Against Coolness: On Two New Books About Being a Student

Todd Shy reviews Michael S. Roth’s “The Student: A Short History” and Adam Gopnik’s “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.”

By Todd ShyOctober 5, 2023

Against Coolness: On Two New Books About Being a Student

The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnik. Liveright. 256 pages.The Student: A Short History by Michael S. Roth. Yale University Press. 216 pages.

MOST WRITING ABOUT education, Martin Bickman observed in his 2003 book Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning, is too much like “taxidermy” and not enough like “bird-watching.” These days the discourse can feel more like a hunt. We unmask and argue more than we observe and admire. Who brings binoculars to a culture war fight?

For the past decade, Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, has been exploring the increasingly tense landscape of higher education. His self-described “pragmatic idealism” is hardly a battle cry, but it is exactly what we need more of. First in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014), then in Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019), and now with The Student: A Short History (2023), Roth defends an older ideal of what education is for—orienting and broadening your whole life as a free person—while acknowledging that our consensus on education is fragile. As he put it in Beyond the University, “The only thing that faculty, students, and administrators seem to be able to agree on is that a liberal education should not be vocational.”

That only is a stressor for students. We don’t have much else to say after we’ve urged autonomy and authenticity on them. We give them skills, we teach them to be critical, we show them in a hundred ways how much our ancestors missed the mark, and we wish them luck with their uniqueness, as if the world were starting over again upon their graduation. To shore up what Isaiah Berlin, in a different context, called our “uneasy equilibrium,” we need at least to join contemporary argument to patient historical work, but then we also need rich portraiture of the experience that inspires. In his books about higher education, Roth honors the first two needs and makes a compelling, patient, historical case for an education that breeds openness and generosity. For the third—for the portraiture that catches learning in the act—we’ll need a recent book by a writer who became a diligent student again.

Where Beyond the University and Safe Enough Spaces were explicitly focused on the American context, Roth’s new book, The Student, offers an expansive, albeit brief, tour of educational ideals reaching back to the ancient world. By asking what it has meant to be a student across time, Roth is still posing his core question about what an education is for. He begins with what it meant to be a student of three pivotal teachers: Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. He calls these students respectively followers, interlocutors, and disciples. Roth sees in the students of these ancient figures modes of learning and being that persist. He will pull the threads of these modes forward, finding an echo of Confucian harmony, for example, in the way contemporary education is valued for career and citizenship preparation, or seeing the Christian tradition of proselytizing “followers” in the fears critics have of universities imposing orthodoxies on students. Maybe most persistent of all is the Socratic tradition of questioning and exposing, which Roth notes is the anchor model of Western education (at least now) and whose limitations lead to some of Roth’s own most urgent and persuasive commentary.

We know we’re following a progression of modes of being a student (and not a survey of the history of the experiences of students) when we skip centuries from the ancient world to premodern Europe, where Roth introduces the idea of education as apprenticeship. I’m not sure any version of education ever conceived is more natural than the structure of an expert guiding a beginner-apprentice. Kant would argue that maturity means learning to think for yourself, but an even more universal form of maturity involves people “simply learning to enter adulthood,” as Roth writes, and “to gain the skills to establish and support their own families.” If Kant wants us all to be critics, the premodern world of masters and apprentices wants to equip breadwinners—and craftsmen. Roth quotes historian Pamela H. Smith’s phrase “artisanal literacy” to describe this version of autonomy, and names two “famously failed apprentices,” Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, as bridges to a new era. In our day, Matthew B. Crawford’s 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work shows that the virtues of manual apprenticeship (and mastery) remain very much alive.

Roth’s story moves fast: to the Renaissance next, with a return to an ancient ideal of liberal education “whose goal was not narrowly instrumental but broadly connected to the virtues and the capacities of the whole person.” Then on to the Reformation, where Protestant educators saw the purpose of learning as moral and redemptive: you tutored your will to turn away from sin; you achieved freedom by avoiding the snares of lesser goods and temptations. The secular version of this student ideal is self-control (the Stanford marshmallow experiment its homily).

In all these stages, Roth writes, “we see the development of different kinds of agency.” In their various ways, students “were developing their capacities for purposeful independence.” They were “figuring out how they might stand on their own feet and how they might stand in relation to others.” Maturity involved developing the capacities to take your place in the world. This is what education has meant, even to the lucky premodern few who, in Europe, had formal education in cathedral schools, monasteries, or with private tutors. This is still partly what education means: preparing you to assume your place. But only partly.

