Rupert Spira In this meditation we take an experiential journey that explores consciousness and the body. In the first stage the experience of ourself seems to be located in and to share the limits of the body. In the second stage, we recognise ourself to be the unlimited, space-like field of consciousness. In the final stage, our experience of the body conforms to our new understanding and is progressively experienced as luminous, open, empty consciousness. This clip has been taken from Rupert’s Seven Day Retreat at Buckland Hall in December 2019.
Instead of fuming in subjugated irritation, turn wait times into chances to connect, muse and think big about the future
by Jason Farman Waiting. Positano, Italy, 1936. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum
Jason Farmanis professor of American Studies and director of the Design Cultures and Creativity programme at the University of Maryland, College Park. His books include the edited collections The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies (2014) and Foundations of Mobile Media Studies: Essential Texts on the Formation of a Field (2016), and the authored texts Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (2012) and Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (2018).
Edited by Sam Haselby
September 30, 2020 (psyche.co)
Need to know
A story that’s well-known among architects and urban designers is the tale of how people stopped complaining about waiting for elevators in the skyscrapers of New York City. The story’s origins are in the post-Second World War building boom, with its massive increase of skyscrapers. One building’s manager brought in mechanical engineers and elevator companies to help him solve a daily problem: people were waiting too long for the elevators, and they were getting angry about it. After looking at the issue, the engineers and company representatives came back and said that this problem was unsolvable. But a psychologist who worked in the building came up with his own solution. According to one version of the story, the psychologist didn’t focus on elevator performance but on the fact that people felt frustrated with what was a relatively short wait. He concluded that the frustration was likely born out of boredom. With the approval of the building’s manager, he put up mirrors around the elevator waiting area so that people could look at themselves and others waiting. Thus, waiting became interesting. The complaints not only ceased immediately and completely, but some previous complainers actually applauded the building staff for improving the speed of the elevator service.
I continually return to this example as I survey our society at this moment in time, as we each feel the burden of wait times during a pandemic. Waiting has come to characterise much of life in 2020, from waiting for a vaccine to waiting for word from schools about what classes will look like for students, or waiting for jobs to return, or waiting for a Zoom host to start the meeting. As our lives have moved to remote connection, we wait as we’re put on hold for the next customer service representative to sort out our student loan bills, update our internet plans or guide us through the bureaucracy of unemployment benefits. We wait for ‘normal life’ to return, and have become living buffering icons with no sense of when the wait will cease.
We’re bored. We’re unproductive. We’re irritated by the wait and the way it makes us feel powerless, anxious, isolated and depressed. It’s no wonder that students across the United States are shirking campus restrictions and safety measures to be at bars and resume some semblance of a normal academic year, ultimately leading to large numbers of COVID-19 cases at many universities. We hate to wait, even for a relatively short amount of time. Similar to the elevator anecdote, there’s no feedback about when our waiting will end, so we’re left with all the complex emotions of that overused phrase, ‘uncertainty’. The uncertainty of how time will unfold in the coming months echoes the psychology research around the wait times for elevators (and other mundane moments of waiting, such as waiting for our Netflix movie to start playing or waiting in line at the grocery store).
But there is a way to reclaim waiting from the slow, thick doldrums of these negative encounters with delay. I believe we can wait better, but that requires a radical reorienting of our perspective on waiting. There are concrete actions we can take, which I detail below, including ways we can better handle our emotions and, instead, focus on our responses. In doing so, we can build a relationship with time that sees it as an investment in our social fabric. By investing our wait times in the social circumstances that people around us face, we can build radical empathy with the ways that others are forced to use their time.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
What to do
Mindfulness, meditation and moments of stillness have helped many to centre their thoughts and emotions. These strategies are used for coping with the stress of intense working lives, the anxious reactions toward the upheaval that surrounds us and the accelerating pace of life in the digital age.
Waiting, however, is qualitatively different. While you can choose to pause, be still and meditate, you often can’t control whether you wait for something or not. That’s the rub with wait times: they’re often imposed rather than chosen. So we despise them because they put the power in the hands of others. Waiting precludes a sense of agency over using our time as we see fit. Wait times can even be used by others to remind us about their power, for example, in a relationship where we’re made to wait for them, an action that claims priority over time.
In order to find the benefits of waiting – rather than a knee-jerk reaction that wait times are a major barrier to living a good life – there are five practices you can employ:
1. Move beyond your feelings and toward the cause of waiting. Instead of festering in the emotional toll of waiting, it’s better to understand the larger context of wait times. Begin by asking why you’re waiting. The initial answers will likely be shallow responses to a complex situation.
A follow-up question that can help to move towards a complex answer is: ‘Who benefits from my waiting?’ While I might perceive waiting as imposed on me, and see it either as an inconvenience or as removing my ability to control my own time, it’s important to ask who (or what) profits from me waiting right now. Sometimes, we’re actually the beneficiaries of our own wait times. Waiting can be an investment that pays out to us: it can be a way for us to save or accrue money in a retirement account (rather than spending it when the first need arises) or it can be a way for us to delay gratification. I might wait now to get something better on the other side of my waiting. Or we might attribute an ability to wait to building patience, which is an esteemed character trait. And then there are the ways in which those around me might benefit from my waiting, such as when I wait at traffic lights so that other cars can move through the intersection.
Yet waiting can also reveal structural benefits such as when those in positions of power reiterate that power by making us wait. Delays in justice or equity are a way of keeping the disempowered from experiencing social change and mobility. Wait times can also reveal cracks in leadership, as people are forced to pause due to a lack of planning and strategic vision. Becoming students of waiting can give us insights into the larger causes for delay and the ramifications across different parts of our society. But these insights come only if we’re able to move past our irritation at being forced to wait.
2. Embrace the ways in which wait times are not in-between times. We tend to think of waiting as the limbo between what we were doing and what we hope happens next. We sit in a holding pattern until things are resolved. My personal practice is to identify what I hope will come on the other side of my waiting. What do I want the future to look like once my delays and wait times are resolved? I have learned so much about myself through this practice, about my dreams and ambitions, about my outlook for the future, and about my closest relationships and what I desire from them.
Such practices are not only a key to understanding ourselves better, they are fundamental for innovating on what exists and coming up with new futures. Waiting, as represented by silences, gaps and distance, allows us the capacity to imagine that which doesn’t yet exist and, ultimately, innovate into those new worlds as our knowledge expands.
Waiting pulls us into the present unlike any other experience of time. In the waiting, we realise that this moment is meaningful as it exists, not as some step toward a future moment. Waiting is present tense, and its meanings are full of the potential to transform the ways in which we see the world. Each moment is its own experience and its own fulfilment.
