Thinking In Public

July 8, 2020

The Stewardship of an Intellectual Life: A Conversation with Philosopher Zena Hitz

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Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Zena Hitz is tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. After receiving her Master of Philosophy at Cambridge University Professor, Hitz earned her PhD at Princeton University, where she studied the political and philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle. She has taught at Auburn University, the University of Maryland, was a visiting fellow for the James Madison Program at Princeton University and a visiting research professor at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life makes a moving argument about the life of the mind, and that book is the topic of our conversation today. Professor Zena Hitz, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Zena Hitz:

It's so great to be here, Dr. Mohler.

Albert Mohler:

I really enjoyed your book. I knew I would from the title because it's a pretty courageous title in the year 2020 to write about the hidden pleasures of an intellectual life because the very subtitle of your book, the title being Lost in Thought, it runs counter to the idea that a hidden life is an unimportant life. But that's really pretty central to your argument as I read it.

Zena Hitz:

You're absolutely right. It is central. And at the time when I began this writing it began with a short essay for First Things about five years ago. I thought I was the only person in the world who thought this way, maybe some of my colleagues at St. John's. One of the things I've found is that actually there's a lot of people out there, it is one of things you discover as a writer, as I'm sure you know, lots and lots of people out there who understand that something's gone off in our educational culture, in our broader culture and that we need to recover elements of our humanity from some of our economic tendencies or educational tendencies or cultural tendencies. So yes, being hidden, doing things for their own sake, not making a splash, those I think are crucial for us.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. I have to tell you, I had read many of your essays before, but particularly enjoyed the book. And I guess one way to put this is I really appreciate your candor in identifying some of the sacred cows of academia these days. And one of them is the phrase, "Making a difference." And so I actually, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is whether you intended to make a difference by writing your book in which you so successfully lampoon the goal of making a difference. But I'll just leave it at that.

Zena Hitz:

You have hit a bit of an irony in the whole project, because in fact, I did write this book.... I did want it to be an invitation from an equal to other equal adults into thinking and studying for its own sake. And I think to some extent I do do that in the book. But you're absolutely right that my primary motivator was thinking, "Well, here's this practice, you know, reading and studying and thinking and teaching in the liberal arts. It's clearly endangered. It's clearly on the verge of catastrophe. And wouldn't it be good if people started talking openly about what mattered about it and why we cared about it."

 

So in many ways, this writing is a political project. It's an effort to move things in a particular direction. But I did try I think.... "Candor," I'm happy to hear it because it was something I was aiming for. I think a lot of our political interventions these days, they're aimed at influencing management or becoming a manager. And it was very important to me to speak on a level that is, "This is my experience. This is what I've seen. This is what I've seen in myself. This is what I struggle with. This is what I think is precious." So that my readers might feel empowered to think about these things for themselves and make a contribution however they see fit in their circumstances.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I looked forward to asking that question because I think, myself as an educator and a thinker, one of my frustrations is that I do think all thought makes a difference. It just doesn't make the kind of difference that the people who talk about making a difference want to make or demand or want to insist upon.

Zena Hitz:

It's part of our social media age. Everything becomes a kind of a spectacle. Everything becomes a media event and you can really get caught up in that. And you can lose touch with what's really happening in the real world, which matters a lot more than that stuff.

Albert Mohler:

There's an even more subversive element to your argument because you really start out and end by making clear that the intellectual life is not the same thing as the academic life. They sometimes actually can be at odds with one another and that the intellectual life is for everyone, not just for those who think of themselves, maybe even less for those who think of themselves, as intellectuals.

Zena Hitz:

That's right. I wanted to emphasize that because one of the things that's happening, there're multiple dimensions, I think, to the crisis in education that we're in, but one of them is that there's a kind of hyper-specialization. That is, it's somehow thought that intellectual life is something that should be done only by people who are specially trained and accomplished in it, then that we should defer to these people's expertise. And I'm trained as a scholar and I believe in scholarship, but I also think that scholarship matters because it helps ordinary people think and reflect. We've got to preserve the books and publish the books that help us to think and reflect. But in the end, what matters is ordinary thinking, ordinary reflection. It's what it does for individual human beings that matters in the end. And our academic institutions have lost track of that, I think, to a large extent.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think the church has too, Christians have lost track of that. And I was particularly moved by your repeated citations of the work of Jonathan Rose in the intellectual life of everyday people in England, or at least in Britain. And their interior lives as he chronicled them over a period of time, it was just very moving. It reminds me of what ought to be a very strong instinct I think among Christians to say, "This is an intellectual vocation to which all Christians are called in one way or another."

Zena Hitz:

Oh, yeah. Well, you're preaching to the choir here on that because I do think it's a part of our Christian life. It's part of the.... In a way, I think it's an extension of what in my tradition we call the universal call to holiness, that each person has their own relationship with God that has to be pursued. There's an analog, a related analog, to that in the intellectual life. That is, everyone has the desire to understand and a capacity for it. It varies from person to person, it's different. But yes, I love those stories in Jonathan Rose's book. And there are more, you know, that's the British tradition. I've been trying to goad some of my students into working on some of the history of those movements in the US because there are a lot of stories from the US like that too.

