Zena Hitz on Lost in Thought

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Intro. [Recording date: September 10th, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is September 10th, 2020 and my guest is philosopher and author Zena Hitz of St. John’s College. She is the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Zena, welcome to EconTalk.

Zena Hitz: Thanks so much, Russ. It’s great to be here.


Russ Roberts: You say real learning is hidden learning. What does that mean?

Zena Hitz: Real learning is hidden in a couple of senses. One of the main ways it’s hidden is it’s an inner life. It’s something one does in a primary way–not exclusively, but primarily with one’s self.

It’s also hidden in that I want to try to, in my book, separate the good of learning from its institutional accretions. Learning is, for many of us, a mode of achievement, a mode of social advancement, a mode of arcane status markings, moving our way up and down this–academics are extremely competitive people, so it’s a mode of competition. Learning can be a way to accrue money or power. I want to try to recover it as something more universal, more widely spread, something that belongs to everyone, and something which whose value doesn’t depend on its results, its visible results, either in money, power, prestige, or even tangible societal benefits of a kind that you might expect.

So, I want to emphasize the hiddenness to get to the real core value of learning for individual human beings.

Russ Roberts: So, I think most people associate the word ‘learning’ in a way that’s, or think of it in a way that’s very different from the way you do. I think a lot of people would say, ‘Well, learning is when I gather facts about something I don’t know anything about. I want to learn about how to bake bread. I want to learn about the history of the Greeks.’ You mean something quite specific and quite different, I think, than the everyday usage of the term. So, let’s start–let’s continue by elaborating on that phrase, learning, that word ‘learning.’

Zena Hitz: That’s a great question. I think learning can begin with that kind of fact-accrual impulse. It certainly began that way for me as a child. I loved facts about especially sea creatures, whales, penguins. I can still recite to you some facts about them. They stuck in my memory all these years. So, I don’t want to condemn fact accumulation. I think it’s something human and good.

But learning is something more profound than that. It’s, first of all, open-ended inquiry, so it’s something which there may not be a fixed answer or you may continually have to adjust the answer that you find. I think the kind of learning I’m especially focused on especially interesting in, is learning that involves an inquiry into what I call fundamental questions: questions about the nature of human life, questions about the nature of the universe. That covers traditional modes of learning, mathematics and science and literature and philosophy and history. But, it’s an attempt to get down to what’s really basic about them and what feels like something worthy of devoting one’s life to.

So, people like me have devoted their lives to learning and passing it on to others. Why would accumulating facts and passing on facts to others be a worthy way of living? It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. But when I think of myself as asking fundamental questions and developing habits and modes of approaching these things and passing that on–this human practice of inquiry–on to others, then my life starts to make a little more sense.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I still know Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average is 0.367. I later found out that’s a rounded number. It’s actually 0.366 and some more digits, but I’ve rounded it up very inaccurately, imprecisely to 0.367; and listeners I know will get a kick out of that.


Russ Roberts: You reference the phrase above the Oracle at Delphi: Know Thyself. So, one way I think people think about learning is: I need to understand myself. This could be the role of psychotherapy. It could be–religion can play a role in self-knowledge, a mindfulness practice. These are ways that we “get to know ourselves.” But, you point out that that’s not what the Delphi Oracle meant by ‘know thyself.’ What did the Greeks mean by ‘know thyself’?

Zena Hitz: I think that the Delphic Oracle probably meant something like: Know your place. Know that you are a human being and not a God; know that you are finite. So, the kind of self-knowledge that you find, for instance, I think especially in Plato and in Aristotle, as well as in the plays and other Greek literature, it’s knowledge–self-knowledge is knowledge of what kind of thing a human being is. Human beings are prone to illusions about themselves, great illusions. So, they can imagine that they’re immortal. They can imagine that they are omnipotent. They could imagine that their plans will somehow magically bring reality into accordance with them. And it’s a crucial part of our human happiness, our human sanity, to know our limitations, not in the sense of not ever looking up to any matter or aspiring to anything, but knowing that one’s aspirations are going to be limited both in their scope and in their ability to be implemented.

So, I think that’s a kind of crucial part of inquiry, especially inquiry to the humanities: Learning is to come to know our limits. And that’s not–of course, it applies to personal self-knowledge. We all personally, with our self-help books or whatever it is that we’re using or our therapy, we all personally strive to see our own limitations, our own shortcomings, our own traps, and avoid them.

But, the great works of literature and great works of philosophy and history are incredible tools for us to think about not just us personally and our personal histories, but what is it that human beings have continually struggled with in different times and places? It’s enormously helpful to have this source of reflection.

Russ Roberts: It seems to me there’s two threads here of knowledge or learning. One is what we all have in common, that human limitation that we’re not gods, that we’re human, we’re mortal, we’re finite. I’m really drawn to the Anne Lamott description of God’s name. ‘God’s name,’ she says, ‘is not me. That’s God’s name, not me. I am not God. I am not the center of the universe.’ I think being aware of that and seeing those themes of human imperfection throughout literature and history, I think are incredibly powerful learning experiences. At the same time, there’s unique things about me–my foibles, my limits. I will never play in the NBA. I have other limits, so I’ll just stick with that one. That’s the National Basketball Association. I am not going to be a professional basketball player.

