“The only war that matters is the war on the imagination”
–Diane di Prima

I’ve been serving on our department’s admissions committee, and have spent a lot of the last month reading, comparing, discussing, and debating applications to our Ph.D. program. I knew going into the process that this would be a somewhat nervewracking, somewhat narcissistic project. I thought a lot about those applicants I saw as coming from a similar place as me–exceptionally bright, diversely talented, somewhat idealistic, but woefully underspecialized and underprofessionalized, coming from a B.A. program. No doubt this is the type of student whose application raises red flags for readers with way more experience than me. I think I made my pet project a bit more transparent than I’d have liked–but I think my point that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you enter grad school was appreciated. (What I didn’t say was how much I object to the “Get thee to an M.A. program” argument. Especially given the economy, asking people who don’t come from a background that offers a lot of coaching for Ph.D. apps to spend tens of thousands of dollars so that they can go spend thousands of dollars again applying to Phd programs seems a surefire way to maintain the undiversity of the humanities.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about undergraduate education lately. I’ve also been reading Eve’s new book The Weather In Proust, which has been just delightful, especially as the terms that Eve used in speech a lot of the time when I knew her were not in Touching Feeling, but it’s all here. The reason behind this post is Eve’s description of holding environments:

The human need for air is satiable because, like the needs to drink, eat, and excrete, but unlike the libido, it is aa biological drive in the strongest sense of the term: unlike sexual desire, for example, its satisfaction is necessary to sustain individual life. And unlike Oedipally structured sexuality, it is not intrinsically organized around rivalry or mediation. The need to breathe, to eat and rink, to have one’s weight supported are nonnegotiable, but being finite and satiable, they are not zero sum: except in extreme situations, one is rarelydeprived by the satisfaction of another’s need. Balint’s interest in existential or survival-implicating functions, which he links to the weather elements–auir, water, earth, and fire–is held in common by the pioneers of object-relations psychology. Like Ferenczi and Winnicott, Balint likes to attach friendly language to such “benign” or satiable object relations–what he also calls “the harmonious mix-up,” and Winnicott calls the “holding environment”–the one where, as Winnicott hauntingly points out, it becomes possible for the infant to think about something else, something beyond the mother’s care. (“The Weather in Proust” 11-12)

A few years ago, I taught a bit of Newman’s The Idea of a University, to give a different concept of liberal arts education, one really counterintuitive to my students who thought the liberal arts curriculum as primarily in terms of providing a broad base of knowledge in preparation for a diverse range of careers. Newman’s thinking–or rather, his rehearsal of what was held to be common sense–is quite different, and very similar to the “harmonious mix-up” or “holding environment” Sedgwick describes:

Cicero, in enumerating the various heads of mental excellence, lays down the pursuit of Knowledge for its own sake, as the first of them. “This pertains most of all to human nature,” he says, “for we are all of us drawn to the pursuit of Knowledge; in which to excel we consider excellent, whereas to mistake, to err, to be ignorant, to be deceived, is both an evil and a disgrace.” And he considers Knowledge the very first object to which we are attracted, after the supply of our physical wants. After the calls and duties of our animal existence, as they may be termed, as regards ourselves, our family, and our neighbours, follows, he tells us, “the search after truth. Accordingly, as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares, forthwith we desire to see, to hear, and to learn; and consider the knowledge of what is hidden or is wonderful a condition of our happiness.”

This passage, though it is but one of many similar passages in a multitude of authors, I take for the very reason that it is so familiarly known to us; and I wish you to observe, Gentlemen, how distinctly it separates the pursuit of Knowledge from those ulterior objects to which certainly it can be made to conduce, and which are, I suppose, solely contemplated by the persons who would ask of me the use of a University or Liberal Education. So far from dreaming of the cultivation of Knowledge directly and mainly in order to our physical comfort and enjoyment, for the sake of life and person, of health, of the conjugal and family union, of the social tie and civil security, the great Orator implies, that it is only after our physical and political needs are supplied, and when we are “free from necessary duties and cares,” that we are in a condition for “desiring to see, to hear, and to learn.”

It is so familiarly known to us–perhaps Newman was exaggerating a bit here, but it certainly wasn’t familiar to me, and in all the defences of the humanities I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything similar expressed. To think that an education in the humanities is the sole purview of those not in the grip of Necessity would rightfully be denounced as stunningly elitest. But it’s striking that the idea of a holding environment should be so thoroughly eradicated from our notion of education, especially of a liberal arts education. Nobody–liberal, conservative, reactionary, radical–is apt to emphasize that one’s basic physical needs are satiable, and are in fact satiated. We’d much rather pay attention how they may in the future not be met, or how whatever satiety we have counts little compared to all those less satiated. What if instead we concentrated not on the somethings we can teach–be it useful knowledge, job training, critical thinking, cultural capital–but on the “something else“?

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