3. Decouple lack of productivity from being forced to wait. If wait times offer new visions of possible futures, then wait times can be productive. But this isn’t currently the dominant view. Instead, wait times are often seen as robbing us of productivity. When we’re productive and working well, time speeds by and we hardly notice it. When we wait, time is inescapably noticeable.
Yet, such a perspective has only led to a burned-out workforce that is overbooked and lacks creative vision. Wait times, instead, are necessary for us to find creative solutions to complex problems. Waiting, and the daydreaming and boredom that accompany it, unlocks the ‘default mode network’ of the brain. This is sometimes called the ‘imagination network’ and links us with creative approaches and solutions that we couldn’t have found if we sought them out; they only arrive when our thoughts are in a moment of pause. Building long-term solutions that innovate into new futures requires us to sit with knowledge, to have moments of boredom and waiting. Yet the current work environment offers none of that. If we build wait times into our workflow, not only could we be less stressed, we might actually be more productive and more creative.
4. Use wait times as an investment in the social fabric. When I began my research on waiting, I believed that everyone hated to wait just as much as I did. But, as I journeyed to countries around the world to study how various cultures respond to their wait times, I was struck instead by how differently people perceive waiting. Many of those I encountered not only have less anxiety around waiting than I do, several even basked in their wait times. One of my colleagues, who works in Uganda, told me about times when her neighbours would all gather an hour early at the bus stop just to wait as a community. The wait time was their shared language of investing time in each other.
Waiting also holds a specific social resonance for some cultures, reiterating priorities and values for each other’s wellbeing. The orderly, single-file lines for food and water rations in Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake stand in stark contrast to the viral footage of shoppers in Australia fighting each other for the last pack of toilet paper in March 2020.
Instead of seeing our time as individual – a scarce resource among other dwindling resources – we can see it as intertwined with the time of others. Here, a new moral imperative emerges. If my time is bound with yours, it benefits me to see you use your time well or, in contrast, to help you combat the social structures that force you to spend your time in ways that put you at a disadvantage. This is what the media studies scholar Sarah Sharma calls a ‘temporal awareness’ of the ways that all our time is intertwined but often uneven in how it’s imposed on different people. If we don’t foster this kind of awareness, she argues, we risk managing our own time in a way that ‘has the potential to further diminish the time of others’. Waiting can be what we study to see how things such as racial and class inequalities force people to live time in a different way, further emphasising their marginal positions.
This is particularly apt in this moment of pandemic. By waiting in quarantine for the infection curve to flatten, by waiting until it’s safe enough to go out to a music festival, by waiting until there is a vaccine or other measures before expecting life to return to normal, I am investing in the social fabric around me. I am investing in your safety by waiting. Yet, our long histories of linking wait times with powerlessness and a lack of productivity have often stemmed these efforts. Instead, we should redouble our investment in waiting, understanding it as a productive practice that invests in the value of the lives around us.
5. Get angry, as needed. Not all wait times are created equal. Waiting for a delayed flight is different from waiting for the results of a cancer screening. Waiting in line for a Disneyland ride bears no resemblance to waiting for justice for war crimes. Not all waiting is beneficial. Some waiting should anger us, especially as we build radical empathy with others who are forced to wait in ways that disempower them. This radical empathy gives us a deeper insight into the life of someone whose experience is vastly different from our own. We should be angry that it took so long for disaster relief to reach Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. We should be angry that we’re still waiting for justice for Black people killed in the US. As Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (1963):
For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’.
When my time is deeply entwined with your time, I should be angered at the uneven ways that it is distributed and when many of you are simply asked to wait. In these moments, we should collectively shout that we will wait no longer.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
- Become a student of waiting by shifting your emotional energies toward trying to understand who benefits from your wait times. By doing so, you can uncover the reasons that wait times are imposed – and what you can do in response.
- As students of waiting, these periods can teach us about what we hope will come on the other side of waiting. Use this time to learn about yourself and what you hope the future might bring.
- Wait times are typically understood as the antithesis of being productive. Instead, understand that wait times can unlock new modes of productivity and creative problem-solving that couldn’t have been accessed otherwise.
- Remember that wait times are not an in-between time; instead, they are moments that offer us the opportunity to be creative problem-solvers and innovate new futures.
- Waiting, especially in a moment of pandemic and quarantine, should be understood as an investment in the people around us. My waiting can be an opportunity for me to understand how you’re forced to use time differently from me. This has the potential to build radical empathy with each other.
- Radical empathy gives us a clearer picture of how unevenly time is distributed and how injustices are often perpetuated under the guise of simply asking people to wait. Sometimes waiting must be fought.
Mobile media and digital technologies have transformed the landscape for how we use our time. While these technologies have afforded new ways to connect and build knowledge, they’ve also massively overhauled expectations around availability and what working looks like. Those who’ve watched these transformations take place over the past few decades likely feel that the pace of life has exponentially increased. In this context, we might see those who expect instant email responses or one-day Amazon deliveries as a uniquely impatient group without historical precedent. However, they’re in good company.
When I began researching my book on wait times, I expected to see a massive compression of how time was experienced. Once technologies slice the day into smaller and smaller parts, and then distribute that time across all devices globally (we’re all on the same clock if you’re using your cellphone as your timepiece, by the way), you have a population that experiences those slices of time in unique ways.
Yet time perception is relative to our everyday encounters. That is, once you’ve experienced receiving a letter or waiting for a website to load, cognitively you begin setting norms of speed. These norms – whether the 40-day journey of a letter across the US in the late-1700s, or the mere seconds it takes a video to buffer in your browser today – shape our perception of time. Once those norms are violated (I can’t believe it took 55 days for this letter to arrive! It was supposed to be here two weeks ago!), we lose patience, and frustration mounts.
We have always been impatient. This is true in every era and across nearly all forms of media that connect us. You see it in the letters of Civil War soldiers and in the protests of King Henry VIII as he waited for the Pope to grant dispensation to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Conversely, when a technology suddenly speeds up our social connections, such as the rise of the pneumatic tube mailing system in the 19th century, we feel like we’re living in a new future full of new possibilities. These technologies often promise to connect us instantly without a loss of fidelity, and that connections across geographic distances will suddenly be as rich and instant as face-to-face conversations. By claiming to eliminate wait times altogether, technology has answered the problems of social distance.
The cultural imagination that these technologies produce is typically more powerful than the technologies themselves. That is, the way they change how we think is more important to their success than the actual abilities of the medium. Think of Zoom and the virtual meeting or classroom: this illusion of instant and true-to-life connection has been laid bare.
