The Unexamined Life

Posted: November 25, 2010 in Uncategorized


School students were demonstrating yesterday; this doesn’t happen very often in the UK. It made me feel… old.  I couldn’t think clearly about my political response to their uprising, when all that was going through my mind was… when did I last demonstrate as a school kid? In 1986? Shit I am old.

And I know this misses the point probably but the thing I liked best about hearing of them taking to the streets was the fact that they bunked off school to do it. I spent many a lunch-hour at school, sitting in my friend’s kitchen saying, ‘I know, we could just not go back!’ and then come one o’clock we’d be at the gates like good little pupils, turning up for afternoon classes despite the sunshine and our plans to drink cider in the park. School is a kind of police state isn’t it? Maybe it is a benign one on the whole but it is still the place we learn to be controlled, as citizens, as subjects. I loved learning and I liked my friends but I didn’t like ‘school’. I was a rebel who just never really got round to rebelling because she was worried she wouldn’t have time to start the revolution and finish her French homework.

I made up for my obedience later though.

Anyway I saw this great placard which a friend, who is a university student, made for yesterday’s demos. It read:

‘The unexamined life is kind of looking like the only option now, eh?’

It made me smile.

But it also made me think, which is quite an achievement for a placard. It made me think that is university really the place we learn to ‘examine’ life, ourselves, the world? I don’t know. But I do know some incredibly intelligent philosophical people who never went to university, and I do know I read some of my most difficult philosophy outside of university: hello Madness and Civilisation! I am glad to know you.

And then I read this in the Guardian and I loved those school students harder. What a load of condescending authoritatian anti-youth crap! It’s not even written by old people but by journalists who are young enough to feel they have left those silly schooldays behind and now are grown-ups in the big wide world, who have the authority to judge what young people do. I am sure they will grow out of that sense of superiority at some point. If they ‘examine’ themselves at all during their lives that is.

Is the unexamined life worth living? I think it is. But once we have some tendency and some tools to examine and analyse, which most people do, I think we should do so whilst still remembering what it is like to be young, and feeling constrained and overpowered by that confusing, seemingly monolithic, institutional, paradoxical ‘adult’ authority. It is only our youthful, rebellious, let’s just not go back to school and go drink cider in the park instead spirit that will see us through the dark, dreary days of adulthood.

Its 11 am. I think I have some cider in the fridge.


  1. hmm says:


    How much do you think college English courses can influence a career? Or teach one about The Novel?


    I don’t know. I never went to college. But I have lectured on campuses for a quarter century, and it is my impression that after taking a course in The Novel, it is an unusual student who would ever want to read a novel again. Those English courses are what have killed literature for the public. Books are made a duty. Imagine teaching novels! Novels used to be written simply to be read. It was assumed until recently that there was a direct connection between writer and reader. Now that essential connection is being mediated—bugged?—by English departments. Well, who needs the mediation? Who needs to be taught how to read a contemporary novel? Either you read it because you want to or you don’t. Assuming, of course, that you can read anything at all. But this business of taking novels apart in order to show bored children how they were put together—there’s a madness to it. Only a literary critic would benefit, and there are never more than ten good critics in the United States at any given moment. So what is the point to these desultory autopsies performed according to that little set of instructions at the end of each text? Have you seen one? What symbols to look for? What does the author mean by the word “white”? I look at the notes appended to my own pieces in anthologies and know despair.


    How would you “teach” the novel?


    I would teach world civilization—East and West—from the beginning to the present. This would occupy the college years—would be the spine to my educational system. Then literature, economics, art, science, philosophy, religion would be dealt with naturally, sequentially, as they occurred. After four years, the student would have at least a glimmering of what our race is all about. :

    As for writers, if you’re a writer yourself, you don’t have mentors. Maybe when you’re very young, but I never did. I never went to university, so I never had the opportunity to be taught by people who thought they knew what literature was. This was a great blessing.

    BF: What about your literary peers?

    GV: I learned playwriting from going to Tennessee’s rehearsals.

  2. great quotes there hmm… I am kind of glad Gore Vidal never got to be incharge of university education though, his idea for the curriculum is a bit…dry,

  3. hmm says:

    Yeah, yeah, tell me more. He seems to name everything, so presumably anyone who would have that knowledge ought to be able to find their bonheur. But it strikes me as dry too, every time I read it. Though I can’t figure out why.
    Why does it strike you as dry?

    • I think it is because he suggests he could just teach the history of the world in chronological order, including all the arts and humanities and sciences, which would probably be impossible. because subjects do need to be understood to some degree on their own merits. also it seems very ‘american’ centred. talking about ‘our race’ maybe he means the human race? But what about languages. would the students have to learn all the languages of the world? Basically I think he is saying he is not that interested in formal education. which I admire.

  4. hmm says:

    He DEFINITELY means the human race.

    Yes, the idea that an objective reality can be properly analysed only with partial knowledge is oxymoronic.

    His focus on history may be a personal obsession rather than a convincing argument or a truth. After all, history is not known except by traces. So if you know some art or science first, you can better (perhaps) study that history.

    Chronological order always seems like a trap rather than a fact.

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