And, I think about Montaigne who–you’ll tell me when he lived. I want to say 17th century, roughly. I’ve only read a few of his essays, but he supposedly, his subject of study was “himself”: that much of his essays are an exploration of his humanity as a way to have a lens into the larger issues of human behavior, generally, and human limitations. What are your thoughts on those sort of two threads or streams of exploring myself and exploring humanity?

Zena Hitz: Well, it’s interesting. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently and that I haven’t fully worked out, so my thoughts might not be fully baked when they come out of my mouth right now. But, if I think about reading Montaigne–so, Montaigne says he writes about himself. He has to actually not be quite just writing about himself or you or I or all the readers, the centuries would find it enormously boring. Right?

So, one of the ways, if you ever read bad literature, literature that can’t make it out of someone’s basement study, it tends to be too particular. It’s too narrow. It’s too caught up in someone’s personal experience. A critic whose writing I love, George Steiner, he talks about shaping–art is shaping our experience into the something like the general shape of human recognition, so the general structure of human recognition.

So, you have to, in some way, communicate what’s shareable about your experience in order to write about it.

It’s mysterious to me in a way, because all of these authors are different individuals and you and I are different from each other and different from each of them. But, reading and learning wouldn’t make any sense if we weren’t able to connect ourselves with them through some general features of humanity that we have in common.

So, you can see that there’s a real tension there. That is, if you go too far in one direction, there’s no such thing as an individual, which seems wrong. But, if you go too far in the other direction, you lose the ability to communicate or to learn about anything. That is, if my words only apply to myself, they’re scarcely even words. Part of what part of what language does is connect us with one another.

So, a lot of what my work is doing, especially what I’m trying to think about right now is how that works. Because, I think it’s very possible and very common for people’s particular experiences to express something universal without losing their particular character.

So, I talk in my book about the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s a wonderful book. It was popular more in previous decades. It should be as popular now as it was then or more. It’s a story of a very particular kind of life that’s different from mine, but I connect with it and I identify with Malcolm X while recognizing that he’s quite different from me. I don’t know how that all works, but I see that it’s possible to do that. And, in fact, if it weren’t possible, that reading and learning wouldn’t make a lot of sense.


Russ Roberts: Let’s talk about the life of the mind. Much of your book’s about that. It’s something that–it’s a life I like living. I like going inside. I spend a lot of time in my head. Most of us do in some form or another, but some in different ways than others. And, you talk about it as a refuge from the world, which it clearly is. My joke is that in today’s times, I wish I were–I try to sometimes immerse myself in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759. I like that world. Truth is, I don’t. I like antibiotics and lots of things in this world.

But, there’s a tension that you explore in the book between learning for its own sake and as a refuge, and having an impact. You spend your days teaching young people how to think about big ideas. What’s the point of that? I mean, that doesn’t help you get a job on Wall Street. It can lead to reading books that are dry and dusty. Talk about that tension between being immersed in the world and thinking and learning and reading as a refuge.

Zena Hitz: Well, it’s–why don’t I say something about the tension for me personally in the particular moment like this one, which is that I’ve written this book defending the inwardness, the uselessness of the life of learning. And why am I doing that? Well, I’m doing that because I want more people to recognize this activity and to live it out and to teach it in schools. I’m trying to rescue something, in other words, that I think is endangered. And, of course, that’s an attempt to make an impact. So, I’m always caught in this difficulty in that I’m trying to explain the value of something while that’s, strictly speaking, in some tension with what I’m actually doing.

But, that said, I think that the kind of inquiry that I do myself, that I try to pass on to my students, something that’s fundamental, that’s withdrawn to some extent necessarily, I think, from contemporary concerns–whether those are political concerns or economic concerns or personal concerns–that kind of activity is necessary for human beings to flourish and to be happy.

And, I don’t mean happiness in the sense of good feels. I mean, happiness in the sense of growth, of becoming more fully one’s self, of having profound and meaningful experiences. And I think if you dedicate yourself to impact, your life is really diminished. You need to have resources within yourself on which you’re drawing and that you returned to.

So, I’m not suggesting–as might be misunderstood by some of my work–I’m not suggesting that no one should try to act in the world or help their communities. Far from it. But, in order to help our communities, we need to have some kind of mode of retreat, some place where we go to restore ourselves, to find new resources, to reflect, to think. And, that also is a resource for us when things go wrong. I mean, our educational culture is so focused on achievement and success.