 

There's even stories that are well known, but we don't think of it in that context, like Frederick Douglass teaching himself to read, and then reading books and becoming not just a runaway slave, but a free man. You know, a man who could think for himself and could speak eloquently and could proclaim his dignity and the dignity of other people. It's such an important part of what we'd call ordinary kinds of liberation for ordinary people. And I think it's not less important than it used to be. It's maybe more important.

Albert Mohler:

I think of a figure such as Alexis de Tocqueville or Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur who also made very clear the American farmer was an intellectual in a sense you don't think of that in the time of the American founding.

Zena Hitz:

That's true. Yeah. That's something I wish I knew more about. The things that I've looked at are more the American analogs of things Jonathan Rose talks about. So now, in my hometown, San Francisco, there's a Mechanics' Institute Library that I went to when I was in high school. And I didn't quite understand what it was. Now I know a little more, I know that the Mechanics' Institute Libraries were places where working people would get together, people who maybe weren't literate from childhood or whose parents hadn't been literate. They came to this country, they were working people and they wanted a way to develop themselves. So they formed these associations and it coincides.... We take it for granted, but the at turn of the 20th century, they published so many books in inexpensive paperbacks. All of this knowledge and understanding became widely available for the first time. And that made possible a real massive movement towards literacy and thoughtful reflection and a kind of egalitarianism came out of that that I think is really precious, and that we're losing touch with.

Albert Mohler:

Well, there's our condescension towards it. I mean, as you look at the dominant knowledge class, as they define themselves today, there's a real antipathy towards someone picking up a classic and reading it without their tutelage. How could they understand it? They can't theorize. And you also have the looking down upon so-called middlebrow culture, which actually represented the fact that my grandparents were reading pretty substantial literature, that they didn't choose. It came to them in the mail, but they were seriously reading it. And that's now again condescended upon.

Zena Hitz:

It's so funny because this is one of the movements I've made in my life. I remember a time when I would find people out in the public sphere holding forth about, say the history of ideas or the history of philosophy. To me, it sounded like they were making terrible mistakes and it was very crude and it was maybe a little self-indulgent. And I remember having this condescending attitude. And seeing things the way I do now, where the danger is so much not non-experts, getting a little self-indulgent it's the danger that anyone will think ideas are interesting at all. We have to respect and honor the thinking that people do and cut people a slack for not sounding like experts. And a lot of our language of expertise is unfortunately, some of it is real wisdom and understanding, but some of it is sort of gatekeeping techniques to preserve our territory, preserve our turf. And that's really counter to what I think the mission of an academic life should be. It should be about disseminating learning and knowledge, spreading and helping people reflect and not about hoarding it for yourself.

Albert Mohler:

One of the things I try to talk to people about is just the normal human lifespan and what that means for the awakening of the intellectual life. Because somewhere in early adolescence comes the acquisition of complex cognition. And so you're never going to meet, really, a four-year old philosopher, but you're not going to meet a 14-year old who isn't one in some sense.

Zena Hitz:

Yeah, I think that's right. Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

And so when they all of a sudden it's not just thinking, but thinking about thinking, recognizing they are thinking in the presence of other minds, thinking big questions. I think our educational system is almost designed to stifle that natural intellectual impulse that's coming out in young people and in a testing regime and in the quantification of all learning to where it's almost impossible to do that. And by the time in late adolescence they arrive on a college or university campus, they are intellectually often not much beyond where they were at 13 or 14.

Zena Hitz:

Now. I think that's really right. And it's not just the testing regimes. I think it's also the breakdown of the focus on skills rather than on the things that people really like to learn. Now, when I was a kid I read books because I was interested in what they were about. And by reading a lot, I picked up the various skills, reading skills, writing skills, skills of analysis. So if you focus on learning outcomes as skills that can be tested you're breaking up that natural human desire to know which is never a desire to require a skill. You want to have conveyed to you why the skills matter. And we do that the old fashioned ways by giving people great novels or raising really interesting historical questions, and the skills follow from that. So I think you're right, I'm very concerned that young people are arriving in college not knowing even what it means to learn or why learning matters because they've been sort of anesthetized by this intellectually deadening common core testing process.

Albert Mohler:

I read incredibly intensely so much so I regularly got in trouble for reading when I wasn't supposed to be reading as a child.

Zena Hitz:

Same here. Same here.

Albert Mohler:

But I lost myself in books, and I had a couple of great assets I didn't understand. One of them was I had an educational system that included a lot of teachers who loved teaching and they loved students reading. And so they would just let me kind of read an issue out or follow an interest. And every one of those interests has continued into my adult lifetime. And I'm just incredibly thankful for that. But the other thing that took place during that time was that I basically came to understand that I could actually read things backwards. And so I'll just tell you this, this is going to be humiliating to speak to a literature professor. But when I was....

Zena Hitz:

Believe me I've already humiliated myself 100 times.

