Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit

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, “intellectual home” 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.

Note: I made a minor edit for clarity.

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9 Comments

  1. This was just fantastic! Thanks so much for posting. I’ve been struggling with this very thing for some time. I’m a new faculty member at a small college and I’m still negotiating how to “fit in” and still follow my own intellectual nose. (That’s really a terrible metaphor. Sorry). I also love how you link this dilemma to the one students go through each semester. I’m going to share this with them (hopefully tomorrow) and I hope that they find it as engaging as I have. Well done!

    Reply
  2. Yes, and all of this reveals both the peril and potential of new technology for students and for learners. You can be both alone, enjoying as much solitude as you could possibly want, and receive unlimited feedback from peers and from role models. But I would argue that technology can sometimes make it too easy never to get either the full benefits of solitude or the learning that comes from an exchange of ideas between people in real life conversation.

    Reply
    • I agree with you there. I enjoy online conversation and take part in it fairly often. But it can distract from solitude, and it can act as a weak replacement for real-life conversation. Also, it leaves a trail. Unlike real-life conversation, where your words disappear after they’re said, an online comment can linger indefinitely. It’s more difficult to be tentative, to try out an idea.

      Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together comments extensively on these problems.

      Reply
  3. Diana,
    Just wanted to drop a note and let you know that your post was well-received in class and you provided an excellent opening for a conversation about intellectual curiosity. Thanks!

    Also, while talking about this in class today, it occurred to me that this post reminds me a great deal of a short story called “Notes on a Departure” by Lionel Trilling. I really think you’d enjoy it if you can find it. It’s in his collection “Of This Time, At That Place.” It’s about a young professor who has decided to leave a comfortable position in a lovely town because it would be too tempting for him to fall into a satisfied intellectual laziness. Lovely story, just like your post!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Danny, for the news!

      I am eager to read Trilling’s “Notes on a Departure”; I will seek it out. Thank you for telling me about it.

      Reply
  4. So insightful! This blew me away. Thank you for sharing.

    This quote really resonated with me:

    ” 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.”

    So profound. Lovely metaphor.

    Thank you again for sharing!

    Reply
  1. Belonging and Apartness in Intellectual Pursuit « •whirlwind•rider
  2. Questions of Community | Diana Senechal

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