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Regrettably Yours

n+1 has published a pamphlet, What We Should Have Known, transcripts of a pair of roundtable discussions between scholars and writers such as Caleb Crain about their intellectual regrets. Reviewing the pamphlet for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee summarizes its goals:

This booklet is a reflection on the difference between education and Bildung. That is, between the experience of moving through a given social institution, on the one hand, and the process of being inwardly “formed” by what you’ve learned, on the other….

The emphasis falls on how books can influence a reader in ways having little to do with career, and everything to do with a sense of life.

Readers, you’re an educated bunch. What do you regret in your intellectual history? What should you have studied that you didn’t? How should you have studied differently what you did? Is there a book you read at 25 that you wish you had read at 18? (Where applicable, let’s just take “Going to camp" as given, shall we?)



Rather than majoring in the Biblical languages, I should have majored somewhere in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, or computer science. I would keep Biblical languages as a minor. This would have enabled me to take all the language and exegetical classes, and avoid most of the crap.

Other than that, I think I’m satisfied with everything.

Being lazy.

Honestly, the only test I remember studying seriously for was Greek III, and then only because my wife made me.

I was able to get through camp with a decent GPA, all the while concentrating on playing softball, football, GoldenEye, trying to meet girls, etc. I learned pretty early on that if you paid attention in class, the Scantron exams were basically a cake walk. The longest paper I wrote as an undergrad maxed out at 12 pages.

And I was happy. I didn’t think how classes like “Christian Home” or “Christian Counseling” would look on a transcript. I didn’t care that I was basically learning to absorb and parrot back information, with very little bildung goin’ on.

So, intellectually, I regret not demanding more of myself, or my institution.

And, I wish I had had more private conversations with some of the more liberal professors about the mythological/poetic nature of Scripture. It would have saved me a lot of time on my journey out of literal fundamentalism…

The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program… I still haven’t read it…

however, i will say that i have utterly no regrets about never having taking christian home or any of those other courses offered by freaks

I remember seeing that book on your shelf and thinking I should get that, too!. I think I even remarked about it to K at the time. I didn’t.

Actually, there’s a host of regrets I could name about seeking mentoring relationships with any of my professors.

But I wish too that I’d learned how to read histories early, say when I was 18. I still find them difficult, even the really engaging ones.

4 is exactly right. That stuff was for wankers.

6 is an awesome double entendre.

I’d have to echo GKB’s comments. I had a lot of fun doing absolutely nothing at camp. I wish someone would have slapped me across the head and told me how to be a serious student. I’m still not sure I know how to do that.

Other than that, I really wish I had done more language study and read philosophy much earlier. I was too lazy to do the work it requires to master other languages, and the particular camp I attended (and most of its kind) don’t see any need for philosophy whatsoever.

I think we ought to guard against complaining about camp for being camp. Of course many of us who went there weren’t lulled from our intellectual complacency. Frankly, camp wasn’t that interested in lulling us from it. It had other, “spiritual” things to lull us from. That said (and reiterating 5) settling for professors when mentors could be had is something that I think stunts many students’ growths.

I wonder, too, whether some regrets come from wishing to be autodidacts? (BG, you can’t comment here, you damned autodidact.)

Any philosophy in particular, Shaun?

That’s true. Aside from the utter poverty of the library, camp doesn’t seriously impede you from learning what you need to learn. It just doesn’t encourage you, that’s all.

But then, I’m an autodidact, myself.


Sadly, you’re right. I can’t blame camp for being camp without also blaming myself for not being more responsible for my own learning. In other words, damn I wish I was an autodidact!

On philosophy: I could name a number of philosophers that I wish I had encountered earlier and with the help of a mentor to guide me through them — Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Adorno, the list goes on. But what I think that would have taught me (which is what I guess I actually regret not having) is how to 1)think systematically about questions that concern me and 2) to think in terms of intellectual history. I didn’t start trying to do those things (as a student or teacher) until much later in life.

Shaun (did we go to the same camp?) is right…

While there were plenty of opportunities, serious scholarship wasn’t particularly encouraged. I could repeat my story of having my one serious attempt at something resembling an honest research paper torn up for dangerous conclusions as evidence of this, but I won’t.

I merely learned how to take Scantron tests really, really well, which made it easier to stay up laying GoldenEye.

Er…“late playing,” not “laying.”



If my guess is right, I was a year or two ahead of you at camp. Greg and I were there at the same time.

Sigh, if only I had gone to camp like you guys my life might be different today.

I regret a large back-log of sermons that was nothing more than republican propaganda, guilt-based screeds and penal substitutionary clap-trap. I regret the words “going to hell” or any of its variants leaving my mouth.

I still haven’t finished Phenomenology of Spirit… :(

But, I would agree, the philosophy course I took sucked… and though the prof was quite old, it was more because he was under directives to not really have us read philosophy but read about philosophy…

And, it was chocked full of mindless yahoos who would say the stupidest things…

But, more to the point, I would’ve liked to have been introduced to heavy stuff in my earlier years.

That said, Fear and Trembling at 20 was a really, really good year to read it. To re-read it at 27 was also good.

The ethics course I took was truly awful. Not only did the professor repeat lectures that he had already given (he was quite old too), the only book he discussed in any detail was C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves.

The lack of philosophy as a discipline is widespread at cofc camps. JAW’s camp on the beach (I know, JAW, it’s way more than a camp) maybe the only one with a philosophy department.

It would have been good to get introduced to the heavy stuff earlier, but I did get a small introduction thanks to my lit. crit. class. I think it would have been even better to have spent some real time with the heavies, though. The anthology approach was nice for coverage, but I wish I could have spent a much longer time reading complete texts and getting a sense of things like style, development of ideas, and so on.

