Helen DeWitt

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Yale Review of Books, Winter 2005

LETTER TO AN UNDERGRADUATE

For a long time I was a trustee of an NGO called Camfed, which raised money for scholarships so girls in Zimbabwe could finish secondary school.

It started out very small. The director, Ann Cotton, had gone to Zimbabwe to do research. She met two girls living on school grounds in a hut they had built, lucky to be there because their family could pay the fees; girls from poor families might be pushed into marriage at 12 or 13 and start having children. She felt she must do something, so she went back to Cambridge and started selling cakes. She would tell friends about the project.

If you’ve ever told friends about something you cared about you will know how risky this is. You explain, say, that girls who miss school often don’t come back at all, and sometimes they miss school out of embarrassment because they have their period and nothing but rags to use. So the program covers all costs – uniform, books, supplies – and it even provides sanitary napkins. Sometimes the friend says, “Here, take this hundred dollars, no no I insist, no wait make that two hundred, no let’s make it five.” And sometimes the friend says, “What a good idea!”
It can be quite discouraging to find out how many of your friends think it’s a good idea.

This was not a very effective form of fundraising, of course, and now they mainly raise money through grant applications.
I was thinking about this when I was asked to write a Letter to an Undergraduate. It’s easy to see that talent is being squandered if a 13-year-old drops out of school, permanently, for want of a Kotex. Maybe it’s not so easy to see talent being squandered in an undergraduate.

There is a simple little idea of school, which is that the student is taught and assessed by qualified persons. Education = classes + assignments + exams. This can allow for wonderful things: the excitement of curiosity, advances in intellectual sophistication and rigor, introduction to disciplines of great explanatory power. But it can’t, by definition, offer the experience of working without surveillance.

The concept of missing a class is pretty straightforward. There isn’t really a ooncept for missing something not tied to a class. The need for big blocks of time for independent reading (or other work) isn’t recognized; there are simply blocks of time (vacations) which are defined as times when the undergraduate is not receiving instruction. If you have a vacation job you are spending about 30% of your time fundraising, but it doesn’t matter because an undergraduate just is someone whose intellectual development is tied to the class.

Newton laid the foundations for his work in mathematics, optics, and physics during an enforced absence from Cambridge (closed down because of the plague). Some of his university work was useful, some not; it was the block of time without interruptions that allowed him to follow his obsessions, taking what was useful as a basis for work of startling originality. The present system guarantees the conditions of Newton’s study of Gassendi while leaving the discovery of gravity in the lap of the gods.

It is a system which likewise leaves no space for connecting powerful theoretical work, such as that of Amartya Sen on famine and entitlements, with the world it was meant to change.
[. . .] represents a writer’s block of several days, Undergraduate, or rather whatever it is that has led to 100 unfinished novels in Documents. “Stand By Me” is playing on radio station in Keene, NH. I think I should reread Sterne’s Chapter on Hobbyhorses.

My copy of The Internet and Everyone is 500 miles away. My copy of Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae is 500 miles away. Tufte’s Envisioning Information is 500 miles away. I do have Reynaud Camus’s Tricks, Pierre Moron’s Le suicide, and Calvino’s Le città invisibili. I have a book that states: For each of those two points, the strictly concave indifference curve of the principal is tangent to the zero rent isoutility curve of the corresponding type.” My copy of Cavendish on Whist is 500 miles away. Why not start Opus 101? Well anyway.

We live at a time of relentless specialization. We can see just how far this has gone when we look at what it takes to fight back. The spectacular Astrophysical Formulae explains a dazzling array of equations and constants, including bibliographical references for the research that produced them – and that’s what it takes if research is not to be incomprehensible even to those in the field if they are not already specialists in the subject.

What we see much more of, though, is the strategy of C.S. Lewis, commenting on Milton’s preference of Hebrew lyric to Greek: “…the rest of us, whose Greek is amateurish and who have no Hebrew, must leave Milton to discuss the question with his peers.”
This passage made me rabid when I read it in my first year at Oxford. The entire educational establishment of the Anglophone world had ignored the advice of Milton, one of the greatest poets in the language – and that was why I had had to start Greek at 18, and learn Hebrew independently, instead of getting started at the age of 9. It’s not that anyone had sat down and read Greek and Hebrew poetry and decided that Milton was a poor deluded fool; they had devised the elementary school program from a state of ignorance. And here was CSL comfortably sanctioning this philistinism.

If you know either language at all you will know at once that Lewis is misleading his audience. A couple of hand-outs, one with an introduction to the Greek alphabet and a walk through a Greek poems, the other with comparable assistance for Hebrew, would at least have given readers the chance of experiencing Milton’s first shock of delight. Ignorance is a design problem (which could now be solved with intelligent use of Envisioning Information), not a gauge of linguistic or literary ability.

Design problem solved, readers could decide whether they would like to know more of one, either, or neither language, instead of relying on someone else’s preferences, whether those of Lewis or Milton or anyone else. But then, design problem solved, children could easily discover such inclinations or disinclinations early on. The parochialism that has become so deadly would find no foothold.

Undergraduates are embedded in a maddening system, one which presents impossible choices because so many were made on their behalf. The frustration this causes – especially when so much money is at stake – is self-evident. But perhaps the undergraduate is the solution to the problem.

Because disciplines are so highly specialized, they change rapidly. Keeping up and contributing already take more time than is left from teaching, grant applications, and administration. Borrowing from other fields is confined to the state of play when a specialist was an undergraduate. Segregation is not strict – there are reviews in the NYRB, there is contact with other disciplines through bridge or poker or tennis, through synagogue, church, or mosque, through friends or family or significant other. (Has structural anthropology really had its day?) But the undergraduate is the only one who systematically engages with a range of disciplines as they are understood right now.

The hand-outs mentioned above could be prepared for uninformed lecturers by any competent undergraduate studying the languages. Most information is less easily transferable – it may require an understanding of what it is in Field A that might be important and interesting to someone in Field B when those in Field A think Field B is a total waste of time and vice versa. O zero rent isoutility curve, where art thou?

A repository for instruction, a source of papers to be marked, Undergraduate must be one whose absence is necessary for serious work. No wonder no one cares what Undergraduate does in this work-conducive absence. No wonder Undergraduate gets no funding to go beyond what’s taught. The system is prey to a kind of collective learned helplessness, and Undergraduate is at the bottom of the heap. New game.

Camfed is famous in development circles. The explosive political situation in Zimbabwe forced most aid agencies to close down their projects – they were dependent on foreign staff, who had to be evacuated. But Camfed had not only left day-to-day management to local groups; it had set up an association of graduates of the program. It has been able to keep going through famine, terror, and exponential inflation because of the courage and obstinacy of young women in their late teens and early twenties. Education ministers across Africa want more of the same.

Meanwhile, you’re the crème de la crème. Shouldn’t you have a voice? I’ll be a lot of people will think it would be a really good idea.
Don’t get mad. Read Laffont and Martimort, The Theory of Incentives – and get even.