And, you know, we have got to face the fact: not everyone is going to succeed, or those who succeed are going to succeed for a time and then not succeed. And that’s not in anyone’s control, necessarily. We need resources as human beings to face whatever life throws us. That’s the kind of thing I think that I’m passing on to my students–that is, a set of resources–I think it does help people do better work, think creatively, take on challenges. I think all that stuff is true, so I think it does make people more successful, liberal arts education. I just also think that it makes people better at failing and better at enduring. And these are valuable. We shouldn’t pretend they’re not, since none of us are going to be permanently successful. And some of us may never be particularly successful. Those lives are also worth living, and they’re worth nurturing, and they’re worth–they have things in them that are not just worthwhile, but sort of unconditionally worthwhile: it’s like a dignity beyond price. So, that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to recover in our way of talking about education.


Russ Roberts: I like that idea a lot. It speaks to me deeply. I don’t know if it speaks to many other people. So, lt me challenge you with what I think others might respond to that.

I, actually, I very much think that the aspiration to explore the world of ideas, the purpose of a life; why are we here, what should we do with our time here? These are things that human beings should engage and grapple with. A lot of people don’t. They don’t grapple with them. They lead very rewarding and pleasant lives. And, when you tell them that, I think they look at us and say, ‘Well, you, you two are in universities. It’s a weird thing. There’s something wrong with you. Anyway, I’m out in the world. I’m doing stuff and you’re just reading these old books.’

This whole idea of flourishing, which just speaks deeply to me, I think a lot of people are going to go like, ‘Flourishing? I like prospering. I like just making money, having a good standard of living, good vacation, fine wine, all those things.’

In particular, you’re a religious Catholic. I’m a religious Jew; and I think part of our attraction, I suspect, to this ideal of growth–of challenging ourselves, of aspiring–it really is–I worry that it’s rooted in our religious perspective. And for a non-religious person, they’re just going like, ‘What the heck are you talking about? What’s wrong with just being happy? What’s wrong with feel good?’ You said, ‘That’s not what I’m talking about.’ I think some people, many of my listeners are going, ‘Why not? What’s wrong with that?’

Zena Hitz: So, I think that two things are going on; and of course, I’m speculating. You can only really write and think from your own experience in a certain way, and you can receive what you can from others, but you can’t always fully inhabit their way of thinking. But, I think two things are going on. One is that people are overestimating or misunderstanding the sources of their own happiness and flourishing. That is, that there may be ways in which I’m describing something that they’re already doing.

So, contemplation, for instance, which is something I talk about as–intellectual life is one form of contemplation. And, the way that I know best, the way that I love most is reading old books and thinking about fundamental questions and having conversations about them that go on for hours.

But there’s other forms of contemplation. There’s people who love the outdoors, for instance. Why do you love the outdoors? What’s lovable about it? Or maybe you’re a birdwatcher. Or, how many history geeks are there? You go to Gettysburg where there’s a big national museum for the battlefield–it’s full of people who are not self-identified intellectuals. They’re not self-identified academics. But they are after something. And they are after things which are sometimes look like accumulations of facts, but it’s–somehow there’s a human drama that is drawing them in and that they are thinking about. And they are contemplating when they do that.

Also, we think about–most people get a lot of their meaning in life from their personal relationships, their family relationships, their romantic relationships, relationships with their parents and their children. Those two can be very contemplative. You get to know a human being and you think about who that person is, and you behold who they are. And that, too, is a type of contemplation. And it involves a certain kind of contact with a universal.

So, I think those things, things like the outdoors, things like family, which people recognize as robust sources of meaning and sources of satisfaction, those I think are really connected to things I’m talking about in ways that aren’t always acknowledged. That’s one thing to say.

The other is that there’s a lot of people who find pursuing success, a lot and lot of people who find it exciting in a way, thrilling for a while, and then they find it deadening and miserable. And, there’s something empty, there’s something missing; they can’t figure out what. They have–I can’t tell you, I used to be a person like this and I still know many people like this. They’ve got everything; and yet, somehow, they keep going to work, they keep doing things, they keep stacking up accomplishments. And, there’s a sense that somehow, they’re missing something; there’s more.

And, that can go in a variety of directions. People can go on in that condition for a long time. They can go, undergo one or other kind of change or modification or breakdown or all kinds of things. But, my thought is that part of what they’re missing, where to put[?] their not connecting with are these more robust sources of meaning which matter for their own sake. They don’t matter because they look good on a CV [curriculum vitae]. They don’t matter because they look good on a resumé. They don’t matter even because they produce demonstrable metrics that we know indicate that people are benefited. Even that isn’t enough for us. We need more than that.

So, those are my two thoughts: That we’re both happy–our sources of happiness are not always what we think they are; and, we’re often unhappier than we’re willing to acknowledge.


Russ Roberts: And, of course there are people who pursue success, achieve it, and are perfectly happy. It’s not to say that they’re not. But, the phenomenon you’re talking about of the successful person who finds they’re missing something, I think is also a real phenomenon. If you were speaking from a religious perspective, you’d say it’s an aspect of the soul, which is a non-scientific term, I would say, to describe this yearning to matter or connect to something larger than ourselves: which, whether it’s a physical or chemical thing is irrelevant. It is part of our consciousness in some form.