Albert Mohler:

This is the way it works. So I read Jaws, the Peter Benchley novel, which was a blockbuster when I was in high school. And I read it. And again, I was a teenager, I was living in the coast. I had a fascination with sharks. What's not to like? And it was after that that I read Moby Dick. And I realized the lesser made me appreciate the greater.

Zena Hitz:

Oh yes.

Albert Mohler:

In a sense that I also realized Peter Benchley, didn't come up with this. He just changed a whale into a shark and added some crude language and sex scenes. Otherwise, it was basically the same tale and only much better told by Melville than that. So again, I have people tell me, obviously there are things you shouldn't read, there are things we don't want to recommend people to read. But sometimes you get even a popular culture take on a tale, and then you realize, oh, this has been told better before. Now, I want to get to that.

Zena Hitz:

It's true. But I also think that that's also a sign that popular literature.... I mean, you could take it the other way, that is, popular literature is not as bad as people think it is. I mean, it's true that there are better things.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Zena Hitz:

I mean, Moby Dick is one of my favorite books. You know, I wrote my senior essay on it as a college student. But those themes about the confrontation of nature and the violence of nature and the sense of adventure and the mysteries of the sea, oh, that stuff is told in a variety of stories. And there are signs that ordinary people with pretty ordinary tastes in literature are going after the same things. That's the....

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. What I could note as a 16-year old is though that that Melville's world was a theological world. That great white whale was more than a whale. But the shark is only a shark. And, you know, there's a minimization. When you began reading, I was really touched as a father, grandfather and as a sibling. I was just really touched by you telling us that you learned to read because your older brother taught you to read.

Zena Hitz:

That's right. We spent a lot of time together when we were little. And the legend was.... I actually don't remember learning how to read, but this was the family legend was that he taught me how to read. We were both very little, and we both read all the time. And yeah, we had this sort of childhood's love of knowledge. It was especially love of science, love of knowledge about animals and the natural world. That was what especially drove us. But it was really formative for me and not something anyone planned or anyone put into place. It just sort of happened as it happened. But I'm very grateful. I'm grateful that I've had a family that nurtured that.

Albert Mohler:

Well, just, again, as a theologian thinking about common grace, it just reminds me of the grace of siblings. The fact that there's a real gift to children in siblings to share experiences, even to share a love of reading, even to share, as you said, a small civilization of stuffed animals with the walrus as the appointed head.

Zena Hitz:

Yes. Wally the Walrus was an important figure for us. He was president of the animal land, which was the nation that our stuffed animals formed. And my brother wrote a little song, a sort of anthem for him. And yeah, it was wonderful. And yes, siblings are a great grace, and I think it's something worth remembering for modern families, which often feel like the demands of children on parents are so demanding, that there's so much your siblings can give to you as a child. And in a way, facilitating that is one of the best things you can do as a parent. And just let us work out for ourselves what we want to be learning and doing anyway.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. You write about the joys of intellectual life, which were inculcated in you as a child and as a college student. And then you said, "With neither roots in nor appeals to revealed religion." So you do identify as a theist, indeed as a Roman Catholic. That's a part of your identity. But you make a very important point that I think both Protestants and Roman Catholics, and for that matter, all within the Christian genetic tree, need to think about very carefully. And that is that God, by the imago Dei has given this intellectual capacity to all human beings.

Zena Hitz:

Yes. I think that's really one of the things about the book that matters most to me. Because I grew up in such a secular environment, and really, even now, I have been in secular environments most of my life. I converted as an adult when I was 32 after I'd already finished graduate school. So it's still true that many of my closest connections to the secular world, and I knew from my own experience that learning had helped me. It helped to open up my life to receive faith when faith came. And I think that's true for a lot of things which I would call human goods, you know, being in nature which Christians think of as loving creation. But that's something really everyone can appreciate. And learning is the same way. It's a common human heritage, and one of the reasons why that matters to me is because I feel as if Christians and other very religious people, Muslims and Jews also they felt themselves increasingly cut off from the secular world. And I understand that. I understand the reasons for it, and there are some good reasons for it.

 

But I wanted us to remember the bonds of unity between us. And one of the spiritual writers who's helped me a lot is Catherine Doherty who founded the Community Madonna House that I lived in for a time. She talked about how a human good is like a wedge in the door between you and another human being. And that door is the door that the gospel can go through. But the way you get the door open is through something you have in common, whether that's learning or love of gardening or knitting, or all the millions of things that human beings share in common. It's not to say there aren't real problems out there, but I do think that we've lost touch a bit with those common elements.

Albert Mohler:

Well, it's a part of my biblical-theological understanding, shared with Augustine by the way, who was one of my great heroes, is that you're never going to meet a human being who is not made in the image of God and thus with whom you really cannot have a conversation. There's a common humanity there. There's not an evolutionary accident. It's the creator's design. And thus there is the gift of communication. And here's the thing, like I point out, you can just take the most radical Marxist and then the most radical rightest and put them together in a debate. There's very little communication. But if you sit them next to each other on a plane, there just might be a real conversation.

