The Renaissance Woman

☞ Throughout the course of my academic study and now post-academic life, I have come to believe that writing is the watermark we leave of ourselves, the impression of our inner realities. We document our experiences in writing to remind ourselves that we exist. There, in our notebooks as in our novels, our emotions are made tangible by our overactive, readerly imaginations.

As with lovers, the life of the writer dwells in the spectroscopic realm of the intangible, where feelings are the only reality. Our heads know that which the heart and the hand of the writer touches; we read good writing not because it teaches us anything new about ourselves, but because it foregrounds that which we already know and depicts it in startling new ways. One cannot fully appreciate Shakespeare or Dickens without having lived some aspect of their work: whether falling in love or tumbling from the height of some great expectations.

This, I think, is where academia is in danger of missing the point entirely, as it so often places the 'life of the mind' over the experience of so-called ordinary people – not to mention over the physical and, ironically, mental health of its students and faculty.

The concept of the Ivory Tower has always been associated with elevation and perspective (hence the metaphor of the tower). Indeed, the best scientific observations are documented by the most objective of scientists, just as the best court rulings are made by an impartial judge. In this way, the Ivory Tower symbolizes not only objectivism and impartiality, but also reason, crowned king over the passions during the Enlightenment period.

"A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence," writes David Hume. If this is so, then emotional detachment from the object of study seems an ideal approach to science and even literature, and what better place to cultivate our detachment than within the confines of an Ivory Tower? We buttress our argument not by fudging the evidence, but by dutifully and objectively recording the data gathered in the field or on the page.

The problem arises in the gathering. From whence comes the motivation to gather if not from our inner resources – from our passions, as it were? And our passions are certainly not objective. Nor should they be! Within the field of English literature, passion is what makes each student's essay different from another's; it adds flair to an otherwise long-winded and dreary piece of literary criticism; it explains why high school and undergraduate essay grades fluctuate so wildly. Moreover, passion is what lends meaning to a literary text.

Readers actively shape the meaning of a text (see Stanley Fish's theory on reader-response). Thus, if you have some knowledge of a field such as early modern studies – which includes the political ideology and cultural practice of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – you are able to justify your interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets with reference to the forces of history that shaped them. By extension, if you have been in love, Shakespeare's Sonnets will resonate more deeply than if you spent the entirety of your twenties alone in the library, reading early modern publications.

So theory and praxis, text and world, go hand-in-hand. One cannot be a scholar without having studied, just as one cannot be a philosopher without having lived. Yet how many academics can distinguish between knowledge and wisdom? The former is book-learning, the latter is worldliness. To possess all the knowledge in the world while having no knowledge of the world itself is like learning the vocabulary of a language without its grammar: you can name all the concepts, but you cannot apply or communicate them to another human being.

Thus a complete and utter detachment from reality cannot lead to grounded, truthful conclusions about reality, both in science and in art. One must live in order to have anything to say about life. Makes sense, right? Ironically, most burgeoning academics feel pressure to hop on the tenure-track treadmill – if there even is one. A well-meaning colleague once told me "not to take time off school," in case I never came back.

While I understand the logic here in terms of career progression, I can't see how holing up with a bunch of books for the rest of my twenties will necessarily turn me into a better person. Sure, I will be well-versed in literary criticism and will have kept abreast of research developments over the past five years. I will be fluent in post-post-structuralist terminology like deterritorialization. But what will I have to say, really, about literature and life? What can I give to my hypothetical students who have seen and felt more than me, and are in need of guidance and mentorship?

Again, I believe we overemphasize the importance of financial success and prestige when it comes to higher education. Students are enrolling in undergraduate, Master's, and PhD programs with the expectation of landing a job that fulfils their financial and personal desires. We need to shift our focus and reground ourselves in the Renaissance philosophy: educating ourselves to become well-rounded, morally upstanding individuals capable of mentoring those future academics. More importantly, we need to encourage deviation and irreverence, recognizing the value of experience as students take breaks from academia.

As the American philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler said, "in the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you." If you put down your books for a while and go and live your life, chances are you will fall in love, reevaluate your expectations, and as a consequence do much better in academia.