Instead, we have always waited, and waiting won’t be eliminated from our lives. Nor should we want it to be removed completely. Waiting offers us important insights into ourselves and how we function as a society. Waiting provides us with key modes of creativity that we’ll lose if we pull out the phone at every pause.
My hope is that we don’t see waiting as a burden, but as an important feature of human connection, intimacy and learning. There is so much we can learn from waiting, if we only take the time.
Links & books
The article ‘Why Time Feels So Weird in 2020’ by Feilding Cage for Reuters offers some visual tasks that demonstrate the odd shifts and contractions of time that we’re experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chapter ‘Spinning in Place’ from my book Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (2018) looks at the significance of that ubiquitous and mundane piece of interface design, the buffering icon.
The article ‘The Hidden Joy of Waiting in Line’ (2014) by Carolyn Gregoire in HuffPost offers a few practical actions that people can take while waiting, instead of occupying their time with a phone screen.
The podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on wait times and transparency, ‘Wait Wait … Tell Me!’ (2019), which shows how being transparent with people about waiting times gives them a sense of agency and involvement over complex processes such as a city’s timeline for public works projects.
The book Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (2018) by Melissa Gregg gets to the heart of our beliefs and practices of productivity in the workplace. Exploring why we feel so busy and overworked, as well as our cultural notions of work and success in the digital age, Gregg looks at the experiences and shifting expectations of workers in information economies.
The book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (2012) by Claudia Hammond draws on rich research in the psychology of time to show how our own perceptions can make some moments (such as waiting) seem to drag on forever, while some years seem to fly by in an instant.
The book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (2014) by Sarah Sharma argues for ‘temporal awareness’ of other people, and advocates for a view of time that’s intertwined rather than individual. Looking at how this plays out in the workforces of those often not in the limelight such as taxi drivers and cleaning staff, and behind the scenes at slow food gatherings, Sharma makes the case for a politics of time.
The book Hold On: The Life, Science, and Art of Waiting (2020) by Peter Toohey provides a thoughtful and analytical framework for studying waiting. A natural bridge with Toohey’s previous book, Boredom: A Lively History (2011), his latest looks at moments of waiting as they emerge in a range of media such as film, television, painting and music.
And if we’re trying to eliminate boredom from our lives, Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (2017) convincingly argues that boredom can in fact help to unlock creativity. She offers practical advice to people who wish to shift the pace of their days, so as to approach problems and creative challenges with new insights.
By Maria Popova (brainpickings.org)
“When you realize you are mortal,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote while regarding a mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future.” A decade earlier, shortly before a heart attack severed her life-time, Hannah Arendt observed in her superb Gifford Lectures lectures on the life of the mind that our finitude, “set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities.” While Arendt was composing these thoughts and silent cells were barricading one of her arteries, Ursula K. Le Guin was composing her novelistic inquiry into what it means to live responsibly, observing: “If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it.” A generation before her, Borges had formulated the ultimate declaration of our temporal creatureliness, declaring: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
Half a century of neuroscience and psychology have confirmed the physical fact beneath the poetic sentiment — we now know that our experience of time is the crucible of empathy and the defining dimension of personal identity.
The young clerk at the Zurich patent office was thinking about none of this in the spring of 1905, the spring of a new century still verdant with possibility, when he dreamt up his general relativity — the refutation of Newton that would rattle the flow of existence, forever changing our understanding of time; rather, Einstein was thinking of time as a plaything of mathematics, the cold clay of an impartial universe in which we ourselves are playthings of chance.
Or was he?
After all, a revolution in understanding time is a revolution in understanding ourselves as creatures of time, and no human being — not even the most abstract-minded physicist — can think about time without thinking about what it means to be human, to be concretely oneself, tender with transience.
That is the predicate of the slender, poetic 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams (public library) by physicist Alan Lightman — a book about time and the tricks we play on ourselves to bear our transience, a book that does for time what Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love does for love: punctuating a fictional world with philosophical quickenings, thought experiments, lyrical reflections on a fundamental human dimension of the real world.
The young Einstein, overworked and burning with ideas, falls asleep at his patent office desk on a series of nights in that fertile spring of 1905, to dream of worlds in each of which times works differently. Each betokens a particular manifestation of our time-anxiety, that defining anxiety of our lives — each a particular tapestry of our hopes, fears, and other flights from the only reality we have and only place we really inhabit: the present.
In one of these worlds, two times exist in parallel — mechanical time, “as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” and body time, pulsating with aliveness that “squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.” This world is a testament to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s long-ago lament that “it seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict” — in it, people live out their lives subscribing to one time, distrusting and deriding the very existence of the other:
Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.
Another dream draws on the real history of how Galileo invented timekeeping to paint a world in which people journey to the Temple of Time to worship the Great Clock enshrined in it — a world part-prophecy and part-admonition, caricaturing our modern cult of the clock as humanity’s great concession in letting time reign, in Nina Simone’s soulful words, as “the great dictator.” Lightman writes:
Long ago, before the Great Clock, time was measured by changes in heavenly bodies: the slow sweep of stars across the night sky, the arc of the sun and variation in light, the waxing and waning of the moon, tides, seasons. Time was measured also by heartbeats, the rhythms of drowsiness and sleep, the recurrence of hunger, the menstrual cycles of women, the duration of loneliness. Then, in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of a life. It was magical, it was unbearable, it was outside natural law. Yet the clock could not be ignored. It would have to be worshipped. The inventor was persuaded to build the Great Clock. Afterwards, he was killed and all other clocks were destroyed. Then the pilgrimages began.
There is a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself” so that every instance, every event, every person “repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”
There is a world in which time comes with a pre-determined terminus, the precise date of which is known to all inhabitants, none of whom seem to mind that the world is ending, for “a world with one month is a world of equality.”
There is a world in which entropy moves in reverse, everything tending from chaos to order, from dissolution to coherence — the shoreline rebuilt with each lapping wave, the house paint growing more vibrant with each passing season.
There is a world located at the center of time, where time stands still, traveling outward in concentric circles to the outside worlds. Lovers and the parents of small children make pilgrimages to this place, hoping to preserve their fleeting bliss:
Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.
There is a world in which imagining the future — that capacity for mental time-travel essential for our humanity — “is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet,” and so every experience is absolute and eternal to those undergoing it:
In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.
Then there is the opposite world, in which the future is an omnipresent fixity:
This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make way for events. Instead, time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever… In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.
Then there is the opposite of the opposite, in which the past — that sole solidity of the real world — is unfixed, unvoided of possibility. In that world, a middle-aged man has spent his life trapped in a painful memory of childhood humiliation that has come to define his identity and behavior, until one day he wakes up to a different past, devoid of the event that produced the memory, and is suddenly a different person altogether. (Isn’t this the great dream of therapy, the great gift of healing — the dream of self-revision?) From this imaginary world, as from all the rest, Lightman wrests a reflection on the real world, lucid and lyrical:
What is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings and the quarryman begins to load his truck.
Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)
Having spent half of my own life trapped in a self-created world of rigid routines and clockwork habits — a half-conscious effort to manufacture the illusion of constancy and continuity, to cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, to deny the fact that to be human is to be inconstant and discontinuous ourselves — there is one world that particularly thrills me and particularly terrifies me:
In this world time is not continuous. In this world time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment. So tiny are the disconnections in time that a single second would have to be magnified and dissected into one thousand parts and each of those parts into one thousand parts before a single missing part of time could be spotted.
So tiny are the disconnections in time that the gaps between segments are practically imperceptible. After each restart of time, the new world looks just like the old. The positions and motions of clouds appear exactly the same, the trajectories of birds, the flow of conversations, thoughts.
The segments of time fit together almost perfectly, but not quite perfectly. On occasion, very slight displacements occur. For example, on this Tuesday in Berne, a young man and a young woman, in their late twenties, stand beneath a street lamp on Gerberngasse. They met one month ago. He loves her desperately, but he has already been crushed by a woman who left him without warning, and he is frightened of love. He must be sure with this woman. He studies her face, pleads silently for her true feelings, searches for the smallest sign, the slightest movement of her brow, the vaguest reddening of her cheeks, the moistness of her eyes.
In truth, she loves him back, but she cannot put her love in words. Instead, she smiles at him, unaware of his fear. As they stand beneath the street lamp, time stops and restarts. Afterwards, the tilt of their heads is precisely the same, the cycle of their heartbeats shows no alteration. But somewhere in the deep pools of the woman’s mind, a dim thought has appeared that was not there before. The young woman reaches for this new thought, into her unconscious, and as she does so a gossamer vacancy crosses her smile. This slight hesitation would be invisible to any but the closest scrutiny, yet the urgent young man has noticed it and taken it for his sign. He tells the young woman that he cannot see her again, returns to his small apartment on Zeughausgasse, decides to move to Zürich and work in his uncle’s bank. The young woman walks slowly home from the lamppost on Gerberngasse and wonders why the young man did not love her.
This world might also be the incubus of Lightman’s uncommon insight into our longing for absolutes in a relative world and what actually gives meaning to our temporal lives — ideas contoured in Einstein’s Dreams, which he would shade in over the course of decades with his uncommon palette of physics and existential poetics.
Take, for instance, the dream-world in which time does not flow but sticks, adhering each town to a particular point in history and each person to a particular point in life. There is no shared stream of present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a different past:
The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.
This, indeed, is the silent refrain of the novel: the haunting reminder that however the past and the future might unfold and refold in the origami of even the most elaborate time-model, unless we live in the present, we are not living at all. I am reminded of Kafka: “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” I am reminded of Kierkegaard a century before him: “The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” Above all, I am reminded of Gaston Bachelard, who reconciled Einstein and Bergson’s historic debate about time with a larger truth merging the scientific reality and the subjective human truth of time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”
This intimation is what Einstein’s Dream leaves lingering in the deliciously discomposed mind. In the last world, which the dreamt-up Einstein dreams up in the first week of summer, time is a flock of nightingales. People race to capture under bell jars, and mostly fail. Only children have the energy and speed to catch the birds, but children have no desire to catch them, for time is already moving too sluggishly for them, each summer month already an eternity. (Which of us can forget the vast spacetime of loneliness that slackens the hammock of childhood?) On those rare occasions when an adult captures a nightingale under their bell jar, they rejoice in the frozen moment, but only for a moment — eventually, they discover that life itself is a warm-blooded creature, pulsating with the flow of time:
They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.
Like The Little Prince, Einstein’s Dreams remains one of those endlessly rereadable classics, unfurling new splendors of insight and subtleties of feeling which each reading. Complement it with Kahlil Gibran on befriending time, then revisit the little loophole in the Big Bang exploring when time really began.
By Maria Popova (brainpickings.org)
There is an elemental cosmic loneliness in the pit of every human soul. We spend our lives trying to make it bearable and call our efforts love, or art. (Which might, in the end, be one and the same.) Every once in a while, we are lifted out of the pit into a salutary sense of connection and congress with something larger — a sense of being but one wave among the incalculable lapping lonelinesses in the great sea of being, but one string in the grand symphony orchestra of aliveness.
For many of us, this sense awakens most readily in the natural world, where we feel ourselves part of larger rhythms and larger scales beckoning us to take the telescopic perspective of time, space, and being with the broadened lens of the mind. Whitman felt it most intimately “on the beach alone at night.” Hesse felt it among the trees. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry felt it in the desert. I feel it with my hand against the mosses carpeting the old-growth coastal forest.
Many of humanity’s vastest, most sensitive-souled minds have turned to the natural world not only for creative fuel but for a mighty antidote to melancholy. Few have captured that ecstatic sense of cosmic belonging more exquisitely than the English artist and activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) in Modern Nature (public library) — his almost unbearably beautiful record of leaving London to live in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut nestled between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant in a newly designated conservation area on the shingled shores of Kent. There, on this solitary headland, salving grief through gardening, Jarman discovered the consolations of a different kind of time — not the time of atoms and anxieties, but the time of seeds and stars.
One spring Saturday, after hanging five new paintings on his walls — “all collages of found objects on gold backgrounds” — Jarman writes in the journal:
A hallucinatory dusk, washed with colours to drive Monet to suicide. At sunset the brightest sickle moon appeared in a gentle blue sky; minute by minute gathering in intensity it stayed until just before midnight.
Night clear as a bell — the blue passed through violet with strands of rose and old gold to become a deep indigo. So etched were the moon and stars they seemed to have been cut out by a child to decorate a crib.
The night sky here is a riot that outshines the brightest lights of Piccadilly; the stars have the intensity of jewels. So flat is the Ness that those stars that lie at the horizon touch your very feet and the moon tips the waves with silver.
The passage reminds me of a breathtaking piece by my composer-friend Jherek Bischoff — a piece inspired by one particular night from his boyhood, living on a sailboat with his parents hundreds of miles from land, when the surface of the open ocean was so still that he could no longer discern the horizon line: the stars in the sky and their reflections in the water appeared as a single sphere of spacetime, inside which he felt to be floating.
From his starlit garden perch between the lighthouse and the power plant, Jarman suddenly sees the familiar landscape with new cosmic eyes, all radiance and rapture:
The nuclear power station is a great ocean liner moored in the firmament, ablaze with light: white, yellow, ruby. Whilst round the bay the lights stretch from Folkenstone to Dover. High above, jet liners from the south float silent in the stars. On these awesome nights, reduced to silence, I walk across the Ness.