With Kant and with the Enlightenment, Roth says, we encounter something new. Maturity, for Kant, meant thinking for yourself. Even more, it meant applying a critical eye everywhere: “Our age is an age of criticism,” Kant wrote, “to which everything must submit.” Which is different indeed from a maturity that comes from adjusting yourself to your inherited world. When you add Rousseau’s affirmation of authenticity to Kant’s celebration of independent thinking, you have the foundation of the contemporary idea of the self-creating student. Roth shows the Emerson of “Self-Reliance” pulling this ideal forward in the United States, he shows Mary Wollstonecraft extending the ideal to women, and he shows W. E. B. Du Bois laying claim to a similar self-defining inheritance for Black students. Our ideal of liberal education continues to build on this Enlightenment foundation: school exists for students to “come into their own” and to think for themselves. In fact, as Roth argues, about the only value we all agree should be central in schools is critical thinking. Commencement addresses suggest an agreement as well about following your own star.

The next phase in Roth’s overview of how the meaning of being a student has evolved centers on the growth of the research university in 19th-century Germany. As universities assumed the goal of generating new knowledge and not simply passing along inherited truths, the role of professors shifted—and, with that, the role of students. A new mode of scientific inquiry replaced the older mode of memorization and recitation. Education was now about extending knowledge, not preserving it. Roth quotes Wilhelm von Humboldt, a central figure in this shift: “The crucial challenge […] is upholding the principle whereby science is seen as something that must be pursued endlessly.” At the same time, the German ideal of Bildung emerged, bridging the energies of the scientific quest for knowledge with the freedom of Kant’s enlightened students to become something new themselves: “Bildung was the formation of the student as a complete person,” Roth writes, “someone whose various faculties were developed in a complex unity.” Like knowledge itself, the individual student was never finished but always in formation.

But freedom for students, as we who have attended college all know, is not only (or even primarily) about advancing our collective knowledge of the world, or investigating ever-new ideas. It is also about the freedom to drink and duel, to prank and form secret societies. I remember well the growing pyramid of empty beer cans in a friend’s shared suite in our first year of college. The suitemate’s stated goal was to cover the entire wall. Roth is realistic about earlier times: “The pious American hope to use higher education to instill morals and character development in the students seemed to call forth its opposite,” he writes: “young people determined to create a lifestyle defined by their own enthusiasms.” Freedom for Du Bois might mean attending the Metaphysical Club with William James, but for what came to be called “college men,” freedom might mean wanting to “ride horses through the campus in the middle of the night.” A new de facto model of an unencumbered student evolved even as the university adopted an ideal for itself as a center of research.

But if the university was changing, so was the larger society and what it meant to be successful: “The standards of success used by college men in the early twentieth century had to do with getting ahead in an increasingly corporate America, something that the faculty seemed to know little about,” Roth writes. “The college student,” he adds, quoting a memoir from the time,

was “a careless boy-man,” someone “who shirks his work and deceives his instructors in every way.” This was a different model of the student from what we’ve seen thus far. The goal was not to arrive at independence and maturity—it was to delay such an arrival for as long as possible while showing a capacity to be a manly team player.

Roth goes on to describe the importance of fraternities and sports—and, at women’s colleges, sororities—as mechanisms for replicating social hierarchies that had nothing to do with the advance of scientific knowledge.

College demographics began to change after World War II, and “[a]s campus populations came to more closely reflect the population of the country, national issues entered higher education.” New modes of being a student followed these cultural changes. When Roth traces the impact of Civil Rights and student activism on the 1960s college campus, he returns to the ancient student types he began the book with to suggest continuities and discontinuities of education across time:

Student activists in the 1960s had come a long way from Kant’s genteel rhetoric of slowly pursuing maturity through a gradual process of enlightenment. They were even further from the Confucian students who very consciously learned to situate themselves in relation to previous generations in an effort to create harmony over time, or from the student as disciple following the call of a teacher [Jesus] who embodied the word of God.

As for Socrates, it would be tempting, Roth writes, to see these activists in his tradition “of unmasking elites whose knowledge is built on shaky foundations. But Socrates taught an ironic skepticism, not rebellion based on new certainties about how one should live.”