And, it’s an extraordinary thing to me that we can’t just be happy with success. That somehow we are burdened with a couple of things: our mortality, a feeling of emptiness that life maybe has no purpose. Why this should bother the naked ape–which is how we’ve been described as human beings by Desmond Morris–I don’t know why that’s so hard for us. But it is hard for us, or at least for many of us. Any thoughts?

Zena Hitz: So, I don’t know. I mean, what I would want to say is something like: We’re just not cut out for success alone. We just need more in our lives. We need other resources, other sources of meaning.

But, I also think that part of it–it isn’t just an individual hunger for understanding. Sometimes what really unsettles a successful life, and I think it was the case for me, is the suffering of others. So, the catastrophic suffering of others. That, I think is maybe even a bit more common than the more individual existential angst. It’s a sense that somehow your success doesn’t make sense, given the enormity of the suffering in the world.

And, there can be various events that might make that clear to you. But that’s another way that I think a life of success can feel limited. That is, we can feel as if there’s a human community in which that success does not really make sense. And, somehow we, many of us, feel a yearning not just to learn and to understand, but to be with people who suffer, to somehow acknowledge their existence in our lives in some way or other.

Russ Roberts: Well, there’s a brokenness to the world that–Thoreau said, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ I like the folk aphorism ‘Be kind: everyone is in a battle.’

How does learning, how does the intellectual life interface with that suffering? Because, most people’s reaction to that suffering is one I don’t particularly agree with, but it’s a standard one is to become, quote, “an activist”–to pursue political solutions. And, you’re suggesting a more inward turn to cope with that reality of the world’s brokenness. Defend that or modify it.

Zena Hitz: Yeah. Well, part of it–you could see that you could come out from a couple of different directions. One is that there are certain pitfalls of activism. That is–and I think they’re recognizable to most people, including most activists, things activists struggle with. I mean, I come from an activist family, so activism is part of kind of the frame in which I live in the world, even if I reject it in a lot of ways. And, part of it is, it can be a form of selfishness or even a form of narcissism. That is, you can tell yourself–

Russ Roberts: Ironically–

Zena Hitz: Yeah. Ironically. Exactly. So, you can feed yourself on fantasies of: You’re saving the world, you’re making the world a better place, you’re connecting with the poor and the impoverished. And, we see this all the time. It’s what’s called virtue-signaling or grandstanding or–all of these ways in which, what I think is an honest yearning to connect with someone who suffers, takes kind of the shortcut out, and becomes a performance.

So, learning is–because learning is at its best form a form of honest inwardness, it can unsettle those fantasies, right? Because of that self-knowledge that we’re aiming at. We’re aiming at seeing our limitations. So, that might happen, for instance, because we read a book about someone or see a film. I write about Sullivan’s Travels in the book, which I think is a terrific movie about activism. We see or hear about someone who resembles us and we recognize ourselves, and then we can think of a different way of being. So, that’s part of it, I think.

But, the other part is that, maybe more fundamental, is that learning is a way of connecting with other human beings. They’re often dead people, but even that kind of connection can help us to connect with living people. And, then also we usually learn with other human beings.

And, because learning is part of a happy, fulfilling human life on my argument, it’s something we have to bring to people. It’s like health, healthcare, or any other provision of a good that helps, that makes people’s lives better. Learning has to be given to people through different kinds of practices and institutions and services and so on.

So, those are–that’s a variety of ways that is–so, it can help through self-knowledge. It can help through the kinds of connections that learning builds with others. And, it can also just be, itself, a mode of service.

Russ Roberts: I like to say, and it comes back to what you said before about it flourishing. To me, it’s just a fundamental part of being a human being. And I don’t know if that speaks to folks generally. For some reason it speaks to me. But, again, I don’t know how widely that touches folks.

Your discussion about the pitfalls of activism reminds me of the expression, ‘It’s easy to love humanity. It’s harder to love your neighbor.’

And, in theory, learning can help you love your neighbor. Which is arguably perhaps the most reliable way of making the world a better place and avoiding the law of unintended consequences, the complexity of the world that you often mistakenly over estimate, your ability to overcome, and so on.


Russ Roberts: Let’s talk about work. I want to start with a question you sort of touched tangentially in the book, which is the prestige associated with various kinds of work and whether the kind of lessons you’re talking about are accessible to everyday people.

Some might react to what you’re saying and say, ‘Oh, that’s lovely for really high IQ [Intelligence Quotient] people, really smart people, university-educated people. But most people can’t really–it’s not for them. They need the circuses and the NFL [National Football League] and drugs and YouTube. That’s good enough for them. But, the world you’re talking about, that’s for people like me: high- whatever, high-status folks who like to learn their knowledge over on other people and so on.’ And, yet you argue for, I would say: One, a democratization of learning, which is a beautiful idea. I don’t know if it’s possible or true, but I want you to defend it. And, then I want you to defend this idea that it’s a terrible thing, which I believe, but I struggle with: that we should not judge people or view them through the lens of their occupation.