Never in my many sleepless nights have I witnessed a spectacle like this. Not the antique bells of the flocks moving up a Sardinian hillside, the barking of the dogs and the sharp cries of the shepherd boys, nor moonlit nights sailing the Aegean, nor the scented nights and fireflies of Fire Island, smashed glass star-strewn through the piers along the Hudson — nothing can quite equal this.
In consonance with his artistic and spiritual progenitor Walt Whitman’s faith in the indelible connection between music and nature and with Joseph Cornell’s artistically formative experience at the planetarium, Jarman adds:
The orchestra has struck up the music of the spheres, the spectral dancers on the fated liner whirl you off your feet till you feel the great globe move. Light-hearted laughter. Here man* has invented the heavens’ but the moon, not to be usurped, shines sickle bright, gathering our souls.
In this passage from Modern Nature, Jarman does for the night sky what Rachel Carson did a generation earlier for the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life. Complement it with the great nature writer Henry Beston — Carson’s great hero — on night and the human spirit, then revisit poet Marie Howe’s Whitman-inspired, Hawking-inspired ode to our cosmic belonging.
Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?
DONALD TRUMP: I’ve been told by my many sources, good sources – they’re very good sources – that the chicken crossed the road. All the Fake News wants to do is write nasty things about the road, but it’s a really good road. It’s a beautiful road. Everyone knows how beautiful it is.
JOE BIDEN: Why did the chicken do the…thing in the…you know the rest.
SARAH PALIN: The chicken crossed the road because, gosh-darn it, he’s a maverick!
BARACK OBAMA: Let me be perfectly clear, if the chickens like their eggs they can keep their eggs. No chicken will be required to cross the road to surrender her eggs. Period.
AOC: Chickens should not be forced to lay eggs! This is because of corporate greed! Eggs should be able to lay themselves.
HILLARY CLINTON: What difference at this point does it make why the chicken crossed the road.
GEORGE W. BUSH: We don’t really care why the chicken crossed the road. We just want to know if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The chicken is either with us or against us. There is no middle ground here.
DICK CHENEY: Where’s my gun?
BILL CLINTON: I did not cross the road with that chicken.
AL GORE: I invented the chicken.
JOHN KERRY: Although I voted to let the chicken cross the road, I am now against it! It was the wrong road to cross, and I was misled about the chicken’s intentions. I am not for it now and will remain against it.
AL SHARPTON: Why are all the chickens white?
DR. PHIL: The problem we have here is that this chicken won’t realize that he must first deal with the problem on this side of the road before it goes after the problem on the other side of the road. What we need to do is help him realize how stupid he is acting by not taking on his current problems before adding any new problems.
ANDERSON COOPER: We have reason to believe there is a chicken, but we have not yet been allowed to have access to the other side of the road.
NANCY GRACE: That chicken crossed the road because he’s guilty! You can see it in his eyes and the way he walks.
PAT BUCHANAN: To steal the job of a decent, hardworking American.
DR SEUSS: Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes, the chicken crossed the road, but why it crossed I’ve not been told.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY: To die in the rain, alone.
GRANDPA: In my day we didn’t ask why the chicken crossed the road. Somebody told us the chicken crossed the road, and that was good enough for us.
ARISTOTLE: It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?
COLONEL SANDERS: Did I miss one?
What unifies everything and everyone?
Let’s start with imagining yourself in a park and that in some way you can go out of your body and fly up. After a few meters, you will see yourself as a dot. Flying more up, you will see a park as a dot. Then a city you are in look like a dot, then a county, then you will see the Earth as a dot. After you rose far enough, the whole solar systems and galaxies will become a dot. — That is telling us that everything is a dot from the way up.
Now go back to your body and let’s dive into it deeper. You will find out that you are made of millions of dots, cells. Then go deeper onto the surface of the cell and look around. You will see that it is made out of millions of smaller dots, if you go into one of those dots, you will see atoms. — And yes, that exactly means that there are dots all way down.
So we can say that everything is composed of dots and within the dot is an infinite amount of division, infinitive amount of information.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity covers the cosmic scales and the relationship between gravity, time and space. It predicts continuum to an infinitive point of singularity. You’ll hear physicists and mathematicians talk about singularities. Singularities are really dots, a point where everything breaks down and the mathematical equations don’t give you a defined answer because you have a ton of dots (mass) in an infinitely small space.
In another hand, we have a Quantum theory that covers the smallest units in the universe. It predicts finite and linear boundaries.
What if infinities and linear boundaries could be complementary?
Imagine the cells in your body that are made out of atoms. There are about 100 trillion cells in your body, and each cell has billions of atoms. And imagine that all of these cells and atoms could be further divided into subatomic particles, that can be divided into sub-subatomic particles and further on towards infinity. That would mean that even you have a physical body you have an infinite nature.
There is a concept in Quantum physic called Higgs boson or unofficially “The God Particle.” It refers to the smallest division that the universe creates. At first, we had microscopes where we saw the cells, and we believed that they are the smallest particles that exist, then we found atoms, protons, neutrons, then we went even smaller to quarks and so on. Every time we designed a better accelerator, we have seen the smaller particle. Now we are looking things that are billions of times smaller than an atom. Following this, it seems like it can be done to infinity.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FuMQwwR8Mzss%3Ffeature%3Doembed&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DuMQwwR8Mzss&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FuMQwwR8Mzss%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtubeWe Discovered The ‘GOD Particle,’ What is it?
So we found out that we could be infinitive, but what about the universe.
If the universe is infinite, it has always been infinite. At the Big Bang, there was infinitely dense. Since then it has just been getting less dense as space has expanded.
If we want to find something that connects all things what would that be?
The only thing that is everywhere that connects all things is SPACE.
Space is between galaxies, stars, planets, cells, atoms. Even the atomic structure is made out of 99.99999% space.
So the reality we live in is mostly space. The whole material world you see including our bodies is 0.0000001% solid, and yet we spend almost 100% of our time paying attention to it.
If we are all space and everything is space why do we see boundaries like our bodies? The truth behind that is that those are physical boundaries. We extend more than our physical bodies. We include our energetic bodies, auras, even our higher self that is present in all dimensions. We have a sense of separation just because of those boundaries that, in a fact are nothing but energy vibrations. It is easier to accept that the universe is structured of the space because of the scale, it is bigger than us. If you omit the scale, you will see that we are small universes.
The first known thing in the creation is infinity. Infinity is a creation.
