What College is for (on the Eve of an Apocalypse) or The Copper Virtues

by Paul North

An informal talk before first-time college goers, the summer before their first year at an Ivy League university.

MtRedoubtedit1How does it feel when your group's social practices bring the world to the brink of destruction? How does it feel when no one can legitimately deny this fact any longer? We haven't been closer to midnight on the nuclear doomsday clock since the H-Bomb was invented in 1953. We haven't seen this level of financial inequality between the vast majority and a small minority of wealth-holders since before the New Deal. The economy is deeply segregated by race and by gender. As a culture, almost to a person, we failed to admit to ourselves that the heat-trapping tendencies of carbon dioxide could lead to a cascade of negative effects. You are going to college on the eve of nuclear war, mass impoverishment, and climate disaster. What is college for? I give you three simple imperatives: be stupid, get lazy, and dream.

When I went to college at the end of the 1980s we weren't conscious of any of this. Sure, in pre-school we dove under desks during nuclear drills, but the end of the cold war seemed to promise us that we could pay attention to other things. For my group, that was the hangover from hippydom. We were revolutionaries. We practiced free thinking, listened to political music, protested. Art lead to emancipation, we thought.

Now the feeling is different. And yet, …

Why someone would even go to college on the eve of the apocalypse is a legitimate question, but since you decided to go, for complicated reasons I know, not all of which have to do with intellectual work—for some it is for economic reasons, for some social reasons, all of the reasons pretty compelling—since you decided to go to college for all of your many reasons, we will concentrate on another question. What are the virtues you can and should cultivate in college? Your first answer might be: excellence, leadership, and success. This is after all the Ivy League. And yet, even after all your hard work, you hear the hollow gong of these big empty words. They are of course codes for the social and economic advancement promised by an elite college. What does excellence mean? Saying "excellent" is something like recognizing an intrinsic value, demonstrated by schoolwork but residing somehow, mystically within you. It is a virtue that becomes a kind of substitute for social class. If you are excellent, legend has it, you don't have to be rich, or else you become rich, eventually, because of your excellence. Excellence is the highest position in a merit system (poor, mediocre, normal, good, and so on; D, C, B, A, and so on). Leadership refers to your position in relation to your peers, in social organizations, extra-curriculars, university committees, and the arts. There is a sense, unspoken, that the best among you or the ones with the most "excellence" should naturally acquire roles of power over others. And finally, "success"—academically success is just an abstract term for a high grade point average, which acts as a kind of currency, or so students think, with which to pay their way into the next level of the game.

No doubt you would agree: life is not a video game. Rewards aren't automatic, even if you are excellent, a leader, and have success. But I want to say more than this. On the eve of an apocalypse it isn't clear there will be a next level, or if you're not willing to be that pessimistic—who can say right now what that next level will or should be? College now, I want to propose, especially an elite place like this, is where you should put the future aside.

Since, in a scary way, we don't know what the world will look like in ten or twenty years, all predictions are cancelled. The wisdom of your parents and guidance counselors is suspect. And if this is true, then, when we think about the future, when we strive for something, we need to strive for a minimum, not a maximum—a minimum instead of a maximum: a minimum of the continued existence of a world. The three golden virtues—excellence, leadership, success—all place the goals of college outside college and more importantly outside the intellectual work, and play, of reading and writing and performing experiments and thinking in general. To say it more directly, we need a free-thinking intellectual experience in college more now than ever because the criteria for judging the future course of history are radically up for grabs. Human history and natural history collided, and the natural crises of humanity, as we might call them, are upon us.

We should work to divert these disasters, shouldn't we? Or, will more human action only deepen the crises? Can we use the elite system to undermine its premises? College may be the only place left on earth where you can devote yourself, in the scale of things for quite a short while, to asking questions like these. Asking such strong questions does not have to be opposed to excellence, leadership, and success; it just doesn't see those as very high virtues in the end. Let us posit, in place of the three golden virtues, three higher ones, three "copper" virtues.

The three copper virtues to cultivate in college, in our special historical moment, are stupidity, laziness, and dreaming. Take it from me, these are the most valuable possessions you can get here. If you have gotten here that means you already have the other virtues anyway. You are all golden. You know how to work very hard—especially you, who may not have had all the props and privileges of the Ivy class to begin with. For you, first in your family to go to college or the only student from your high school to get in to the ivy league, the other virtues, the copper ones, will be the hardest. But I promise, if you struggle very hard, you too can become lazy and stupid. Look at me. I read and write books. I talk on and on about things for hours and hours a week. But then, I already accepted my lassitude. For you, the hardest struggle will be with yourselves, against your better instincts, against everything you think you are coming here to prove.

