Just now, I received an email that began, “Dear Ms. Rutherford, This is to inform you that preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) number at the University of Oxford has begun.” As preliminary–and silly–as “preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance” sounds, this is the important document standing between me and my student visa application, for which I’ve been eagerly waiting. But the silly tentativeness with which the very helpful woman in the History Faculty office framed this email also speaks volumes about where it seems as if my life is right now. Over the past few weeks, my mind has accommodated itself to the notion that I graduated from college, a place that I’m now speaking about in the past tense. I’ve had some distance from the people and the place that has helped me to be able to figure out what I think about it, overall; coming back to my thesis after months away, I’m starting to recover from my burnout and be able to do academic work again; and I’m also just doing a lot of thinking on my own. I’m reading for pleasure, I’m walking, I’m looking at art and listening to music, I’m talking to friends and family, and most importantly I’m trying to figure out what I want out of life, and what a good life entails. Just as the History Faculty are preparing my CAS, it seems, so am I preparing to formulate a set of principles and goals and hierarchy of needs that will help me decide whether the adult life I want to live is both a personally enriching and a socially valuable one–and, if it’s not, how I can try harder to make it so. And, well, I guess that if there’s anything more impenetrable than immigration bureaucracy, “What is the good life?” is it. It’s worth a little thought.
I write now from Paris, where I’m spending the month of July rather on a series of whims and coincidences. I’ve not been doing very much to further the pursuit of my short-term academic goals: I’m still not quite up to the level I need to be at to benefit from the ancient Greek class I’m taking in August; the academic article I’m trying to write is in the earliest planning stages; my subscription to the Bibliothèque Nationale Française has gone largely unused. Instead, in the city of the flâneur, I think I’ve been benefiting from being a little less goal-oriented. Some days I sit and read and write at home, but on others I walk halfway across the city in alleged pursuit of some English-language bookshop or better-than-average cafe, but really just to walk, and to have the time to myself to think about what I’m doing here. There are a lot of reasons that brought me to Paris, but all of them are personal, and as ever, the balance between what is good for me and what is good for society is very difficult to strike.
This year, I consciously tried to take some time away from agonizing about whether what I’m doing with my life is socially beneficial (and then doing it anyway) in order just to focus on doing what I’m doing with my life in the best possible way. Then, and perhaps accordingly, this year was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Between writing a thesis, leaving the first place I ever lived as my own person, and learning what love is, I was rather preoccupied with dealing with huge personal emotions, some of them for the first time. Going back to read my thesis in preparation for the article I’m writing has been quite painful: as I revisit every sentence, I can remember exactly how I was feeling when I wrote it, and whether it was a joyous or a melancholy day down at my desk in the library basement. I can see all the conversations I had with my advisor reflected in its pages, and wince especially at the parts where I can only now see what he meant, why he was right, or why there were some points that I could have fleshed out in more detail or with more substantive evidence. In this thesis, also, are all the pieces of my world that over the past year came to mean the most to me about acknowledging and acting in accordance with my own desires for connection and comradeship. When I read the story I told of Symonds’ journey through Plato, through Oxford, through faith and science, through passionate positivist pursuit of the truth, through personal relationships, and when I see how I brought in outside, related writers and thinkers like Freud and Forster, I remember how Oxford, the Anglican tradition, the Phaedrus, psychoanalysis, Howards End, and the people with whom I became friends over the past couple years all helped me to feel as if I was discovering for the first time something extraordinary about what it means to be human, and as if living well and living joyously are important for their own sake, not merely ancillary to living a purposeful and socially useful life.
Well, it’s been a long and difficult several months since the last time Oxford sponsored me for a student visa, and the novelty value of the world’s beauty has soured just a little. There are upsides to this: I started to think, again, about the social value of my life goals, and realized that while I can ethically justify becoming a university teacher and living a life that is fully invested in intellectual community for its own sake, I can’t justify according to my own idiosyncratic code of ethics being a freelance researcher/writer who isn’t committed first and foremost to some kind of communitarian enterprise. (This isn’t a prescriptivist position—it’s a calculus based on how I think I can best use my unique talents to make myself and others better. Others, with a different distribution of skills, wants, and needs, may reach different conclusions.) And I realized, just a little more recently, that while part of being committed to the public good is taking public stances for unpopular positions when you believe that you’re in the right, doing so doesn’t do much social good if in trying to explain your position others, you end up alienating them, or making them believe that you’re purely self-interested instead of trying to put your own house in order before trying to move outside of it.
