what attracted me.
And then once I was in, as these things happen, especially with converts, it was very casual at first. And then I realized that I was undergoing a very significant change in my values. And it was honestly not always pleasant I didn’t know where it was going to go. I didn’t know what was going to cost me. So it can be very hard converting and it can take a long time to reintegrate everything that you used to be with who you now are.
But it’s also been, I’ve gotten to know a lot of other converts over the years and I value us for our distinctive outlooks on the world. There are things that you can only know from being raised in a religion that the converts never have access to. And then there are things which converts can see that people who are raised in it don’t and yeah, I’m grateful that there are two kinds of people in the world in this way.
David: That’s a beautiful place to close, so thank you for a beautiful book and a lovely conversation.
Zena: Thank you so much for your excellent questions. They really helped me to think through some things, which I hadn’t thought about for a long time. So I’m very grateful. Thanks for the invitation.