I think I’ve alluded to it before. There was a wonderful animated cartoon of the person getting on the bus at work and then instead of seeing the bus driver, the person who’s driving the bus–actually the bus, just an instrument to your getting to work. And, the person who sits at the front desk is just a word processor, head. And, instead of seeing people as human beings, you see them as how they serve us, as what we get out of them.

And, I despise that perspective. And yet I fall into it. So, I want you to say why, how we can avoid that; and why those folks that we often look down as doing something, quote, “menial,” should be living the same life of learning that all of us could in theory adopt.

Zena Hitz: So, those are really two questions. Let me try to keep them straight, and let me talk first about why I think that the life of learning is, I would call it something that needs to be considered an egalitarian life. That is, it’s something that very widely valuable and the desire for which is very widely shared.

And, I think this is in a way the part of the book that’s maybe most foreign to our contemporary culture, because the stories which tell about this are all a bit old. And I’ve tried to uncover them in order to bring things to light. And, then of course, because I’ve written about it, now people write to me and they tell me stories of various ordinary people who in fact are very learned, do tons of reading, and tons of thinking, and are otherwise custodians or garbage collectors or do kinds of work that we would never expect someone of that kind of learning to practice.

So, a lot of it is, there’s a lot of history, which is not well enough known about, especially England and the United States, but I’m sure other countries in the 19th and 20th centuries where learning was something that was the object of certain grassroots movements. So, in the United States there’s these Mechanics’ institutes–some of them still exist; there’s still one in San Francisco–where working people would get together, and they wanted for themselves the fruits of the education that the ruling class had. They wanted it for themselves. And they got it for themselves. So, sometimes there was middle-class aid of one kind or another or enterprise, but quite a lot of it was just grassroots.

And, of course, this coincided with the introduction of the paperback, the cheap books flooding the market. It coincides with translating lots of foreign literature into English or translating English literature into other languages. So, there’s a huge translation movement. There’s a huge marketing of books to ordinary people.

But along with that was a lot of self-directed learning via books. That it seems to me, as far as I can tell from the records, it’s very profound. It’s very serious. These people thought very intensely about things–as intensely or more as many academics do.

So, the history tells me that–as history always does–that things could be different: that we shouldn’t take somehow the fact that right now this type of learning is relatively rare–even frankly, among what we call educated people.

So, I was talking actually just the other night. My father who’s a smart person, has a BA [Bachelor of Arts], was a teacher, but not an academic of any kind. I remember him telling me when I was a child that his favorite book was Kafka’s The Castle.

And, I try to think about how many 35 year olds now, if you ask them what their favorite book is, would they say Kafka’s The Castle? I don’t think it would be that many, but I think in that generation it was pretty common, because they went to college and they read books like that, and they learned to love them.

So, things could be different. And, I also keep hearing stories. I get them in emails, I get them in various ways–personal relations, people who come from working class backgrounds, whose parents or relatives or grandparents were people who read, people who thought, and they don’t leave records because it’s not their profession. But it’s more common than we think. And, I wanted in my work to honor these people and their work and to make sure that there are resources for everyone to pursue the kind of learning that interests them.

That’s the first question. Should I go on to the second question?


Russ Roberts: Yeah, but I just want to say that you remind me a little bit of King Canute who stood in the sea and was trying to order it to stop the tide–ineffectively, was the point of the story–that even the greatest king can’t stop the tide. Boy, are you swimming against the tide. Of course, I love that expression: Only a dead salmon swims with the tide. But, you’re going upstream, baby.

I mean, you’re arguing for books at a time when the visual is overwhelming. Again, YouTube is an enormous, and things like it or screens in general are predominating what we would usually call learning. Not that you can’t learn from YouTube: you can. Or podcasts, which is audio, another form, that some might call a lazy person’s way of learning. But, of course, people are learning while they’re walking, driving their car, doing things that they would struggle to read a book, although people do read books while walking. I’ve seen it, done it. But, is this a quixotic quest you’re on, Zena?

Zena Hitz: You know, I don’t know, to be honest, partly because–and this may be a skewed perspective, because of course I write about this, so the people who agree are going to be in touch with me; and they’re going to read my work, and they’re going to tell me that they agree with me. So, you can create your own bubble just by writing a book. So, part of it is that.

But part of it is also that there’s very widespread discontent with the way things are. There’s widespread worries about the role that the visual and that technology has had. Honestly, it’s a cliché. It’s–in fact, it’s such a cliché, it’s such an obvious truth, that to say it seems pointless–but it makes people dumber to be exclusively visual and not to read. It narrows and flattens their thinking. And, that’s true whether they’re wealthy and successful and have degrees, or whether they work in something service related.