In our time, Roth registers recent economic pressures on the ideal of being a student. These shifting ideals have something to do with the greater socioeconomic diversity of student populations, for sure. They may also have to do with the increasing selectivity of the most selective colleges, which is associated with networking, peer connections, and proximity to equally selective options after graduation. For students who have to assume enormous debt even to attend college, the mode of being a student is weighed down with economic anxiety and is not simply lifted by ideals of self-exploration. In the financially taxing, pressure-cooker environment of contemporary education, “being a student has less to do with coming into one’s maturity as a thinking and judging person and more to do with being sorted into one’s proper place in a competitive economy and society.” In this sense, Roth writes, higher education has become a “sorting machine.” Getting into a selective college becomes more important (if you’re not really careful) than “coming into your own” once you’re there. High school students carry the added anxiety that, to borrow language from the title of Frank Bruni’s great book on college admissions, where they go is who they’ll be.

But there’s another dimension of the contemporary landscape that troubles Roth and that he is especially eloquent in addressing. In all three of his recent books, he has shown that the only thing educators can agree on is the importance of critical thinking. Educators themselves have battled over what they should teach and how. Politicians have always added their strategic fuel to this fire; we may be in an age of pyromania now. Where consensus about what an education is for is impossible, we seem left with an insistent and relentless habit of unmasking, of exposing, of critiquing, of pointing out deficits and also hypocrisies. Roth was already watching this tendency two presidents and a pandemic ago. Pragmatists don’t often grab bullhorns or mount barricades. They’re better at shifting foot to foot. But here is Roth, in Beyond the University, making an impassioned appeal for helping students listen and even affirm:

In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions, or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study. In a humanities culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker, our students may become too good at showing how things don’t make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live. Once outside the university, our students continue to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school.

Roth goes on, but I urge readers to flip to the end of the book, where he saves his most energetic writing for this topic, and also the end of The Student, where he argues for cultivating “critical feeling” to go with “critical thinking.” In emphasizing only critical thinking, Roth seems to suggest, we are rowing on only one side of the boat. No wonder we’re going in circles.

Roth’s own self-described pragmatic idealism offers language and imagery that can help restore the balance we need. Call it head and heart, call it thinking and feeling, call it generosity and a celebration of being unfinished and in process. For example, he argues in Beyond the University:

In the humanities in particular we need the energy of participation and the capacity to absorb ourselves in great works of literature, art, and science. Absorption is an endangered species of cultural life as technological surfing molds our receptive capacities. […] In pointing to the rhetorical tradition and the importance of absorption, I am underscoring a mode of liberal education that many practice already. It is a mode that can take language very seriously, but rather than seeing it as the master mediator between us and the world, a matrix of representations always doomed to fail, it sees language as itself a cultural practice to be understood from the points of views of its users. The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we fail in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by liberal learning is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear possibilities of various forms of life in which we might actively participate.

In the end, Roth suggests that the best mode of being a student is one of opening ourselves to the world, finding something to love and then getting good at that thing. In all three of these books about higher education, Roth makes his pragmatist’s vision leap and lift. No taxidermy here, but flight.


If Michael Roth shows us context and mounts spirited arguments about the state of education, Adam Gopnik, in his new book The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, takes us on the adventure of actually being a student. Thoreau said that sometimes it’s good to look at something from the corner of your eye. Roth is staring at education head-on; Gopnik has it in his periphery. The horizons of their two perspectives meet in a vision of expansiveness, of education’s purpose being to broaden us and not to sculpt us.

An acclaimed writer at the peak of his powers, Gopnik wants to find out what it is that makes someone a master of a task or a craft or a field. He wants to figure out “the mystery of mastery.” To do that, he never once steps foot on a college campus. Instead, he interrogates the world of magicians. He tries to learn to draw and to drive. He takes up baking and boxing. Finally, he learns to dance. His title comes from his conversations with magicians, who mean by “the real work” “the complete activity, the accumulated practice, and the total summing up of traditions. The real work is what makes a magic effect magical.” It’s a kind of gestalt, a coherent apprehension. The real work is never just accumulated proficiency. Gopnik quotes a master magician watching a younger magician perform: “The method is never the trick,” he says. “Once you’ve mastered the method, you’ve hardly begun the trick.” Gopnik repeats: “The method is never the trick.” Teachers at every level should post that line above their wall clocks.

Gopnik is trying to understand whatever mastery is in all the fields he explores and submits to. He won’t study meaning from the outside. This is not an exercise in critical thinking; he will immerse himself in these practices. To use Roth’s language, he will let himself be absorbed. To use Emerson’s, he will throw himself at his target.