Zena Hitz:

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that happens at St. John's where I teach is we have a very politically, religiously diverse group of students. These days they come from all over the world. Some are religious, most are not. Some are conservative, most are not. But we have this common core of these books which we've read together for a long time, for decades at St. John's. And when we get into the deep questions, into the fundamental questions, I find that those differences tend to become less important. And we find ways of communicating with one another that are beyond the level at which we would get into Twitter fights or Facebook wars or...it's kind of a thing. Yeah. So I think it's.... Yeah, Christ died for the whole human race, right? So it's not just that we're created in the image of God. We're redeemed. The promise of redemption is offered to everyone. And we have to be alive to that. And to make sure that we're doing all we can to make sure that an offer is really being made. That can be made in ordinary forms of communion and connection as much as in direct evangelization and all of those other good things.

Albert Mohler:

Well, as an evangelical, I'd have to say, you're right going the other direction. You really cannot communicate unless you're willing to have a conversation. And even if it begins in one-way speech it has to eventuate in a two-way conversation.

Zena Hitz:

That's right. No, for some reason, it's part of our educational model. We think about educationists that transmitting of information, that means you think of a person as someone who should receive information. We see this.... I was thinking about it in the context of this Coronavirus, the pandemic we're in the middle of, that so many people get so frustrated at who knew what, when, and what they should have known, and what they should have done, and what this meant. And you have to respect that each individual has their own journey of learning and seeing things as they are. And it can be frustrating, but you have to live with it. That's part of what living with other people is all about. So yes, I'd like us to recover a culture of exchanging conversation and....

Albert Mohler:

We also have the inability to know whom we see. We don't know who they are until we're in conversation. So I grew up in a not wealthy family. Very much not wealthy. Living in a little home, 800 square feet with four kids, two parents. And in a row of them. And there was an elderly lady who lived next door to us, and she didn't have family. She just lived there by herself. And anyway, she developed a friendship with me when I was about 9 to 10 years old. And it became very, very powerful. And only later in life did I figure out and come to know what it meant that she was a nuclear physicist and had been one of the first women who.... She'd been involved in the Manhattan Project.

Zena Hitz:

Oh, isn't that something?

Albert Mohler:

But she would hand me things. She would show me things. She just awakened all kind of conversations that just opened a world to me. And then I go back and work on my third grade homework. But she was just.... I look at that, and I thought, you know, I had no ability...,But no one would have... The mailman delivering the mail, the postal officer, the people who would be seeing her every day would have no idea. And it doesn't have to be a nuclear physicist. That's almost a cliche. It just happened that she was one. But you just don't know...other conversations I've had with people. And I've discovered that there is just massive intellectual commitment where higher education would never have told me to expect it.

Zena Hitz:

That's right. People are infinitely rich. And you think you've read them straight off, but there's so much in them. I actually think of that in the context of faith quite often because I often find myself talking about, particularly with this current writing, talking about religion in environments which are very secular. It's always very nerve-wracking because I think I'm afraid I'm going to come up against all kinds of hostility. And one of the things I've found by being openly Christian in secular environments is that all these people come up to you in private and tell you about their lives of faith. You never knew, and it's such a incredible privilege and so humbling and such a reminder that you think you know what's going on with a person or with a group of people, but there's things that you don't see and that are always there to.... I don't know, to unsettle our expectations. And anyway, I've been very heartened by that in what I've been doing.

Albert Mohler:

It takes a certain amount of courage to write and then to have published a book entitled, Lost in Thought that bears the subtitle, The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. It takes even more courage to write the specific book that Professor Zena Hitz has written. That's because she brings us into her own mental life, her own intellectual life and her stewardship of that life in this book. She bids us to consider our own inner lives, our own intellectual lives and whether or not we have the courage to follow and to find those hidden pleasures of an intellectual life. It will not come without work. It will not come without time. It will not come easily, but it certainly will not come without rewards.

Albert Mohler:

Now, I want to get into some of the roots here, and not so much in classical philosophy, although you take us into some really interesting conversations in classical philosophy, but for sake of time, I want to go to Augustine.

Zena Hitz:

Okay, great.

Albert Mohler:

And so a lot of my understanding of what I do as president of a seminary and as a teacher is based in De Doctrina, and frankly in love as the animating issue in learning. Love of God, love of the subject being taught, love of the students, the impossibility of teaching without a reciprocity of love. And by the way, that's not limited to a Christian understanding. I mean, there's actually some kind of amor, some kind of genuine relationship that has to make teaching and learning possible. And then the experience of teaching and learning just encourages it.

 

I mean, it's not by accident that children fall in love with their elementary school teachers. There's something that takes place in that context of learning. And Augustine understood that. He also understood the dangers of the intellectual life. And, in particular curiositas, the danger of the spectacle. And you didn't really make this point emphatically, so forgive me if you did not mean to, and maybe I just made it reading your book, but it appears to me that much of higher education is precisely about the spectacle. But tell us what you were getting at in the book here.