So, I think that’s truthfully very clear and becomes clearer the harder you look at a practice and the history of it. In a funny way, an intention was–what I’m saying: I don’t normally say things like that, but I do think it’s true. I think the technology that we’re using is not helping us to think more clearly, more creatively, more ambitiously. It’s good for all kinds of things. It’s very useful in all kinds of ways. But it does–if that’s how you spend your time, your mind is not being exercised in the way that it would be if you read. So, I think that that is in our DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid], so to speak, because reading was not that long ago, a big part of our lives and someone like me grew up with it. I’m not that old. And, so it’s still present for us and there to be revived.

Russ Roberts: It’s in our cultural DNA. I grew up in a house full of books; and my dad was an incredible reader and I aspired to be like my dad. And, so I became a reader. But, my brother and sister, not so much, which is just interesting in and of itself.

But, I think what’s in our actual DNA is storytelling. And, storytelling is–we’re off on a tangent here, we’ll come back to that second question in a second.

I mean, stories are told in all kinds of ways. They’re told in books. They’re told in audio form–“The Shadow,” for example. And now they’re increasingly told through visual, in visual ways. The advent of the mini series on Netflix or Amazon Prime is an extraordinary, I think, moment in human storytelling where–talk about a full length feature. I mean, just an amazing ability to pull out character, and dilemmas, and philosophize to a large degree. So, I think as human beings, we like all of those things.

I would make a distinction–all those different media–I would make a distinction, though, as you do, between what I would call surface distraction and more immersive storytelling. So, you can react to that if you want.

Zena Hitz: No, no. I think that’s right; and I didn’t mean to speak in too sweeping a way. So, I think books are very important. I also think that film and other visual media–and painting; there’s all kinds of visual media that can be extremely rich, also. So, I didn’t mean to be–but, it was just what you said, I think probably better than I could and more clearly, that there is this culture of spectacle, this culture of superficiality that is neither the best of the visual, nor the best use of language.


Russ Roberts: Well, I want to come back to spectacle. It’s a big part of your book. But, let’s go to the second question, which was: Prestige in our society is often occupational/educational. I hate that. I rebel against it, even though I have a lot of that in me. I’m an intellectual snob and I’m not proud of it. I’m ashamed of it. I love that I know what the ‘G.’ in P.G. Wodehouse stands for–Grenville.

But, talk about this issue of how we might humanize ourselves through learning to be more appreciative of people who are not like us, educationally. And, it goes in both directions, of course. People without education look down on people with education and vice versa: just they have a different story to tell.

Zena Hitz: Well, so, I think I have two thoughts about that. One thought is that there’s nothing like trying to have an actual relationship with someone from a different social class–a friendship, a working relationship, whatever it can be. And, that in our current climate, takes a lot of effort. I think we live in socially pretty well-contained units and it’s hard to make those connections. I think if you have the opportunity or if you can think creatively about how to do that–and I think we need civic institutions which build that: build connections between social classes, build what used to be called solidarity between the classes, so that there’s some notion of some common community that we all are part of. It’s part of what I think is helpful, which I remind myself of, and which has helped me a lot, is to think or reflect on how really unconnected prestige is to social value.

So, now there’s this book that I really like by David Graeber, the sociologist who just recently died, called BS Jobs. And, it’s about high prestige, high-paid jobs which are actually pointless. And, then you think about all the jobs that are really looked down on: cleaning, custodial work, garbage collecting, food service. Those are essential. Our communities couldn’t function without these. Or, home health care aides. It’s a very low-paid job. But, I mean a home health care–that’s essential work.

So, there’s a funny way in which our prestige ladder is actually inverted, and, the people that are doing stuff that’s essential are looked down on. And people who are doing things which are pointless–I mean, a lot of the consulting world I think is a bit like this. A lot of it is rubber-stamping stuff that people are already doing or disrupting something that’s working, or a variety–I mean, we all have our horror stories of stuff like this. But there’s also just people who have jobs that don’t make sense, and they’re not low-prestige jobs. They’re often high prestige jobs.

So, I think reflecting a bit on what people actually do and what value it actually brings real human beings is very wholesome in this respect. And, it clarifies the sort of silliness of the ladder of prestige. So, that’s one of the things I try to do to keep myself on track in this way.

Russ Roberts: Let me speculate about that for a second. I hadn’t thought about this. Some of the challenges of these cultural/social differences are our inability to converse with each other effectively. So, if you tell me that you teach Philosophy at St. John’s, I know exactly what to say next, and that is, ‘Oh, really? What do you teach and who are your favorite philosophers?’ And, ‘What’s your favorite Dialogue of Plato?’ Even if I don’t know Plato’s Dialogues–which I don’t, but I hope to, before I go. Even if I don’t, I have a thousand things to ask you. And, you’re a reader; I know that already. So, I can say, ‘Who’s your favorite novelist?’ and you can suggest books that I haven’t read, and I can show off and show you that I do know what the ‘G.’ in P.G. Wodehouse stands for; and then blah, blah, blah.