What does Gopnik the master student discover? First, he decides that accomplishment is “the most sustaining feeling” we get to have: “I know how to do this, and this is the thing I know how to do.” Then, he discovers that “flow is always a function of fragments, [that] fluid sequences are made of small steps,” steps you learn through relentless practice and attention. In addition, he learns “that everything we do involves everything we do,” so that human achievement is never a composite of skills you learn in school but “signs of a unique human presence.” Which is why, finally, when we look to understand mastery or accomplishment, “what we find are masters—moms and dads, brothers and sisters, teachers and tutors, men and women who are […] able to impart something of what they know.” In quest of understanding mastery, “what we find are not life rules but real lives.”

What makes Gopnik’s account so powerful for educators is that he’s seemingly not thinking about us at all. He’s caught up in the real work, and there is reverie there:

For a moment of vision, as makers or observers, the totality of things is apparent to us. And we say, Listen to that. Look at that. That works! It’s a mystical feeling—the mystical feeling, actually—but it’s the end of a multitude of labors, some of which we may not even know we’ve started until they rise to startle us, may not know we’ve undertaken until after they’ve overtaken us.

Language like this is almost never present in discussions of education. We like arguments about education to be sturdy structures. We don’t worry too much about windows and warm fires. Unconcerned with policies and culture war debates, Gopnik feels the heat of what learning and craft look and feel like in actual life. At its best, he reports, it feels like wonder, Emerson’s awakening, a feeling of abandonment and absorption, though the accomplishment of that is made up of habits as patient and small as chess moves. Gopnik sees all the human, mundane work, the little pieces of practice that make mastery possible, but the thing itself is the vision—the resulting reverie. After all our education reading is done, the thing itself in any classroom is never the answer to a question about purpose. The thing itself is the life expanding as you learn. It is the enactment of purpose, shaped by what students give themselves to and, if mastered, yielding this “most sustaining feeling” about ourselves. Stare at the field of education head-on and you will miss this. From the side of the eye, you glimpse the real work: the best learning leads to an expanded orientation to life.

None of this work is straightforward for Gopnik. He doesn’t find a formula. Masters of whatever practice or craft have not just accumulated skillfulness:

What makes them unique, I’ve come to think, is not so much virtuosity but instead some strange idiosyncratic vibration of his or her own. What we call genius is most often inspired idiosyncrasy, and sometimes even inspired idiocy. Bob Dylan started off as a bad musician, and then spent 10,000 hours practicing. But he did not become a better musician. He became Bob Dylan.

Gopnik is rapturous talking about real mastery, but as a student in the various fields he explores, he himself muddles along. There’s a lesson in that as well. Struggling simply to draw with a pencil in a teacher’s studio (first a plaster eye, then a live human model), Gopnik lets himself be taught but makes little progress: “The bad news, I was finding out, was that life drawing was just like everything else you learned to do, a slow carpentering of fragments into the illusion of a harmonious whole.” Everything he tries to learn involves attention to the parts, the steps. You surrender yourself to patterns over and over. You keep erasing your lines and drawing them again. Gopnik’s experiments remind us that most of the work of being a student is just putting in the reverie-free hours—and so often on someone else’s terms.

There’s another mundane insight that you don’t get in books targeting education head-on. Gopnik tells us that not only is almost all experience “vicarious” (encountered in what we read and observe), but most of what we learn ourselves sits underused as well. A lifelong resident of New York City, Gopnik learns very late in life to drive. He gets his license and is pleased but untransformed: “Everybody drives, and now I can too. That’s all, and enough. Now I can drive straight across the country, without a stoplight. I don’t think I ever will. But at least I know I can.” This is a comical climax to his weeks with a driving instructor, but it’s consoling too. It’s okay that a lot of what students experience in school sits idle. Our anxiety about students learning and quickly forgetting is understandable, but it’s also evidence of our anxiety over usefulness. We think education is an instrument. We measure what it does. We fret when its utility is seemingly then lost. But we are not instruments, and most things we experience in our life are lost, or idle, not just what we learn in school. Having passed through them once or however many times still affects us, still imprints something on us, even as we’re on to the next thing we might barely register. We are not machines and algorithms, humming with efficiency. We are, in Gopnik’s grateful world, clumsy organisms learning how to draw and drive and dance.

Appreciation for what we are, for mystery, for gratuity, for contingency, for the patchwork nature of our experience, for limitation—for life—this is the real gift of The Real Work. We may only be ready to appreciate this in the later phases of our learning days, which is another good argument for keeping at it, for being a student to the end. We need to go on reckoning with our passage.