Zena Hitz:

Well, it's interesting because it's something which I've expected to tangle with lovers of Augustine about because the way I understand him is a bit different from, I think, the way others understand him. I wanted to understand in a general way what can go wrong in the intellectual life. And I thought Augustine who is, as we know, a figure of incredible perceptiveness and insight into the most ordinary human things that he considers this weakness in the intellect. It's part of our human concupiscence. What I think it is, is it's a love of.... It's funny because he calls it knowing for its own sake, knowing for the sake of knowing. Which is a little tough for me because that's the language I use in a good way, and he means it in a bad way.

 

But I think what he means is something like this. When we think and when we know, we've got to be reaching out to a chunk of reality which for him is always going to be pointing back to God, but in the most ordinary sense, as a piece of reality, we have to be directed at an object. And when we think for the feeling of thinking or know for the feeling of knowing, then what you get is, say, a know-it-all. Okay. These are people we know, I know them. I'm one of them myself.  I was by nature. People who, they want that thrill of knowing more than someone else or of accumulating facts, but they're not really concerned about the object of knowledge. They're not really thinking about the piece, the chunk of the world, that that knowledge is directed at. And I think it's connected to Augustine. One of his main examples of curiositas is his friend Alypius’s love of gladiator games. And what's going on with that? Well, there's just this thrill in seeing this violent event, this violent drama going on before your eyes with a crowd. And there's something like knowledge in it. That is, there's things that are revealed about human beings in those moments. What are the signs that something's off these that you keep going back to it, right? So Alypius keeps going back to the gladiator matches. He never actually acquires any knowledge or advances to a different stage of learning. Same reason, I think, rubbernecking at traffic accidents. Okay, you'd never stop if you have the impulse to do that. It's not as if once you've seen one, you move on the way that real learning takes place. You've got to keep looking at it.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Zena Hitz:

That’s the sign that you're engaging just with experiencing, just with the feeling of learning rather than really trying to understand something. So I think for Augustine learning really has to result in growth, and much of our intellectual and perceptive lives is taken up with spectacles. And that's especially true in social media age. But can you say something a little about why you think higher education is infected with curiositas in a special way?

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think Augustine's larger point is ad maiorem Dei gloriam, that the only life worth living is the life lived for the greater glory of God. And thus not only is it an object of knowledge, it has to fit within the infinite object of knowledge, the self-revealing God. And so, otherwise, everything just becomes completely disjointed. Everything becomes the latest book, the latest idea, the latest this, because everything, if it is not situated within the greater glory of God. And by the way, Augustine understood that the pagans sometimes did that. They just didn't know why. In other words, even they could piece together by common grace truths—which is why even in the City of God, he makes very clear not all will be lost. Much will be lost, but not all will be lost because the human beings in this new horrifying age are still going to be made in the image of God, and a common grace will shine through. Mothers will still love their children. I don't want to drone on here, but in other words, I think the modern university has to keep “producing knowledge.” That's the term. It's “producing knowledge,” but it's completely devoid of the context. And so I don't even just mean it politically—there is a political angle—I just mean it, it's this endless trap that the modern university is in of claiming to produce knowledge which is kind of a self-defeating mission.

Zena Hitz:

So now I understand that what you're thinking there. I agree 100%. So I think one of the things I've been thinking about is academic literature research is produced at a really enormous rate these days because of all of the requirements that universities put on research professors. And it gets to the point where there's more written on a given topic…. For instance, in my field, especially ancient philosophy, there's so much written you couldn't possibly read it all. Which was the point of having an academic literature so that you could have some.... Be a part of a conversation that was ongoing in some way.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Zena Hitz:

You just have this disorganized collection of thoughts, which no individual human being can fathom, like a sort of unsearchable database almost. Then you're not.... That's not going to help anyone to grow. So one of the ways I say, I think, just the same thing you're saying in the book is one sign of relearning, as opposed to curiositas is growth. That is, you become wiser. You get some insight that you didn't have before. And accumulation of information doesn't necessarily do that, especially if there's no person in particular who accumulates that information. I think for someone like Augustine, and I think it's true, that growth and learning is going to lead to God. I think that's in a way the story he tells in the Confessions, right? He goes on these years long course of reading. And he follows it straight down to the bottom, and he ends up in a place where he knows he needs grace. And I feel like that's really a profound vision of how learning functions at its best.

Albert Mohler:

It's a wonderful, very sweet part of that story which you recount in the book, and that is Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan telling Monica, Augustine's mother, to just let his mind work because his mind will get to this.

Zena Hitz:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

And will get to his sin and will get to his need. And it's just a very sweet story. I think that's very good evangelistic advice for a lot of us. Stay in conversation, give them more to read, then let the mind work. And, of course, as a Christian, I don't believe the mind's ever alone. You've got the Holy Spirit doing a work that only the Holy Spirit can do. But I was very touched by the way you incorporated that into your account of Augustine. In my own intellectual life, so many twists and turns. But one of them came when I was 17 and still in high school. And I was assigned reading the Existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus. And so here was my 17-year-old cynicism. I just, I was reading those works, and—I mean, there's a sense in which they can be pretty exhilarating, another sense in which they can be pretty depressing. But nonetheless, to a 17-year old, both of those things are pretty cool at any given moment of the day.