— The Law of One
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940) was an American novelist, essayist, short story and screenwriter. He was best known for his novels depicting the flamboyance and excess of the Jazz Age—a term he popularized. During his lifetime, he published four novels, four collections of short stories, and 164 short stories. Wikipedia
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A person (plural people or persons) is a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness, and being a part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, or legal responsibility. The defining features of personhood and, consequently, what makes a person count as a person, differ widely among cultures and contexts.
In addition to the question of personhood, of what makes a being count as a person to begin with, there are further questions about personal identity and self: both about what makes any particular person that particular person instead of another, and about what makes a person at one time the same person as they were or will be at another time despite any intervening changes.
The plural form “people“, is often used to refer to an entire nation or ethnic group (as in “a people”), and this was the original meaning of the word; it subsequently acquired its use as a plural form of person. The plural form “persons” is often used in philosophical and legal writing.
The criteria for being a person… are designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives.— Harry G. Frankfurt
Personhood is the status of being a person. Defining personhood is a controversial topic in philosophy and law, and is closely tied to legal and political concepts of citizenship, equality, and liberty. According to common worldwide general legal practice, only a natural person or legal personality has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion, fetal rights, and in animal rights advocacy.
Various debates have focused on questions about the personhood of different classes of entities. Historically, the personhood of women, and slaves has been a catalyst of social upheaval. In most societies today, postnatal humans are defined as persons. Likewise, certain legal entities such as corporations, sovereign states and other polities, or estates in probate are legally defined as persons. However, some people believe that other groups should be included, depending on the theory, the category of “person” may be taken to include or not pre-natal humans or such non-human entities as animals, artificial intelligences, or extraterrestrial life.
What does it take for individuals to persist from moment to moment – or in other words, for the same individual to exist at different moments?Main article: Personal identity
Personal identity is the unique identity of persons through time. That is to say, the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time. In the modern philosophy of mind, this concept of personal identity is sometimes referred to as the diachronic problem of personal identity. The synchronic problem is grounded in the question of what features or traits characterize a given person at one time.
Identity is an issue for both continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. A key question in continental philosophy is in what sense we can maintain the modern conception of identity, while realizing many of our prior assumptions about the world are incorrect.
Proposed solutions to the problem of personal identity include continuity of the physical body, continuity of an immaterial mind or soul, continuity of consciousness or memory, the bundle theory of self, continuity of personality after the death of the physical body, and proposals that there are actually no persons or selves who persist over time at all.
Development of the concept
In ancient Rome, the word persona (Latin) or prosopon (πρόσωπον; Greek) originally referred to the masks worn by actors on stage. The various masks represented the various “personae” in the stage play.
The concept of person was further developed during the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries in contrast to the word nature. During the theological debates, some philosophical tools (concepts) were needed so that the debates could be held on common basis to all theological schools. The purpose of the debate was to establish the relation, similarities and differences between the Ancient Greek: Λóγος, romanized: Lógos/Verbum and God. The philosophical concept of person arose, taking the word “prosopon” (Ancient Greek: πρόσωπον, romanized: prósōpon) from the Greek theatre. Therefore, Christ (the Ancient Greek: Λóγος, romanized: Lógos/Verbum) and God were defined as different “persons”. This concept was applied later to the Holy Ghost, the angels and to all human beings.
Since then, a number of important changes to the word’s meaning and use have taken place, and attempts have been made to redefine the word with varying degrees of adoption and influence. According to Noller, at least six approaches can be distinguished: “(1) The ontological definition of the person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethius). (2) The self-consciousness-based definition of the person as a being that “can conceive itself as itself” (John Locke). (3) The moral-philosophical definition of the person as “an end in itself” (Immanuel Kant). In current analytical debate, the focus has shifted to the relationship between bodily organism and person. [4.] The theory of animalism (Eric T. Olson) states that persons are essentially animals and that mental or psychological attributes play no role in their identity. [5.] Constitution theory (Lynne Baker), on the other hand, attempts to define the person as a natural and at the same time self-conscious being: the bodily organism constitutes the person without being identical to it. Rather, it forms with it a “unity without identity”. [6.] [… Another idea] for conceiving the natural-rational unity of the person has emerged recently in the concept of the “person life” (Marya Schechtman).”
More at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Person
See also human, i.e., imperfect (“He’s only human.”) and mortal, i.e., one who dies.
Thomas Jefferson founded a university believing it would safeguard republican freedom. Slavery was another matter altogetherView of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and Monticello, Taken From Lewis Mountain (1856) by Casimir Bohn/E Sachse & Co. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Alan Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair at the the University of Virginia. His latest book is American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850 (2021).
Edited bySam Haselby
3 September 2021 (aeon.co)
Aeon for Friends
Iteach at the University of Virginia, where the 19th-century founder has become controversial and divisive. For many students, alums and state legislators, Thomas Jefferson remains a pioneer of higher education and a champion of democratic values. But critics charge that Jefferson imbued the university with a malign legacy by holding scores of people in slavery and expressing a racist rhetoric that contradicted his sporadic statements of antislavery principle. The university’s home city, Charlottesville, has ceased to celebrate Jefferson’s birthday. The campus’s most conspicuous statue to Jefferson now attracts both Leftist vandals and rallies by neo-Confederates, to the equal discomfort of those who find enduring value in his ideas.
Used to separating people sharply into villains or heroes, Americans struggle to accept that a person of the past might both inspire as a democrat and alarm as an exploiter, and could promote both higher education and racist speculation. It could balance our assessment if we restored Jefferson to his own revolutionary times, when leaders promoted a new culture appropriate to their radical new form of government: a republic. Jefferson tried to navigate a narrow course by advancing democracy without directly confronting the slave system of his beloved Virginia. His solution lay in founding a university.
Rejecting rule by kings and aristocrats, the leaders of the American Revolution designed a new, more participatory form of government, known as a republic. They regarded that republic as precious yet vulnerable to both internal subversion and foreign intervention by hostile monarchs and nobles. American leaders noted with alarm that previous republics in Europe had been short-lived and usually small: cantons or city-states. How then could a vast union of diverse American states sustain a form of government that had always failed in the past?
America’s revolutionary leaders insisted that republics required an educated citizenry – in contrast to monarchies that dominated by dazzling subjects who remained ignorant and credulous. In a republic, common men were sovereign, so they had to protect their rights and perform their duties as citizens. Otherwise, they could be duped by reckless demagogues who appealed to resentments, provoking violent anarchy. In such a nightmare scenario, a military despot – an American Caesar – would seize power to restore order at the expense of free government. Or a foreign power might invade to impose rule by aristocrats and a king.
