Liberal Education: Provocations for Freshmen

Peter Zhang

We do not automatically stand on the shoulders of giants.

As your mind changes, the world looks different.

Your mind is not inside your head. It lies between you and others. Mind whom you keep your appointments with.

The importance of raising questions: therein lies our freedom. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze says, a problem posed is a problem solved.

Each problem deserves its own solution – in the fashion it is posed. Hence the importance of condemning falsely stated problems.

There is such a thing called an incompetent audience. Our task is to cultivate ourselves so we become worthy interlocutors.

Cross many boundaries. Cherish difference. Be the difference that makes a difference. As the French say, “Viva la difference.”

The ultimate question is: What’s the good life? It’s THE ethical question. Life is a composition. Now is the time to develop our vocabulary, syntax, and style.

It’s not what you study. It’s whom you study with.

Liberal education is a sensibility.

Learn a non-alphabetic language. Go study abroad. Learn by doing things with the “master,” by doing it differently, by screwing things up. Perfection, transparency – these are fallacies. Let each idea you learn have an afterlife in your life. Pick up the arrow, the dart, and launch it in another direction.

Any institution of higher education today offers enough resources for you to piece together the best education you can ever hope to get. Do the hard work of seeking out those resources. A degree and a liberal education are two very different things.

This is Deleuze again: We do not lack communication. Actually we have too much of it. What we need is resistance to the present.

Pursue encounter, not mindless recognition.

It takes artists to create a counter-environment, to make visible the invisible forces that shape and rule our life. Be that artist, that poet.

There is a human seriousness in play. Have fun.

We live in a control society. Surfing is a crucial skill. It’s a metaphor. If you don’t know what that means. Study with me. I’ll keep it dangling for now.

Each wave is a different wave. The “same” wave varies moment by moment. Which wave do I ride? How can a master ever teach me how to ride it? How else can I ride it without intuitively reading and coping with it while on the go?

It often takes way too long for people to realize that two sections of the “same” class are two different classes entirely. Therein lies an art of self-selection. When somebody tells you “It’s a good class,” or “So and so is a good professor,” you are supposed to ask: “Good how?”

Lifetime learning is a curse for us who live in a control society. It’s a benign one, though. There is no education other than a liberal education. There is such a thing called “trained incapacity.” There is a difference in kind between job training and a liberal education. As McLuhan puts it, “The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.” (Marshall McLuhan & David Carson, The Book of Probes, 531.)

When is it a good time to ask questions? Any time. This very moment.

When a professor does not have a ready answer, that doesn’t mean you have a bad professor. I would be honest about it: let me do my homework and get back to you.

If an honor student is too GPA-oriented, what kind of honor is it? Therein lies the fallacy of perfect communication. Wisdom comes from screwing things up, from going through drama and struggle. Kenneth Burke calls it the poetic ideal, as against the semantic ideal. Therein lies an ethics, an ethics of insecurity and vulnerability.

Given the time, I’d take a biology class, something about ecology, something about Einstein, something about non-Euclidean geometry, and whatnot.

There is no such thing called a good professor. There are only good students – those who raise questions, their own questions. What I am telling you means nothing if you haven’t come here with a question to which this might be an answer. There is no correct answer. There are more useful answers or less useful answers. College learning must link up with what’s outside, with the existential problems that you own. The process of learning is a process of restating those problems.

Swallow as much as you can and then ruminate. It works wonderfully well.

When a student, or a fellow student, blurts out a brilliant line, I’d jot that down.

Many express the need to be protected from emails. I write them arduously for a stoical reason: writing as physical exercise of the incorporation of discourse, correspondence as circle of subjectivation, as Foucault puts it. He’s talking about a stoical art of self-fashioning.

Here’s why I do not do drugs. People do it to get some changes in the brain. Like many others, I find that books work just fine. The book as a drug, so to speak. (Both are mediums.)