So, it’s easy for me to talk to you. It’s harder for me to talk to the people that you mentioned before. When my father was dying, he had a home aid with us to help us. I didn’t know he was dying. We thought he might make it. But it was a very powerful time. And, at one point, she put some opera on her phone–happens to be a very snooty type of music, which is interesting in itself–but my father responded to that even though he couldn’t talk at the time. And she responded to it. And of course I responded to it because I happen to like opera.

And, so I had a connection with her that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. It was a very powerful human moment.

And, I think I would struggle to do that with some of the people that we’re talking, about–the garbage collector who I don’t get to talk to except to wave and thank him, when I can, and to not honk at him when he blocks the street–which I think it’ss really important to be patient. And he’s hurrying already. And, if he weren’t, I’d be okay.

But, I think the ability to have a human connection with someone whose day-to-day life is quite different from yours is not easy for us. And I don’t think we have much practice at it. And, maybe what you’re saying is that that’s an enterprise worth cultivating.

Zena Hitz: Well, it’s definitely worth cultivating. And, I think part of it is just a lack of unifying activities–institutions which could create common ground about which we could talk. Right? I mean, we don’t even have the same television in common anymore.

So, there’s a real loss of common endeavor. And, of course, if you’re religious, it’s one thing. Religion should be a way of connecting with people of different walks of life. But, not everyone is religious; and then even the churches can be divided by class.

So, it’s–part of it is a kind of community endeavor, that is, we need to be trying to think about ways of connecting people with one another based on some common good–whether it’s music, or art, or libraries, or sports is actually a great unifier. I’m not a huge sports person. I try to, because I’m trying to connect with my family members with whom it is the only route of communication. So, there’s–it’s common culture about which one has to get to.

The other thing, I think–before we move on from that–the other reason why I think it’s difficult, and your example of the home health aid with your father is a perfect example–that there are things which you can connect with any human being about. But they’re vulnerabilities. They’re tender things. Everyone loses their parents. You know–a lot of people have children. So, these are–everyone confronts death and illness, and these are difficult things for us to talk to strangers about or to connect with strangers about.

And, you know, one classic way that one does that is, of course, volunteering in hospitals or places like that, or hospices where, you know, this is just what you’re there to do, is to connect with people in some way on topics which you have to share in common, even though it’s not a casual–it’s not safe and friendly like, ‘Oh, who’s my favorite philosopher? Who’s your favorite philosopher? Who’s a novelist? Do you know such and such?’ That’s kind of safe ways of filling the airways that make us feel good about ourselves. But it’s not really connecting with another human being on common ground. And that’s always hard. It always involves exposing oneself, taking a risk, being vulnerable. And, none of us ever like to do that. I mean it always takes practice, and it’s hard, and we resist it.


Russ Roberts: I like your point, which you alluded to earlier in our conversation, that people without formal education are awfully deeply educated about something that they have devoted time and effort to learning about. I think that’s another venue for connection that is–the problem is it doesn’t naturally tie into occupation. So, you have to draw someone out to find out that they love birding, or Civil War costume, or whatever it is.

And, I like to think we’re all passionate about some things. Some of us are passionate about a lot of things. Some serially, some all at the same time. People have different personalities about these kind of hobbies and things. But, I think one of the reasons it’s worth learning and cultivating a love of learning so that you can have such parts of the human experience and not just be floating through life.

Zena Hitz: Well, it is–I think the kind of learning that I care about, that I’m interested, that I’m promoting–it is, in a way, a kind of solution to the dilemma we were just talking about, about how you connect with people who are very different from you in a way that’s profound but that isn’t so difficult and so intimate that you just instantly encounter tons of personal resistance, and maybe it’s not even appropriate. So, and, these books are just ways of doing that, because they’re at a certain distance from you–on fundamental questions, or birding, or all these things–they’re at a certain distance from you. But they’re very deep. So, you can connect with someone on a pretty fundamental level that way.

I think the one thing, I mean, that’s just implicit in what we’ve been saying, but it’s worth bringing out: I mean if you want to connect with someone from a different social class, you need a third topic to unite you. This is how human bonding, how human community works is: you unite around some third thing. If you just say, ‘Hey look, garbage collector, I’m a middle-class professor, but I really want to connect with you as a human being’–if I were him, I would run as fast as I could.

So, we need to be focused on some third thing that we have in common. That’s the glue of human community.

Russ Roberts: Well, I think that’s one. That’s an important one. But there’s one other one I want to defend, which is just listening. And, I think listening is hard. It’s not our strong suit. We like to talk.

So, when I say to my cleaning person, ‘How are you?’ there’s a different way to take that question and her response than another way. And, I love this–I’ve talked about it many times on the program–Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” documentary, where there’s no talking. She just sat across from a stranger for hours every day, different strangers cycled through the Museum of Modern Art, if I remember correctly. And people cried, sitting across from her. She cried, sometimes, without a common topic except their humanity.

And, I think one way to get at that human connection, that’s very powerful when you can find it, is just to be better at listening. And, I’m not sure how we get there from here. I do think it is a potential solution to our current moment in America, which is a world of no listening–just anger and yelling at the other side. What are your thoughts on listening?