In 1805, Jefferson noted: ‘I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.’ Another early governor of Virginia asserted in 1806 that education ‘constitutes one of the great pillars on which the civil liberties of a nation depend.’
Rejecting the colonial legacies of monarchy, the American founders wanted the next generation to learn a new culture appropriate to a republic. In Pennsylvania, a leading reformer, Benjamin Rush, insisted: ‘We have changed our forms of government, but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government that we have adopted.’ Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. ‘If the common people are ignorant and vicious,’ Rush concluded, ‘a republican nation can never be long free.’ He sought ‘to convert men into republican machines’ in order to ‘fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.’
During the colonial era, only New England’s towns had sustained public grammar schools, and those towns mandated just a few weeks of schooling in the winter when family farms needed less labour. Elsewhere in the new nation, grammar schools were fewer and reliant on private tuition – which excluded the poorest people. Throughout the new union, the children of wealthy families could learn Latin, advanced mathematics and some science by going on to private academies. Fewer young men went on to colleges, which were even more expensive and exclusive. Neither women nor African Americans could attend, and most young white men could not afford the tuition. In 1800 the United States had only 18 colleges. The largest, Yale, had 217 students that year. Collectively just 1,200 students attended college: a mere 1 per cent of adolescent males in the country.
Education seemed especially poor in Virginia, the union’s most powerful and important state, which lacked any public schools and had one college, William and Mary, in financial decline. Most adults could neither read nor write. Wealthy planters educated their own children with tutors or at private schools. Loath to pay higher taxes to educate common whites, the gentry preferred to hire tutors to prepare their sons for private academies and colleges, often in another state.
Jefferson distrusted Virginia’s county elites as self-perpetuating cabals of selfish men. He sought to erode their power by introducing a more meritocratic political system through improved public education. He distinguished between the old ‘artificial aristocracy’ of inherited privilege and a new ‘natural aristocracy’ of virtue and talents. Despite inheriting wealth and slaves, Jefferson considered himself a natural aristocrat because he defended the interests of common men. Above all, Jefferson sought to educate their children, who would learn the principles of republicanism. Informed citizens would elect as their leaders the natural aristocrats committed to defending free government. Some of those common students might learn enough to rise into the higher ranks of society. In 1813, Jefferson preached that ‘Worth and genius [should be] sought out from every condition of life, and compleately prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth & birth for public trusts.’ He’d told George Washington in 1786: ‘It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.’ Government had to act through education to reshape society for the benefit of everyone.
Jefferson dared not challenge the powerful slaveholders, who meant to keep enslaved people illiterate
In 1778, Jefferson proposed a radical educational system meant to transform Virginia along republican lines. To weaken the counties, he would subdivide them into several ‘hundreds’, each the size of a township, where through direct democracy the voters would build schools and hire teachers to educate every white girl and boy. The best boys (but no girls) would advance to county academies where the rich would pay tuition but the best poor boy from each hundred school would earn a charity scholarship. In turn, the finest charity graduate from each academy would merit a college scholarship. Jefferson explained that, under his three-tiered system, ‘the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.’ His programme had two goals, both political: to train for republican leadership ‘a few subjects in every state, to whom nature has given minds of the first order’ – and to enable every common man ‘to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing’.
Jefferson’s proposal provided scant education for girls and none for African Americans, who were two-fifths of the population. He dared not challenge the powerful slaveholders, who meant to keep enslaved people illiterate and dependent. Nor could he conceive of emancipation unless linked to mass deportation of freed people far away to Africa. In 1796, he rebuffed a Quaker abolitionist who proposed to raise charitable funds to educate slaves. Jefferson warned that schooling could only deepen the unhappiness of slaves with their lot: ‘Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.’ While seeking to uplift poor whites through education, he meant to keep Blacks in slavery and ignorance until some uncertain future when they could be freed and exiled from the state.
Despite Jefferson’s concessions to racial and gender inequality, the state legislature baulked at adopting his educational plan, deeming it too expensive. Most legislators preferred to keep taxes low as the best way to win re-election. One leading Virginian, William Branch Giles, declared in 1818 that, if poor people wanted to educate their children, let them drink less whiskey and spend the savings on tuition. Giles sought to ‘teach the citizen that it is his indispensable duty to educate his own child; that it is a right sacred and unalienable.’ Therefore, any government that taxed all citizens to educate the poor man’s son would ‘make itself a despotism and himself a slave’. Nothing alarmed a white slaveholder more than the prospect of a powerful government treating him like a slave by raising his taxes.
In 1796 – 18 years after Jefferson’s initial proposal – the state legislature passed a watered-down version of his proposal. That bill invited every county government to implement Jefferson’s system with county, rather than state, taxes to finance it. No county did so. Jefferson protested that ‘the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to [the] kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.’
The failure of Jefferson’s proposal distressed the small pool of well-educated Virginians. In 1809, the state’s governor, John Tyler (the father of a future president of the same name), complained: ‘Scarcely a common country school is to be found capable of teaching the mother tongue grammatically.’ He blamed the parsimony of state legislators appealing to the cheapest instincts of the voters: ‘He who can go back from the assembly and tell his constituents he has saved a penny secures his popularity against the next Election.’ Visionary leaders insisted that preserving a republic required improving the common people through education. But a republic empowered common voters who lacked schooling, and they often baulked at paying for others to go to school. They also thought that the future voters needed no more education than they had received.
After retiring as president of the United States in 1809, Jefferson sought to revive his vision of democratic education for Virginia. During the late 1810s, the state expected a windfall in federal money to reimburse Virginia for damages and expenditures incurred during the war of 1812. The state also reaped new funds by chartering bank and canal corporations. The enhanced revenue, however, would suffice only to fund either a new state university or a broad system of local, public schools for common people – but not both. One leading legislator, Charles Fenton Mercer, proposed to prioritise state funds for primary schools as the way to help most people and to best bolster republican government. Jefferson disagreed.
He and his legislative allies favoured building a university located in his hometown of Charlottesville. Erecting Jefferson’s expensive architecture sucked up most of the state’s funds for education. Jefferson knew that a university would depend on paying customers drawn from the elite families of Virginia. Never quite the egalitarian that Americans sometimes wish him to be, he believed in elite rule; he just wanted to improve the planter class into a meritocracy through education. He reasoned that the new university would train leaders, who would, during the next generation, democratise the state and in the future create a public system of schools to benefit common white people.
Few of Virginia’s legislators, however, shared Jefferson’s longer-term vision for a more democratic state. So he pitched his university on more conservative grounds: as the best way to defend Virginia’s way of life against meddling northerners. During the 1810s, Virginia’s leaders became sensitive to northern criticism of their slave system. The criticism made them dread the increasing power of northern states in the union thanks to a more rapid population growth in that region.