Gopnik’s best meditations here involve mastery and mortality. We master interesting things because it gives us a reservoir of meaning to draw from. Our options go on narrowing as we age, alas. The pack of runners in front of us inevitably grows. But real mastery is a kind of internal company no matter where we are:

Though our public incapacity and decline may be inescapable, our private experience of pleasure and existence may be in itself a leveling force. Our interior experience of accomplishment and mastery matter. They may even matter most of all. We lost the public race to be the best long ago; the inequities of circumstance and of the complicated thing called talent may have put us permanently in the rear. But the last runner need compete only with herself.

Gopnik goes on, measuring meaning against mortality the way we rarely teach our students to:

Our knowledge of our mortality, of our physical limits—of the number of heartbeats we’ve used and have left—infects and infests everything we do and make. And if this turns us anxious and panicky in some ways, it also makes us generous in other ways, more inclined to value the performance of mastery even when it’s flawed, to see in frailty and imperfection not only the signs of life, as in the singer’s vibrato, but the signs of the limits on life.

There is something frantic about most of the experience of school. This is truer of education at the secondary level, but it’s the experience students carry with them to college. We put benchmarks everywhere and press students not to fall behind. “Falling behind,” Roth notes in The Student, “has become the contemporary equivalent of sin.” Students’ success depends on keeping the pace. But Gopnik reminds us that, because this race to success comes to an end no matter what we do, we always, all of us, in a way, finish last. How will we help young people know about that? And if we cheer so hard for them to get to the front, how will they hear their own heartbeats measuring a long perspective?

Gopnik never mentions the skill of critical thinking in his book. As a prominent writer and, well, critic, he has every tool he needs in that respect. But his book on mastery and accomplishment points away from our powers of critique and toward our capacities to be filled and moved, both by things people create and by other people themselves. When will we let our students know that being moved and feeling connected grounds most of what people manage of meaning? When will we share with them that, as the master magician remarked, the method is never the trick? In this respect, critical thinking, which is as close, Roth reminds us, to an organizing principle as educators have, is never education’s real work.

Here is where Gopnik’s meditations about accomplishment and Roth’s patient wisdom about education converge. We need more feeling in our work with young people—less matter, more heart. “In a sense,” Gopnik writes, in a discussion of music,

this mystery stands in for all the other larger mysteries of meaning—of why the real work when we do it isn’t just entertaining or impressive, why we aren’t just “taken” by the card trick or a life drawing but moved, engaged, even often impelled by it to dance and cry and map our lives upon it. The last thing we feel about good art is cool.

Gopnik has learned to draw, to drive, to bake, and to box, but his final stint as a student involves learning to dance with his daughter. Like everything else he’s tried, this involves practicing small steps, little patterns you surrender yourself to over and over. That seems to be what mastery is made of, and the result seems to be what education, in the end, offers us: expansion and broadening, both of our vision and our capacities, by putting in the patient work. We are bigger inside because the world is bigger around us, and we are capable of doing something in it. You develop, Gopnik writes,

an expanded and extended mind and body, a significantly different self from the one you were assigned at birth. Repetition and perseverance and a comical degree of commitment—simply the commitment both to recognize the absurdity of your effort and the sincerity of its goal—are disproportionately rewarded in the real world of the real work.

But, while dancing with his daughter, Gopnik’s final insight overcomes him:

[A]pproaching sixty-five, it now seemed to me so deep that only an American would find it obvious. The self we keep inside is the needy monkey of Buddhist disdain. It becomes something more only in the rare moments when we dance in time with another self, looking at us. Meaning is the face of the Other. I see myself in my daughter’s eyes.

Gopnik concludes, “The real work is what we do for other people.” When will we tell our students about that?

We have plenty of handbooks and jeremiads about education. Roomfuls of birds are stuffed beneath glass. We need more living portraiture, quieter prophecy, more wisdom literature. We need arguments about education that sing more than they shout. We need more delighted birdwatchers, fewer cool taxidermists. We need more Roths and Gopniks. Otherwise, being a student will be a rite of passage students are glad to endure and move on from, rather than being the first stage of a lifelong journey, the launch of the real work of knowing our passage.


Todd Shy is head of upper division at Avenues The World School in New York City and the author of Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers (2021).

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Todd Shy is head of upper division at Avenues The World School in New York City and the author of Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers (2021).


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