Zena Hitz: I agree with you 100%. I’m a terrible listener, myself. So, if I were to really–

Russ Roberts: You’re an academic. Of course you are. Me, too–

Zena Hitz: So, if I were to really go to bat for, ‘You know, we’ve all got to start listening to each other,’ then everyone who knew me would roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, like, why don’t you start at home, there, Zena?’

But, but, of course, I mean I personally have benefited from the other end: that from people listening to you, it’s very powerful just to be listened to. And, it’s something you can see in a workplace, too. Most workplaces, you know, there’s a source of conflict. And, the natural thing to think is, ‘This person wants this, and this person wants this.’ But it’s often true that you actually just want someone to listen to you, and then anything can happen. But, if you don’t listen, if you don’t hear the person’s point of view, then things really get out of control. So, it’s very powerful. I agree with that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, but you said the word ‘listening.’ But we’re really talking about hearing–which is to be present for someone and to be–to let them know that you are not just taking in the sounds, but processing them and paying attention.


Russ Roberts: But, let’s turn to spectacle. First, we’re going to find out whether you say Augustine [Au-gus’-tin] or Augustine [Au’-gus-teen]. But you talk about that guy’s struggle with spectacle. In his day, there was cockfighting and there was gladiators–animals killing each other and humans killing each other, and people watching for entertainment’s sake. Talk about how the A-word, Augustine or Augustine [Au’-gus-teen or Au-gus’-tin], dealt with that and why it’s relevant today.

Zena Hitz: So, I’m happy to go on the record saying that I really don’t think it matters how you say it. And, I think I say it both ways, myself–

Russ Roberts: Sure, I do too–

Zena Hitz: I don’t actually know how it’s going to come out of my mouth right now. But Augustine–oh, okay. It was Augustine [Au-gus’-tin], okay.

So, for him, I think, in The Confessions, especially that I look at–he’s interested in what in a human being, what part of us, what sort of psychological capacity, what is it that gets hooked on the gladiators, say. Or for him, he also thought the theater fell into this category. I don’t know what the theater was like in his time. You can imagine there’s different kinds of theater, just as there’s different kinds of cinema, and you can imagine that some of it is more pure distraction and some of it is something where you’re entering into some reality and thinking about it along with the people who made it. And, it may be not a sharp divide.

But, the fact that it’s not sharp doesn’t mean that I think there aren’t things that are clearly in one side or the other.

And, of course, I found Augustine’s treatment of spectacle particularly interesting because it strikes me as being such a good diagnosis of the Internet, which he knew nothing about.

Why is it that, this is, again, a cliché of Twitter–the horrible rumor, the shocking news–gets 50,000, a million retweets. And then a correction that comes out two hours later that says, ‘Actually, that’s not true. And, that didn’t really happen.’ No one quite notices that.

So, there’s something in us that wants to–it’s a thrill-seeking instinct. It was–the way I put it, which is based on my interpretation of Augustine, is that: It’s you want to experience for the sake of experiencing. You just want that–you just want the stimulation of your senses or your experiencing capacities.

Russ Roberts: It’s visceral.

Zena Hitz: It’s visceral. And you’re not–it’s distinct from using your senses or using your mind to connect with some reality.

So, here’s another example, rubbernecking at car accidents. Totally irresistible, as far as I can tell, and totally pointless. What are you going to learn from doing this? Nothing. You always want to do it. Even if you see one, you want to see more.

So, it’s not learning the way that–I mean, I once, I had a friend in med school who took me to see cadavers. It was a learning experience. I learned what we’re made of, where the parts are, and what connects with what. So, I might have gone to look at dead bodies out of a love of spectacle, but I can also look at them out of a desire to learn, and to grow and to understand something about myself, or about others, or about the world.

So, it’s–love of spectacles is, for me, a very useful way of thinking about what’s distinctive about the love of learning as opposed to a lot of things that we do which engage our senses, engage our capacities, engage our attention, but which don’t really result in growth–in growth and understanding, growth and insight, what have you. So, I think, for me, it’s been very helpful to reflect on the distinction Augustine makes and to think about how it matters for us.

Russ Roberts: So, if you asked me why I watch football on Sunday, which I sometimes do, even though I’m increasingly uncomfortable with it because of concussions and other things–I comfort myself saying, ‘Well, it’s voluntary activity. They’ve chosen to do it.’ Blah, blah, blah. But, if you asked me, why, you know, ‘Isn’t that kind of gross? People banging into each other. They’re often getting hurt,’ I have a poetic way to describe it. I say, ‘Well, it’s like watching a sporting event,’–and this will be with your family. A sporting event is like a drama, like a great work of art. It’s like great work of art, where I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And I can watch it all the time. They’re unfolding in real time. The lines aren’t written or scripted. They’re written by the participants.

And, I think I’m fooling myself there. I think maybe I just like the spectacle. What do you think? [More to come, 1:01:22]

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