Declaring that ‘knowledge is power’, Jefferson claimed that Virginia was losing clout in a union that he imagined as a zero-sum game. If northern states were winning, his state was losing. Rather than improving after the republican revolution, education had decayed in Virginia. Jefferson lamented:
The mass of education in Virginia, before the revolution, placed her with the foremost of her sister colonies. What is her education now? Where is it? The little we have we import, like beggars, from other states; or import their beggars to bestow on us their miserable crumbs.
Appealing to the force of racism, in 1820 Jefferson warned the state’s leaders that Virginia risked ‘the degradation of becoming the Barbary of the union; and of falling into the ranks of our own negroes.’
These genteel young men learned to resent any effort to control them as treating them like slaves
Jefferson promised that a university would rescue Virginia from its economic and political decline in the union. He touched a nerve, for state legislators shared his dread of domination by Yankees. His protégé, Francis Walker Gilmer, warned that an educational gap exposed Virginia to invasion by tricky northerners venturing south for economic gain: ‘These rascals are overrunning the country; squatting everywhere, turning teachers, politicians, &c. and our legislature will soon be filled with them.’ Virginians worried that northern instructors would take over their common schools and academies, corrupting their nation’s youth with northern values. Many young gentlemen left the state to study at northern universities.
Virginia’s leading newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, endorsed a new state university as the best means to avoid losing the new generation. With considerable exaggeration, the editor, Thomas Ritchie, calculated that 500 young Virginians annually went to northern states for higher education. Many, Ritchie warned in 1805, ‘return[ed] fraught with the most pernicious prejudices’ – by which he meant antislavery ideas. In fact, young Virginians clung to their prejudices in a strange land. For example, the Virginian Hugh Blair Grigsby denounced his professors at Yale as ‘a diminutive and low-minded set’ of ‘canting hypocritical wretches, who come from New England’. But fear trumped reality to persuade leading Virginians that they needed to repatriate their young men by building a new university.
Jefferson baulked at confronting the prejudices of his fellow Virginians, especially the majority who defended slavery. In 1785, when only 42 years old, he announced that it was too late for him to transform society. Let younger men take the lead in emancipating the enslaved and democratising the state constitution: ‘It is to them I look, to the rising generation, and not to the one now in power, for these great reformations.’ Students were supposed to accomplish what Jefferson and his generation could not, or would not, do. By building a university, Jefferson claimed to keep faith with his radical goals, even as he backed away from pushing them. In 1810, Jefferson explained: ‘The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them.’
Gambling that the sons of wealthy planters would liberalise Virginia in the future was a desperate bet. At a new university, Jefferson would have to remake young Virginians, but it was quixotic to expect other Virginians to emulate the self-discipline that led him to devote his life to mastering a daunting array of languages, literatures and sciences. Other genteel Virginians enjoyed life more than books. They ate, drank, laughed, gambled, hunted and danced but rarely studied. During the 1780s, a visitor concluded:
Self-content, the Virginian avoids all efforts of mind and body involving anything beyond his pleasure. He reads, but he does not study so as to make a display of learning … Thus the young people of Virginia follow after their fathers.
Jefferson confronted this aversion to intellectual life within his own family. His son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes, warned his son (and Jefferson’s grandson) that too much learning ‘crouds the brain with so many ideas as to prevent the exertion of Jud[g]ment which alone renders them valuable.’ His boy should study only during ‘the time not occupied by useful and necessary recreation.’
Southern gentlemen attended college to test and refine their masculine honour – and to watch one another for weaknesses. External appearances and performances seemed more valuable than acquiring abstract knowledge. They cherished flashy and fashionable attire, elegant posture, polished manners, lavish generosity at buying drinks for friends, witty conversation, and prowess at playing cards. Growing up in slave-owning families, these genteel young men learned to bully and dominate – and to resent any effort to control them as insulting, as treating them like slaves. When insulted, they challenged one another to duels. Hot, impetuous and impatient for honour and superiority, young gentlemen presented a daunting challenge to any reformer who aspired to create a brave new generation of improved Virginians.
The University of Virginia opened in 1825, and building the university had expended the state’s bounty, leaving no money for scholarships. Giving priority to his expensive architectural design for the institution, Jefferson had forsaken his original educational plan to provide charity scholarships to promote social mobility. Reliant on tuition for operating costs, the University of Virginia (UVA) charged more than any other college in the union. Almost all the students came from wealthy southern families that held many people in slavery. Drunken and riotous, the students defied the authority of their professors, harassing them at night and beating two of them. Jefferson despaired when he discovered that his own pampered grand-nephew, Wilson Miles Cary, was a ringleader of the disturbances.
The university didn’t reform the southern students, who dominated the university. True to the interests of their privileged families, UVA graduates resisted democracy and clung to slavery. As lawyers, planters, state legislators and constitutional delegates, they opposed expanding the electorate, rejected proposals for public schools, and blasted antislavery ideas as treasonous. Instead of inspiring liberal reformers, the new university prepared leaders for a southern Confederacy that rebelled against the union in 1861.
Today, the University of Virginia has become far larger, more complex and cosmopolitan. During the past 60 years, it made new commitments to diversity and equal opportunity, including the long-overdue admission of women and African-Americans. We can celebrate the university for what it has overcome, rather than for how it began. By changing, it honours the principles that Jefferson expressed, but had failed to secure in his own time: the pursuit of democracy, the expansion of public education, and the pursuit of truth wherever it leads. We need statues of past leaders less to inspire us with reverence than to remind us of our complicated past and the difficulties of achieving reforms. At UVA, Jefferson’s statue will always mean different things to various people. For me, it brings to mind a cautionary tale of great value: that even the most talented men could take the wrong turn.
Jefferson’s notion of reforming society through generational change persists in how Americans think about education today. We continue to treat educational reform as the easiest, cheapest and best way to improve US society. Adults seem too set in their ways and ideas to sway. By contrast, young people appear malleable. If shaped by suitable teachers, the young can grow into the sort of people that Americans want, and produce a better society in the next generation. But we cannot agree on the right means, such as more testing for students or more money for schools, or on the ultimate goals: to remake students into consistent egalitarians or rugged individualists.
We expect schools to remake students into the sort of people that we cannot persuade our contemporaries to be. This places unrealistic expectations on teachers, schools and students. Adolescents have their own passions and interests. If you want to change society, you had better do so more directly rather than through school curriculums that you imagine will incline young people to do your future bidding. However, by improving conditions in schools, we enhance teachers’ ability to inspire and inform students, who need the resources to decide for themselves how to become creative and responsible citizens. Good schools are sufficient ends in their own right.