Permit me a few gross oversimplifications. You will find out that many college professors rely on these (and that's not always bad). A first oversimplification: the keyword for primary school is "no." Primary school makes you into a functioning social actor. It teaches you not to pee on the floor, not to punch your neighbor, to form up into the social body. It uses the powerful "no" to constrain bodily functions, interpersonal behavior, and social aspirations. Another oversimplification: for secondary school the keyword is "know." This know is, though, another kind of no. High school has a public, exoteric function. That function is: to fill you up with basic knowledge (English, Chem, Trig, Social Studies). "Basic knowledge" is a way of saying: you must master how the world is. You learn what everything is and also that it cannot not be this way. No, high school teaches you, the world cannot be different than it is. No amount of imagining can alter it fundamentally. An ionic bond results from a transfer of electrons; Hamlet thinks too much; a sine function is the ratio of the side opposite the angle to the hypotenuse. You stress out a lot onboarding these facts. That may have looked like this:

Once you onboard the knowledge, you too can say "the way things are" in a complex way.

On top of this, high school has another side, an esoteric, private underside. The school curriculum doesn't say this, but you know that your secret task in high school was to confront for the first time the harsh forces of the adult social world: gender friction and norming, immovable inequality, and ferocious competition. It may have looked like this:

In high school your imperatives were: be busy and smart, fight evil, and don't ask too many questions. College is the chance to undo all that, to turn back upon yourself and the way you have been formed and ask: is this the best way to be and think and act? And: can I think of better ways to be, act, think (anytime, but especially on the eve of an apocalypse)?

Answers to these kinds of questions aren't ready to hand. If they were, we wouldn't be in this situation. Answers, if there are any, lie in history, in philosophy, in literature, in the arts, and in other products of the imagination. So here is what I wish for you: get free of busyness, smartness, and how everyone thinks they know things must be. It's ok, you pushed and strove. Now you can stop. Make a sincere pause—that's my wish for you.

In order to illustrate my wish for you, I'm going to tell you a tale. The tale has not one but three morals. You might guess what they are. About two centuries ago, the Grimm brothers transcribed this tale among hundreds of other folk tales they collected in Germany, and they gave it the title "Hans Stupid," in German: "Hans Dumm." By the way, stupid is not a description of poor Hans but his second name. This is a kind of stupid that belongs to him, that's in his genes, so to speak. He can't get rid of it and it can't be improved through learning.

Here is a quick retelling:

A shock! A blow! The King's only daughter had gotten pregnant. Who was the father? To find out, the King took the baby to church and gave it a lemon. A lemon? Yes. The King said: "whoever the baby gives the lemon to is the father." I don't know why he thought this would work. In the church were all the highborn people of the Kingdom. It was an ivy league church. At the last minute, who else but—yes—Hans Stupid pushed his way inside the church and, surprise!, the baby gave him the lemon. Perturbation all around. A very unhappy King cast Hans, his daughter, and the child out to sea in a barrel. "Why did you do that?" the Princess scolded Hans. "You're not the father!" "No," Hans replied, "but my wishes come true and I wished you to have a child." Then he said, "look I can wish us up dinner." He wished up some potatoes and although the Princess would have rather eaten a steak, she ate it up. Hans said, "look: I can wish us up a beautiful ship with silk bedding and servants." And they were onboard a huge yacht. "Look: I can bring us to a land where we can live ever after in our own castle." It was so. Meanwhile, Hans wished himself into a handsome and not so stupid young Prince.

A small addendum. Years went by and the father, the original King, got lost and stumbled onto the castle belonging to Hans and the Princess. Without revealing who she was, the Princess hid a golden goblet in her father's satchel before he left. Then she had her guards catch him. The King protested his honesty, and only then did the Princess reveal herself, saying: "see what it feels like to be falsely accused."

