Universities’ growing obsession with learning outcomes is widely disparaged by academics. In a spot-on piece in The New York Times last month, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, warned that “when the effort to reduce learning to a list of job-ready skills goes too far, it misses the point of a university education”. That point, especially in the humanities, is to carve out “space for intellectual endeavours that don’t have obvious metrics or market value”.
But what if intellectual endeavours at university are worthwhile only when they lack metrical or market value? The French thinker Simone Weil, who died 75 years ago this year, posed this unsettling question, and offered an equally unsettling answer.
While best known as a political and religious thinker, Weil earned her living in the 1930s as a philosophy teacher. But her teaching was as unorthodox as her appearance (sandals, shabby dresses and frayed sweaters, occasionally worn backwards). She dismissed the national exam, the baccalauréat, as “sheer convention”. Rather than teach to it, she assigned papers in which students had to describe an everyday object through a single sensation. And she challenged her sheltered 18-year-olds with unexpected questions, such as: “Have you ever killed anyone?” and “Can you tell me how many low-income residences we can build for the same cost as a luxury liner?” This approach, which attracted rather than alienated her students, was remarkably successful; one year, nine out of 12 of her charges passed the fiercely rigorous baccalauréat.
In an essay on “the right use of school studies” – written, ironically, while banned from teaching by the antisemitic Vichy regime – Weil declared that students must “work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes”. Rather than providing a bridge to understanding, she insisted, such a focus was a cul-de-sac.
In fact, Weil would have little patience with those of us in the humanities who justify our positions by claiming that we develop “critical thinking” and “cogent writing”. This is not to say that she thought such skills unimportant. To the contrary. In 1936, she left the classroom to join an anarchist battalion in the Spanish Civil War. But, near-sighted, she stumbled into a pot of hot oil and returned to Paris to reflect on the lies that both sides used to justify the horrors they committed in Spain. In a stunning essay titled “We Will Not Again Fight the Trojan War”, she declared that “to clarify thought, to discredit intrinsically meaningless words…might be a way of saving human lives”.
To write clearly, though, we must first learn to see clearly. This, for Weil, is the work of attention. “The real object and almost the sole interest of studies”, she insisted, is less to write critically about the world than to attend to it. But she doesn’t mean attend in the standard sense. She isn’t talking about the “muscular effort” typically involved in paying attention to something or someone, and responding appropriately. This self-aware activity flourishes in business schools and funeral homes, but, for Weil, it is less the paying than the displaying of attention.
Rather, she means a “negative effort” that requires us to stand still rather than to lean in. It is, in a literal sense, a spiritual exercise, which strengthens both our detachment from our selves and our attachment to truth. “In every scholastic exercise there is a special way of waiting upon the truth, setting our hearts on it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it,” she writes. In effect, attending is akin – as the French verb attendre reflects – to waiting. Weil describes it as “suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, waiting to be penetrated by the object”. A mathematical or textual puzzle could be the object of attention. But whether we solve it, argues Weil, is secondary: the true goal lies elsewhere.
This approach might appear to resemble the meditation and mindfulness courses – now multiplying at our universities – that seek to develop what psychologist Tobin Hart describes as “knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness”. But while such courses might have a place in the academy, they have little in common with Weil’s outlook. She does not call upon students to behold the contents of their consciousness. To the contrary, she urges them to look outward and rid themselves of the contents of their consciousness. This is why, in her posthumous work Gravity and Grace, she declares that attention is “the rarest and purest of generosity”. That generosity translates into an aptitude to see the world clearly.
By the end of her short life, Weil came to identify this truth with God. Such reflections seem sorely out of place in secular institutions. But what if we swapped “God” for “Good”? This was a move that Weil, a proud Platonist, easily made, and one that reminds us, as teachers, that goodness and knowledge are joined at the hip. Crucially, this kind of knowledge cannot be measured by tests, but instead takes the moral measure of our world. As Weil insisted, “We learn to be attentive in order…to be just.”
In a beautifully evocative phrase, she writes that when we translate a text, we quite properly do not seek to add anything to it. This is how the student must approach the world: she must see and write about it as if she is translating “a text that is not written down”.
In an age in which students cannot escape their social media shadows – media where truth is most often battered and justice betrayed – this seems to me less a Zen riddle than a pedagogical urgency.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor in the Honors College, University of Houston.