Virtually all good universities generate opinion pieces like this one, by Eve Samborn at Washington University. She begins:

During a class discussion a few weeks ago about existentialist philosophy, my professor informed our class that in the 1950s, every college student in America was reading the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.

She goes on to worry that no comparable figure exists today – a global intellectual posing challenging existential questions, questions discussed inside and outside of the classroom by many students. “[O]ur generation has no revolutionary philosopher to tear down our previously held core beliefs. [O]ur campus shows little interest in finding such a figure.”

One irony here is that her campus enjoyed for many years the presence of William Gass, a remarkable novelist/philosopher (he’s emeritus now) who brilliantly posed the sorts of questions Samborn has in mind. In a 2005 interview, he recalls his teaching days:

[T]hat was one of the nice things about teaching. You get to assign books you love. It’s hard to beat, that kind of life. You’re reading philosophers who are just incredible—they may be creeps [laughs], but it’s wonderful stuff. It’s helpful to you. You learn. It forces you to pay attention to the texts in a way that I think is helpful… Thoreau, for example, … uses the word “margins.” He says, “In my life I like to have wide margins.” Then there’s a sentence about enjoying the sunshine, and meditating, and so forth. Well, he takes all the sounds in the word “margin,” and they just dominate the words that follow. This whole description—from the ms to the ns. And I’m just thinking, My God!, you know. And so: Life is justified.

Gass complains, in the same interview, that philosophy as a discipline has changed in ways that make existential inquiry rare:

In philosophy, there’s been a big shift. Philosophers say that it’s because that’s the way philosophy should be going. But I think it’s because that’s where the money is. Our philosophy department was pretty strong, what was called PNP—philosophy, neurophysiology, psychology. Working again on all kinds of things that interested biologists: artificial intelligence, genetics. And there’s been a shift, generally, in that direction.

UD, at Northwestern in the late ‘seventies, studied Rilke (a big favorite with Gass) with Erich Heller and Sartre with James Edie, and she recalls exactly the sort of intellectual buzz Samborn’s talking about. I’m not sure UD had any very well-formulated core beliefs (the phrase is Samborn’s) but encountering (in Lionel Trilling’s anthology, Literary Criticism) Susan Sontag’s and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s disdain for core beliefs excited her.

Maybe most people in college are careerists; but Samborn speaks for many when she laments the absence of something she’s right to want and expect in college: An atmosphere of sustained and excited and subversive discourse about foundational human questions (And so: Life is justified.). She worries about “what kind of educated people we will become if we have not given sufficient thought to the world.”

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11 Responses to “Giving sufficient thought to the world”

  1. Bill Gleason Says:

    Ah, yes, those were the good old days at NU when most undergrads still cared about philosophy.

    Henry Veatch, a neo-Aristotelian and the classic peripatetic academic, briefly spent time at NU while I was a student. His book “Rational Man” was originally written as a response to William Barrett’s “Irrational Man.”

    I always admired NU for picking up these off the beaten path people who were also excellent teachers. Another example was the conservative, Eliseo Vivas, who taught a great course entitled philosophy in literature (not OF literature) as he always pointed out.

    I know – the oldsters always yearn for the good old days.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Well, but this seems to be the younger generation yearning for the old days.

  3. david foster Says:

    One factor here is probably the increased % of the population now attending college vs the % in the 1950s. Analogy: If you’re selling cars to the 2 million most fanatical car nuts in the country, you can talk a lot with them about engine displacements, gear ratios, suspension dynamics, etc. But if you need to sell cars to a market of 200 million, most of them aren’t going to want to hear about such things.

    I don’t want to push this theory too far…there were plenty of people in the 1950s who went to college based on parents income & class position more than on their own intellectual interests & attributes, and conversely there are more than a few people without much formal education but with real philosophical interest and depth…but it seems likely that it is a factor.

  4. ricki Says:

    My parents were college students in the 1950s and I’m reasonably sure they never read Sartre.

    Of course, they were both in the sciences (one physical sciences, one life sciences), so maybe that makes a difference.

    I read “No Exit” in French class in high school. I still often believe that Hell is other people.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    ricki: I always believe that hell is other people.

  6. GTWMA Says:

    Blame the economists who have focused on the returns to education. We know the price, but not the value.

  7. Bill Harshaw Says:

    Started college in 1959 (American Studies). Never read Sartre then or since. Closest I came to that circle was Camus. Read A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell who were more easily readable and, given Russell’s political views, as challenging. Maybe the philosophy majors were reading Sartre, but I doubt the rest of us were. It takes a confluence of events for people to gain visibility. Is Peter Singer popular on campus these days, or is he old-hat?

  8. Bill Gleason Says:

    UD –

    In order to yearn for the old days, you have to know how things were then? I’m not sure many students now have any idea. And it’s not their fault.

  9. Chas S. Clifton Says:

    There was a day when the study of philosophy was about how best to live one’s life.

    But when was that? Generations ago?

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Bill: Camus will do just as well, I think, for the point this student’s professor was making. That is, existentialism as a mode of being, a literary style, an attitude, a challenge to older ways of thinking about the world, was simply current then. Many college students were in one way or another aware of it, talking about it, thinking about it…

    Peter Singer has never, I think, been a thinker of this sort. His writing lacks the power of the writing of Camus, for instance (even in translation, Camus is very beautiful); and his utilitarianism, although provocative in some of its aspects, isn’t really a new way of thinking.

  11. DM Says:

    “in the 1950s, every college student in America was reading the works of Jean-Paul Sartre”

    An anecdote from when I was a graduate student. We had to take classes to prepare us for the teaching part of being a professor; it was mandatory if you were a TA. Most of these classes were useless ramblings.

    At some point, the lecturer said “everybody knows Edgar Morin”.

    Now think about it – this guy is supposed to teach us about teaching and he’s doing something exactly wrong – telling students that they are expected to know some person unless (this is implied) they are some kind of ignoramuses. This is wrong unless knowing about that particular person is implied by the prerequisites of the course, and, whatever that lecturer said, there is nothing in the prerequisites of being a graduate student that implies knowing Edgar Morin. Perhaps if you are a graduate student in philosophy or sociology, but in the exact sciences?

    I think the Sartre example in the same kind of pompous remark – why exactly would a student in, say, physics, chemistry or mathematics, or even economics, from the United States in the 1950s, read Sartre?

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