We can see a lot of ourselves in this folk tale. Perhaps it is even like looking in a slightly warped mirror. The three things we want to focus on are: Hans's stupidity, his laziness, and his ridiculous wishes. These are our three morals. The first moral is: become stupid, and more: proudly accept your stupidity as your last name. Call the stupid family your own. This means, we could say, we allow ourselves to be astonished at the way things are, stupefied—never to fully believe it. Latin stupidus describes being stunned into speechlessness; your mouth falls open and you stand agape at things. And look: only Mr. Stupid could think a poor boy could become royalty. Only Mr. Stupid could think desiring something would make it happen. Stupidity, it seems, is a great power. Laziness goes along with it. Only someone who doesn't occupy themselves ceaselessly with tasks given to them by others could imagine a new task, and a new way of doing it. Einstein was big on naps. Socrates wandered around, and sat down a lot. The Bible says God rested on the seventh day, but, in reality, he has been resting throughout human history. Since sunset on the sixth day he rested, while we have been running around with busyness. Apparently he learned something over those six days. And finally, the third moral: dream, or in this case, make impossible wishes. Those who have little wish the most, and so—in this fairy tale wisdom—they have the chance to make big changes. Don't be satisfied with small wishes! We could make this into a rule: those who have everything or are dedicated to acquiring it dream little dreams. And then a question arises immediately: what does it mean for lazy Hans Stupid to wish a child for the princess?

Within the system of patrilineal inheritance of power, his wish is obviously a wish for a new King. This wish is treason, regicide, revolution—more than this, it is—potentially—a dream of a different order of power, in which a peasant has a share in deciding on the rulers and even on the form of rule.

One last remark about laziness. There is good laziness and there is bad laziness. The proper attitude is noted in the Ancient Greek word scholê, which left its traces in the English word school. The philosopher Aristotle called scholê the proper attitude for gaining understanding. Why? It is not an activity, it is an opening, a freedom not to fully commit to what you are doing or saying or thinking—an activity, if it is one, whose goal emerges out of the activity, not before. "…nature herself, as has been often said, requires that we should be able, not only to work well, but to use scholê well," Aristotle wrote in his book on politics. Then he made an important distinction. He made a distinction between scholê and amusement. Amusement is a pleasurable pause without understanding. Nothing wrong with this, but perhaps we've had enough of amusement, for now, with the world ending and all. Scholê in contrast is a contemplative leisure that goes along with the task of understanding the world.

There were several major universities in Ancient Athens. At one point, Aristotle was president of one of them. These universities are instructive to us now, because they each had a very different character, something like universities would be in a cartoon. Not like Yale and Harvard or Harvard and U Conn, but like Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig. The earliest was Plato's Academy, the Mickey Mouse of Ancient universities, the place of sincere study, whose motto, inscribed over the entrance, is supposed to have been "let no one ignorant of geometry enter here." Students who got in to the Academy obviously went to a good high school, and they wanted to continue striving to for excellence in everything. Another major school was Epicurus's Garden. This was the Porky Pig of the universities. "Garden" was metaphoric and also literal. The school met in the teacher's garden. Amidst grapes and daisies, he taught students, metaphorically, to cultivate their own gardens, for their own pleasure and amusement. Epicurus' Garden was down the street from the Academy. Here is how these things look, in the fresco called The School of Athens, by the Renaissance painter Raphael.

Raphael School of Athens
You can see what is most likely Plato and Aristotle walking down the middle. Walking was the best way to do the work of thought, they thought. To the side you can see Epicurus, our Porky Pig, reading a book with the help of a Putto, a winged toddler who may represent pleasure. In any case, someone has their arms around Epicurus. He doesn't lack for pleasure.


In the middle, on a step, is another figure, one we associate not with amusement, like Epicurus and his garden, but with the other kind of inoccupation, closer to scholê. This is probably not exactly what Aristotle meant, but here is our other cartoon intellectual. We could call him the Bugs Bunny of Athens. In reality, the figure represents Diogenes of Sinope, known as the cynic.

Raphael school of athens detail diogenes of sinope

They say he slept in the Agora, itself not far from the Academy and the Garden, far enough though, in style, since he slept in a barrel, to protest, it seems, the luxuries the hypocritical Athenians took for themselves. He was famous for carrying a lamp in the daytime, looking for a single honest person, and not finding one. A legend says that the greatest leader of the time, the one with the most excellence and success, not to mention leadership—Alexander the Great—came from far away for an audience with Diogenes, and, leaning over the reclining philosopher, asked whether he could do Diogenes any favor. Diogenes supposedly said, with the greatest Bugs Bunny attitude, "Yes you can. Please get out of my sunlight." Alexander, I think, went to an Ivy League school. Diogenes too, I'm told. One spent his time seeking the golden virtues. The other spent his time seeking the copper virtues.

Even if you must prepare for a career, and you should, so you don't end up sleeping in a barrel, even if you have to do your family proud and use the current social and economic system to your advantage, please also remember, from time to time, Diogenes, who showed the Athenian virtues to be rather hollow. I hope you can reserve some small portion of your years here for the highest virtues.