My experience with the lit crit anthology, though, was that it wasn’t all the useful, precisely because it was trying to be useful.

That is, only the most boring pedant (and there are far too many of those) sits down and reads Derrida or Marx or Aristotle, even, with the sole purpose of applying their insights to the study of literature. They should be read on their own and then read next to but never as a hermeneutics.

Another regret, and forgive me for harping on camp, is reading nothing but “approved” scholars. I guess “scholars” should be in quotation marks, too.

Perhaps I am reading my undergraduate experience through my graduate experience, but I can’t remember reading, as an undergraduate, a single author, theologian, philosopher or writer that came from a different school of thought. Maybe it is expecting too much of an undergraduate education, but learning how to read people I disagree with with some generosity and benevolence would have been a good skill to pick up earlier. Even now, I can’t read a Joel Osteen book without throwing it across the room, and I wonder how I might read him differently had I been exposed to the idea of reading opposing ideas sooner…

there’s a difference no? between reading ideas that are different than the ones you have and reading schlock… schlock should be thrown across the room, but i imagine you don’t really mean that comment about the snake oil salesman you previously referenced.


Your comment about the weaknesses of the anthology approach to teaching philosophy (or anything else for that matter) is well taken. My last comment about camp: I wonder if some of that is emblematic of the larger problem of the “cocktail party” approach to liberal arts education there. The most rigorous defense I heard for the gen. ed. requirements, even from a number of profs., was that they would allow you to sound educated at cocktail parties. (Not that anyone ever went to cocktail parties.) This resulted in the flood of scantron tests that GKB rightly complains about.

Back to the point of the post (I think), I remember reading Conrad at camp and hating every convoluded sentence. I didn’t have any great political objections to him. Hell, I had no idea who Chinua Achebe was. Now, I read him with a great appreciation for his art and a troubled sense of his political implications. I wish I could have brought those to my readings of Conrad and lit. in general when I was a younger man.

scantron, though, is because the profs have a 4/4 load with 40 students in each class….

i regret that i never took a class solely dedicated to plato (which means there is much plato i’ve never read).

i regret that i never took a class solely dedicated to milton (which means i have read most of his smaller works but never finished his paradise lost)… the same goes for blake.

i am extremely glad that i read dunne when i did and though i wish that i would have begun reading borges earlier, i don’t know that i would’ve really understood him.

i’m glad that i read 100 years of solitude and hopscotch (rayuela by cortazara) when i did, because now i’m afraid i wouldn’t find them as mind-blowing and i’m glad i found them so.

Heh, I just remembered that I took a special philosophy class in my final semester at camp. One of my friends forged an alliance with one of the “cool,” “liberal” Bible profs there, and he managed to get an ad hoc course together. It was only our immediate circle of friends, and some groupies. We used an anthology book, of course. Went through Plato, Kant, Sartre, Nietzsche, and some Eastern crap. The latter was included because one of our friends was a vapid flake who said he was interested in Zen and Eastern philosophy because that’s what all his 21 year old musician friends were saying.

Anyhoo, being a bunch of undergraduate punks, we teamed up on the teacher and about halfway through the semester he was terrified at how nihilistic and profane we were (this was confided to me by another prof friend of his). The last 3 or 4 weeks he tried to get us to read C.S. Lewis and back toward the straight and narrow, but we just froze him out.

Fun times, fun times.

As I remember, that Conrad course was particularly directionless. That’s all I remember from it.

The “good conversationalist at a cocktail party” line for studying the liberal arts is such bullshit. The guy who alludes to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over drinks had better be exceptional if he doesn’t want to seem completely divorced from reality. And I’m only being a little facetious when I say for example….

That such an effete argument became a de facto justification for literary studies speaks more about the myths surrounding the professoriate than it does most of the real world. It’s almost better to claim there’s no good reason for reading at all.

this is perhaps the strangest one…

i regret that when i read catcher in the rye it didn’t mean anything to me. then again, i met at camp people for whom it was just below the bible, and i felt their literary likes to be stunted. not that you can’t like it, but they were of the group for whom nothing but beat lit and salinger are worthwhile. but, that is more from cultural differences… i was very ununitedstatsian when i read the book.

i read citr when i was the age of the protagonist and since i was gallivanting around the caribbean rather than sitting in school bored by adults, i didn’t get it. however, had i read it at any other moment, i might’ve regretted not having read it when i was 15… though, maybe had i waited until 18 i would’ve gotten it.

case in point, i read the bell jar when i was 25 and cried like a baby…

i’m glad i read crime and punishment and moby dick at 15, but i regret not understanding either…

I don’t regret never having read The Catcher in the Rye. Ha!

I’ve never read it either. I’ve barely read any American lit, mostly as a consequence of not going to high school. Sort of like BG, but without the Carribean gallivanting.

I am glad I read Catcher in the Rye when I did (when I was in junior high at a godawful private school in Indianapolis), and I’m glad that I took Salinger seminar in high school and read everything else he wrote then.

I kind of regret that I spent time reading Gone With the Wind, although doing so did later enable me to give a great presentation on Ivanhoe—but then, I kind of regret having spent time reading that, too.

I don’t regret the time I spent messing around, socializing, hanging out, staying up late, etc. when I was in college. It meant, of course, that I was less studious than I should have been, but it was the first time in my life that I had actual groups of friends, and I wouldn’t want not to have had that experience.

That said, I wish I’d taken Milton somewhat earlier, and I wish I’d worked harder at Greek.

I pretty much regret everything I wrote and didn’t write and much of what I read and didn’t read while getting my MFA, but that’s another story for another time.