And so as I was reading it—but what came to my mind was, “Yeah, but nobody actually can live this.” I don't know how you write Nausea and then ask someone out to dinner. I mean, it was the realization to me that I was not going to be intellectually satisfied until I found some truth, some understanding which I found in Christ, in historic biblical Christianity, in understanding how all the story fits together because otherwise I can't sleep. And I would never be able to enjoy a meal or a conversation.

Zena Hitz:

That's a nice way of putting it. Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

But in your book, you talk about something else that came to me shortly thereafter when I ended up just by God's providence in a context of rampant, early postmodernism. And I mean every one of those words. Rampant and early and postmodernism. It was the uncut theorizing of postmodernism. And that's where I encountered something else to deal with in the book, which is the imposter syndrome. And I encountered it as a temptation to act as if these people were making sense and I understood they were making sense. And I actually, I could not bring myself to do that because they weren't making sense. And I couldn't say they were making sense. But I was amazed how students would immediately start to pick up the language, especially all the theorizing and the next thing, nothing meant anything. But that is an intellectual danger that isn't limited to postmodern, to post-structuralist, to late modernity. I think as a Christian I have to look at that and say that imposter syndrome comes as a very close besetting sin for Christian intellectuals.

Zena Hitz:

Oh, I think any community can develop its own in-way of talking that they suggest to an outsider if you can't already talk like this, you're not one of us. Whereas for real learning to take place, things have to be honest. You need an environment where someone can say, "You know what? I don't really know what you mean by x piece of Christian doctrine. I don't know, really know, what you mean by low Christology or high Christology. I don't know what you mean by this or that or the other thing." If you don't have that environment where people feel comfortable voicing an honest question, then you're really running a high risk of, yeah, people just throwing themselves into the language without necessarily knowing what the words mean. And then I think that's one way intellectual life becomes a way of being a...what C. S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring,” right? To join “The Inner Ring.”

Albert Mohler:

Right. Oh, yeah.

Zena Hitz:

Such a wonderful essay which in a way is haunting parts of my book. And that, so, yeah, I think one of the things I've learned is over the years…. You know, I've never been trained in postmodernism. I'm not a theory-driven sort of a person. I've always kept myself deliberately removed from that sort of stuff. But I have encountered it various times as a scholar in various collaborative contexts. And I have to say that there's often something serious there underneath the jargon. Some serious piece of learning or reality that's there. And that again, if we were more welcoming in our intellectual communities and more concerned with bringing people in and giving them space to ask any honest question, I think we'd find it easier to get whatever learning we can out of these various fields and communicate with one another. We sort of put ourselves into silos by inventing kinds of jargon and not being willing to break out of them.

Albert Mohler:

So you were heavily invested in traditional academia, teaching in two rather large state universities and no doubt doing very well. And then at some point you decided to leave all that and to go to Canada, to live in a kind of a monastic setting.

Zena Hitz:

That's right.

Albert Mohler:

Now you're at a very different kind of academic institution. But actually where you also went as an undergraduate.

Zena Hitz:

That's right.

Albert Mohler:

And so I think it would be very helpful in this conversation, if you would kind of lay out a bit of that story and explain what makes, for instance St. John's different than the other institutions where you taught.

Zena Hitz:

Well, as I relate the story in the book a lot of what happened to me was a personal struggle with particular demons. So I am by nature a very competitive, ambitious person. And also by nature, someone who loves learning and thinking. And having ended up by some lucky chances in some elite academic contexts as a graduate student, the prestige-oriented parts of myself, the ambition parts, the superficial, advancing-the-status-ranking parts that came really kind of predominant you can get sort of addicted. People talk a lot about pain of exclusion or the pain of being left out of something or marginalized. But there's also dangers in being included. That is the carrot can be worse for you than the stick. So you get a taste of this kind of high prestige success, and you just want more and more of it.

 

So I was in that condition. That was part of what was going on. And I had to break out of it. And so I did something very traditional in the end, spent three years in the desert in this Canadian community grappling with demons. And finally came to a resolution which was to return to my old school and teach young people like myself. The difference I'd say between the two kinds of institution was very dramatic, more dramatic even than I thought it would be before I came back to teach. That is when I made the decision to come back to teach. When I was teaching at the public universities I had very, pretty much pretty large classes. The smallest were maybe 25 to 30. Now, every classroom has gold in it. There were always students who really loved learning, who caught fire, who I formed real mentoring relationships with. Every classroom I've ever taught in was like that.

 

But on the whole, my job was something more like management. I would spit out, I would present thanks to my expertise some little bullet point pieces of knowledge. I'd expect my students to do some reading. I'd expect them to show that they'd done it. I'd expect them to give the bullet points back to me in some way or other. And I always wanted them to also reflect some independence, but I couldn't demand that. I can hold it up as an ideal, but I couldn't demand as a requirement for the class that each of these 60 students or 50 students think for themselves. So that meant a lot of what I was doing was very mechanical. It was like they spit up, I spit out the bullet points, they spit them back to me, I give them a B-plus, they go on their way.

