Last Friday, Annie Murphy Paul wrote about how learners need a sense of intellectual belonging—how, if they feel excluded by (or inferior to) their peers and role models, their learning may be constricted. I would like to propose a complementary truth: that students also need room and strength to be apart. Just how apartness and belonging should be combined in education, I do not know; I doubt that there is a perfect formula. But both have an important place, and one can fortify the other.
Much depends, of course, on what one means by “belonging.” One kind of belonging might stimulate learning; the other might limit it. It is necessary, for instance, to belong to the work itself. You are more closely joined to your music if you practice it, and to a book if you read it. But that is not only essential kind of belonging. Any member of an educational institution should be treated as a true member. If a student is admitted to a college, then as far as the college is concerned, that student belongs there. It is not right to admit a word to the sentence and then put it in parentheses—especially if that word is a person, and the sentence is a school.
In addition, teachers and students should show appropriate collegiality. If, for instance, students meet in a study group, they should announce the time and location so that all those interested may attend. If faculty have traditions of doing certain things together, then they should make sure that all are invited.
But here the matter gets tricky. It is possible for a group to become cloying—for students and faculty to spend too much time together and consult each other on minute things. There can even be too much niceness, leaving no room for healthy friction. Or else the disagreements and antagonisms come up in gossip, where rumors rise up and jagged shadows rule.
To find yourself in an intellectual (or artistic) endeavor, you need to resist the immediate collegial pull. The person who goes to the library or spends time working on a theorem may have a stronger sense of belonging (to the field itself) than those who take their meals together, attend events together, and consult each other on every mental step. Far from depending on the latest whisper, she sets her mind on sturdier things.
To speak your mind without fear, you cannot be drowning in acceptance; you must know disapproval, even rejection. Those who expect the sympathetic nods of colleagues will be thrown off when their colleagues are not nodding or smiling; they will ask themselves “what did I do wrong?” (often a deadly question). Good ideas are not consistently popular; anyone with an independent mind will fall out of favor with the group at some point. There is no shame in this; it may be a sign that the person is finding his way.
Moreover, people are not always nice. Sometimes you end up in a class with a snarly professor and grade-grubbing classmates. Or you might find yourself in a setting where nothing is blatantly wrong, but something feels amiss—where you don’t feel exactly at ease, even though no one is rejecting you. What do you do? Go look for a more cordial place? You may find something amiss there, too. It’s good to learn to hold your own in such situations; they will come and go.
What about those you admire? Should they be within your reach? Annie Murphy Paul suggests that it can be damaging to choose role models whose accomplishments are far beyond yours. Choose people closer to your range, she advises. I am not at all sure of this. One can lose oneself in the work of an intensely admired person. For a stretch of time, comparisons disappear. When they reappear, so do ideas and yearnings. The student knows what to strive for, or grasps a part of it.
Yet certain kinds of belonging do make a difference in learning. It is painful to be ignored or rejected by peers and teachers. There are places where one feels in one’s element and thrives on account of this. Yet anyone who wishes to enter a field should prepare for a bit of loneliness in it—not too much, of course, but a bit. I do mean loneliness, not just aloneness or solitude. Comfort and company are not always present, nor would things be better if they were.
How does one find the right combination of apartness and collegiality? One knows it when one finds it, but it can also shift. As much as a person longs for an intellectual home, it is a contradiction in terms. Intellect requires some homesickness, some conception of absent things. It also needs conversation, rapport, encouragement—but not to the point where their absence seems a calamity. The loss of a friend is sad, sometimes terribly so; the loss of approval or applause, just part of one’s work.