Frank Bruni

Developing the muscle of thoughtfulness

British actor Martin Christopher as Macbeth in a 2010 production. With careful examination and unhurried reflection, one can find in Shakespeare just about all of human life, says the writer.
British actor Martin Christopher as Macbeth in a 2010 production. With careful examination and unhurried reflection, one can find in Shakespeare just about all of human life, says the writer.

Over four decades at two universities, Professor Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like As. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place. But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What's the highest calling of higher education?

When I asked her, she shot me a look of exasperation, although it gave way quickly to a smile. And I remembered that smile from 30 years earlier, when she would expound on Othello's corrosive jealousy, present Lady Macbeth as the dark ambassador of guilt's insidious stamina and show those of us in her class that with careful examination and unhurried reflection, we could find in Shakespeare just about all of human life and human wisdom: every warning we needed to hear, every joy we needed to cultivate. She answered my question about college's purpose, but not right away and not glibly, because rushed thinking and glibness are precisely what she believes education should be a bulwark against. She's right.

I introduced her in a recent column, writing that when I was recently pressed to describe a transformative educational experience, what came to mind were her voice and her animation as she read aloud the wondrous words of King Lear. Her field is Renaissance poetry. I studied that and Shakespeare's plays with her when I was an English major at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the mid-1980s. I never got to know her well, though. I didn't keep in touch.

But after my column appeared, she sent me an e-mail. It included a lament about changes in the humanities that made me want to hear more. I was curious to know what the professor who was the highlight of my time in college thought of college today.

So I visited her in Philadelphia, where she has been a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. She's 69. She expressed regret about how little an English department's offerings today resemble those from the past.

"There's a lot of capitalising on what is fashionable," she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favour, as have courses devoted to any one of the "dead white men", she said.

"Chaucer has become Chaucer and..." she said. "Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare."

She didn't want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There is Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also, Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

And while she applauds the attempt to engage students and diversify instruction, she worries about an intellectual vogue and academic sensibility that place no one masterpiece, master, perspective or even manner of speech above others. Not long ago, she said, she asked students to try to go for an entire class without letting the word "like" drop needlessly - part conjunction, part stutter - into their speech. One of them responded that Prof Hall was a "cultural capitalist" defending her particular "cultural capital".

She has qualms about the way a university now markets campus amenities to students and marvels at "how many sites there are for feeding them". The increased weight given to the evaluations that they fill out can be a disincentive for professors to be rigorous.

"The student became the customer who's always right," she said. And yet, she said, there are still many earnest young men and women who come before her wanting nothing more or less than to be bigger, better. She praised an undergraduate business major in a class she is teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

"She said that going to college develops something in you that's like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles," Prof Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

That brought Prof Hall to her own answer about college's mission: "It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human."

NEW YORK TIMES