 

And there's just not a lot that's really worth doing in that exercise in the end. Sometimes I think there's probably a seed of something that blossoms later. But if you don't want to be somewhere, and all you're looking after is the B-plus, or likewise, if you're a teacher and all you want is to get these students out of your classroom with as little grading as possible, then you're just not going to be.... You're not forming that what you were saying earlier about how learning requires love. That is, I would say it requires a real human relationships between students and teachers, needs to be person to person. Our personal connection with one another is what makes learning, is what transmits learning from one generation to the next. And that was really not easy ... That was a kind of byproduct of what I was doing at those other schools. And not the main point.

So what I found at St. John's was it was taken for granted that our students were adults, that they had minds of their own, they had questions of their own. But they were ultimately responsible for their education. And we do that sort of by fiat. We say, they don't always want to be adults, always want to take responsibility. You just keep giving it back to them, keep giving them the power back to them, and they surprise you. So I found seeing, knowing my students well, knowing how to calibrate, encouragement or discouragement realizing from closeup actually how much more encouragement matters than discouragement in most cases. Become a much more positive teacher than I think I used to be. And you see with your own eyes, what happens to the students in this environment and how much they change and how much they grow and how grateful they are for it. So it has ... Teaching at St. John's has so much right-in-the-moment, obvious worth to both the students and the teachers. It's just not mechanized like it is in the big schools.

Albert Mohler:

So let me ask you a pointed question. So in the world of higher education, there's a lot of respect for the method of teaching there at St. John's. There's also a sense of yeah, but they pretty much got the market. That's about all the 18-year olds who really want that. And I have to say in conversation with people, I want to say, that's not so. But it is not clear that all the parents of 18-year olds want 18-year olds to have that kind of education. It's not clear that legislators who are portioning tax money, who want to give any financial encouragement for that kind of model. It's not clear that corporate America and their recruiting is going to be looking for someone with that kind of education or that the scholastic aptitude test or anything else is pointed towards it. So it takes an awful lot of—I think of Flannery O'Connor here. You have to push against the age as hard as it's pushing against you. It takes an awful lot of pushing to justify and carry out that kind of commitment to learning.

Zena Hitz:

No, I think that's right. And it's one of the reasons why when I began this endeavor I wasn't truthfully all that hopeful because I see all the things that you're saying. I actually think one point—this may be a small point—I think that corporations actually do value this type of education. I think there is a kind of secret undercurrent that people know that liberal arts education is what really matters. So I know for instance, it's often said that the big executives in Silicon Valley, they don't send their kids to the Google Classrooms.

Albert Mohler:

Exactly. Yeah.

Zena Hitz:

They send their kids to other schools where they get personal mentoring and hands-on projects. So I think that people do know about that. The other thing that I think that's recent that I thought was really encouraging was—came out of this pandemic stuff—that when all that teaching went online, and my first fear was, "Geez, this is going to be the end. We're never going to get offline again, because it's so much cheaper for the administrations to run us online. And it's a way of beefing up enrollment indefinitely and so on.”

But then the college students around the country just gave it the big Bronx Cheer. They just don't like it. They made it clear they wouldn't come back to campuses if they were online. Some students sued their colleges for giving them inferior product for the same tuition. So I guess I have a bit more hope for the young people. I think they want this kind of learning. The more they see of it, the more they'll like it. And so it's the parents in a certain way who are the people who need the most persuading.

 

And I do think that one strategy I've tried to take that I recommend is to be more honest about why you think these things matter. Because we were saying for years, humanists like myself, "Oh, well it builds your critical thinking skills.” And, “Oh, well, it gives you a spirit of innovation.” And, “Oh, well, it makes you a better person." And that's not why any of us studied liberal arts. We do it because we want to understand the way the world works and what a human being is and because we're reaching for God and all these things. So I'm trying, I'm hoping, that just speaking honestly will help to open things up. And in the crisis that's coming too, it's a lot of destruction. That’s possible. But also I think some hope for new possibilities to open up.

Albert Mohler:

That's part of the reason why here in our undergraduate college Boyce College, we started a classical Christian studies program, which has attracted some really outstanding young people and faculty. And also the Augustine Honors Collegium which is our honor school program. And by the way, how interesting is that upon reflection that Augustine would find his name on a program in a Southern Baptist institution. But I will just declare personal privilege there.

Zena Hitz:

I'm sure he'd be delighted.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. It's just one of those things where you realize, I think.... Well, let me take out the “I think.” I'm really convinced that the people who have the most at stake here are our theists. And specifically those who are committed to historic Christianity, and specifically those who understand that the continuation of the Christian mind and of Christian thinking is going to take far more intentionality than I think most Christians had thought a generation ago.