Last night, a friend who was in town for the weekend walked with me up and down the Seine for hours, and he quizzed me on my moral principles, trying to prod me into defending my intuitions about what is a sufficiently good way to live, and leading me to talk in circles about whether any life path that doesn’t focus on solving world hunger is justifiable. It was a very undergraduate kind of conversation, like many such conversations I’ve had before in my dorm room or around my co-op’s kitchen table—the kinds of conversations you can have when it doesn’t matter whether you need to wake up early in the morning sharp enough to put in a productive day at your job. Because, you see, I think one of the things that we do in the modern western world when we become adults is that we start thinking about putting food on our own tables, on living lives that make us more materially comfortable (because the older you get, the harder it gets to sleep on an air mattress or see the world while staying in youth hostels), on seeking out the people who will make us feel less alone and will help us to share the burden of leading stressful, busy lives. I’d argue that that’s one of the many reasons why university is a good, and why our society needs people who will devote their lives to ensuring that it continues to be a good: that three- or four-year haven from the world is where we get the chance to stay up late talking about ethics and morals, and where high-minded ambitions of solving world hunger—or instilling love for the humanities in a new set of young people—are born.
But my friend is a better arguer than I am—I’m not a very good one, especially when I have a quick and forceful interlocutor and don’t get to take thousands of words to spin out my thoughts—and, besides, thinking that the university is a good doesn’t insulate professional academics from the various calls of pragmatism, seductive materialism and security, and marketized politico-economic logic. I’m as guilty as the next academic of wanting things that give me pleasure: a high-ceilinged and big-windowed apartment in a pleasant place to live, a prestigious job with good students who are easy and fun to teach, my name on the cover of a well-reviewed book, maybe pets or even a family, leisure time in which to really appreciate them, the ability to keep visiting new places and meeting new people. And I know as well as the next humanist with slight Marxist tendencies that while the downside of the capitalist consensus is that it enslaves us to things and alienates us from people, it can in the here and now get food on tables that haven’t got any in a way that all the utopianism in the world can’t—and that teaching the British history survey isn’t exactly helping to bring about the revolution either.
In short, my conversation last night, from which I’m still reeling, ended with a big “I don’t know.” I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t satisfy my friend with the rationality of the life choices that I’ve thus far made, but I also feel that as I’m lucky enough to have more time before pragmatism really sets in, I might as well take it. I have at least two more years before I have to settle, and I have a lot more to learn about myself and what, therefore, is the social good that I am actually capable of doing. And so, as I sit in Paris and read over my BA thesis, I become ever more certain that my next thesis is going to be more centrally about love, about what it is that draws us to other people, about the things about the world that we intuit and can rationally explain the least of all. I’m curious to know, in Victorian Britain, what sex had to do with love, and why; I’m curious to know how what students read in schools shaped their ideas about love in and outside the classroom; I’m curious to know what sexual science, coeducation, shifting socioeconomic structures and population distributions, the changing social role of religion, and many other exciting developments of the nineteenth century, have to do not only with how people had sex with each other but with how they cared for each other. And, because when we do projects like this, we can’t deny that we’re studying ourselves first and foremost, I hope also to learn what love has to do both with desire and with social responsibility in my own life, and what the hell a sentimental education is good for, anyway.
At the end of the next two years, will I be able to start a PhD with an easy conscience? Probably not. Will I have become mired in even more navel-gazing whirlpools? Probably. And will I have spent two more years pacing up and down wallowing in the luxury of being able to think about what I’d like to do with my life, and sitting up till all hours discussing it with members of my intellectual community? Undoubtedly.
As academics say when they give papers at works-in-progress talks: “I’m still early in my thinking about this.” It’s one of my favorite pieces of academic jargon, and I am profoundly grateful that there still exist enough people with power, money, and prestige who will take a bet on a young historian’s moral waffling turning into something properly good.