Zena Hitz:

Yeah. So I do think that that's... Yeah, you know, talking about the classical schools, maybe. And that's really a pretty huge—Christian classical schools—that's really blossomed in the past 20 years.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Zena Hitz:

So that's another encouraging sign. I think that we're all.... Everyone is, has a lot to lose from things going on as they are in education. And because one of the things I'm worried about is.... It's so funny when I started writing, I was.... I wanted to get politics out of intellectual life, and in a way I still do. But in another way, I'm more and more alarmed that we've become more autocratic, more totalitarian, less egalitarian, less a community of equals who deliberate in common. And I think that actually it's true that how you're educated affects that. So one of the things I'm really hoping for is that the whole community, all of us together, Christian and non-Christians start to reach for alternatives. Because it's not going to be good for.... Even for Christians, if we can carve out something for ourselves, and there's reason for us to fight for that first, we still have these millions of brothers and sisters who need the basics of life. And so I hope that we can all get out of this some way or other.

Albert Mohler:

Well said. You conclude your book with these words, "Let us remind ourselves of the broad scope of human enterprise, as well as the depths available to anyone with a bit of time to think. Let us give free play to the human intellect and the human imagination in an attempt to ground all that is in our hearts in what matters most." A beautiful way to end the book. But not to end an argument. The argument continues. And I'm very thankful that the conversation continues as well. And I really want to thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Zena Hitz:

It's been such a pleasure talking to you, Dr. Mohler. Thank you so much for reading and for talking the conversation.

Albert Mohler:

I really did enjoy my conversation with professor, teacher, tutor and author Zena Hitz. I enjoyed the conversation because it took us so many different places that is the character of a good book. It is the character of a good conversation. Listening to this conversation today, you can immediately understand why Zena Hitz would be such an influential tutor and effective teacher, in just about any setting. But particularly in the setting of an institution that is committed to reading and conversing together about the great questions of life. Listening to this conversation today, you can certainly understand why Professor Zena Hitz would be such an effective teacher, a winsome teacher, how she would basically be winsome in her call to students unto this hidden intellectual life. The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life. That's one of the most important aspects of teaching. Teaching is in this sense, a form of holding out a vision before students such that they see it and want it for themselves.

 

The intellectual life does take discipline, but it is also appetitive. That is to say, the more we give ourselves to it, the greater our appetite for it. And like so many other appetites, the best appetites, it can be communicated to another. It can be shared with another who will then participate and partake of the same appetite and to learn that vast universe of books and ideas and minds that we can turn to as a part of a perpetual conversation. Like every one of these programs, the point is to leave the conversation as just that, a conversation that's never really concluded.

 

There's one dimension of this conversation that I think does demand a bit of evangelical contemplation and consideration. As the conversation made clear, it is not an accident that professor Zena Hitz is a Roman Catholic. It's not an accident that so much of the work about the Christian intellectual tradition has been undertaken by those who are very closely associated with the Roman Catholic tradition, their identity wrapped up as Roman Catholic and as intellectual. The question is for evangelicals, why? Why has relatively speaking our own intellectual investment been less substantial? Well, for one thing, Protestantism is time-stamped. Let's just say that we could begin the Protestant experience going back to a year like 1517. That's a millennium and a half after the larger conversation had started and was identified as Catholicism. You can also understand that English-speaking evangelicalism as a subset of Protestantism has an even more recent history.

 

But there are a few other issues. I'm going to point to evangelism and ecclesiology and eschatology. First when it comes to evangelism. Evangelicalism by definition is primarily, first of all, committed to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the taking of the gospel to the nations. That preoccupies a great deal of evangelical commitment and evangelical attention. That's why when you find evangelicalism, you find first of all, commitment to mission boards and evangelistic movements. Only thereafter does education come into the picture. It comes into the picture in a big way. But it comes into the picture in a certain sequence. Thus, the evangelistic imperative, the great commission imperative of evangelicalism means that we are an activist group. And that sometimes means that contemplation and the intellectual life have to take a back seat.

 

The second issue is ecclesiology. Roman Catholics look to the Roman Catholic Church, to the magisterium, and are there officially authorized to undertake this intellectual endeavor for the cause of the Catholic Church. That's a very different understanding than we find in evangelicalism. There is no evangelical magisterium, there is no evangelical papacy, there is no evangelical Vatican. There is no one to give authorization or a sense of invested mission to individuals or schools or organizations to undertake this intellectual endeavor.

 

But there's a third issue here, and that is eschatology. The distinction between Catholic and Protestant, particularly evangelical understandings of eschatology has intellectual ramifications. There are effects, there are consequences. The Roman Catholic approach to a very long eschatological horizon means that you have Roman Catholic institutions and centuries and centuries of investment in those institutions. It's a very long, very secure wait in Roman Catholic theology. Whereas in evangelicalism, there is a sense regardless of the specific eschatological position of the imminent return of the Lord, Jesus Christ. And there's a sense that even as we pray, "Lord come quickly,” that there is only so much time in this life to give to the kinds of institutions, the kind of movements that will be deeply invested in for a very long wait. And as you're looking at that, you recognize theologies, like ideas have consequences. But a book like Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life and a conversation as I just had with someone so gracious and generous and thoughtful as Professor Zena Hitz underlines the fact that it is not only good to read such a book and then to read it again, but to have a conversation with the author, which is a genuine privilege.

Albert Mohler:

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public. If you enjoyed today's episode, you can find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com.

 

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

 

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