Tutors Talk Books: Zena Hitz
June 18, 2020 | By Les Poling
In 2015, St. John’s Annapolis tutor Zena Hitz found herself reading article after article about the so-called “crisis in the humanities.” She was gravely concerned—not by the crisis, but by the proposed solutions. “I found it unbelievably discouraging because they were all very pragmatic,” she says. “‘The argument was always: ‘well, we get these skills for innovation and technology, we get these critical thinking skills, and we become compassionate, critical citizens.’”
“None of that really seemed right,” she continues. “It didn’t seem like the reason anyone I knew worked in the humanities, or loved the humanities.”
One day, in the old St. John’s faculty lounge, she told long-time tutor and former dean of the college Eva Brann that she’d never read anything about the true value of the humanities; about learning for the sake of learning. In response, Brann told her: “Look, if you can’t find the right thing to read, then you have to write it yourself.” Five years and one well-received essay later, Princeton University Press published Hitz’s first book: Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, in which the author defends learning—reading, thinking, studying, and pondering—as worthwhile in and of itself, and crucial for human happiness.
For Hitz, the unexpected genesis of the book mirrored the many twists and turns of her own “intellectual life.” She was a voracious reader and a self-proclaimed bookworm growing up, but her love for learning didn’t match her relationship with formal education—in high school, “I didn’t have the grades to get into the colleges that I thought were worthy of me,” she says, laughing. A high school counselor suggested St. John’s, which she found just as unappealing as the rest of higher education. But that didn’t stop her from heading to the Annapolis campus for a summer program run by the Telluride Association after her junior year.
“We had a St. John’s-type seminar for 15 high school students that met for six weeks in the summer,” she recalls. “We started with the Fragments of Parmenides, and read the Timaeus and Aristotle’s Physics—these impossible books that people wouldn’t even give to college students, much less high schoolers. But it just made sense to me. And as soon as I was on campus and reading this stuff and having these conversations, I knew I was home.” She decided to skip her senior year of high school; with Brann’s help, she applied to St. John’s, was awarded a financial aid package, and enrolled the following semester.
A “transformative” St. John’s experience led to a career in traditional academia: further study at Cambridge, the University of Chicago, and Princeton, plus teaching positions at McGill University, Auburn University, and UMBC. But she felt unfulfilled. After taking some time off from academia, living and working in the Madonna House Apostolate, she ended up back at St. John’s as part of a faculty that included the dean who helped her become a Johnnie in the first place.
Which leads back to Lost in Thought. Simultaneously an autobiographical journey through Hitz’s own life of learning, an inquiry into the true value of the intellectual life, and a searing indictment of an education system—and, of course, a society—that requires every element of life to have some kind of instrumental value, Lost in Thought celebrates “the impractical splendors of a life of learning.” Or, as Hitz often refers to it, “learning for its own sake.” What that means in more blunt terms is that learning does not need any justification outside itself, whether that refers to job market value or the ability to become a more compassionate person. Learning is valuable because it’s good for you; because it’s part of a happy life.
Large portions of Hitz’s book are devoted to the intellectual lives of those in prison—whether literal or figurative captivity. She meditates on the extraordinary intellectual odyssey that Malcolm X embarked on using his prison library, leading him to become one of the most prominent civil rights figures of the 20th century. She dedicates similar attention to the brilliant Lila Cerullo of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels—a character whose near-genius intellect is suppressed by misogyny and poverty, and nevertheless continues to read and write—as well as the main character of the French film The Hedgehog, a woman working as a concierge in a wealthy Paris apartment building who has a fulfilling inner life spent reading and contemplating.
Part of Hitz’s fascination with the intellectual lives of imprisoned people comes from personal experience. In the 2000s, she spent time teaching Plato’s Republic to inmates in Maryland and New Jersey. “There are some prison education programs, but they were badly cut in the ‘90s, and the ones that have come back are very pragmatic, unfortunately,” she says. Her experiences with inmate education further convinced her of the importance of reading, writing, and leisured reflection. “The prisoners were more eager to learn than my undergraduate students at that time were!” says Hitz. Similarly, the captive figures examined in her book offer staunch proof that the value of an intellectual life is inherent; neither Malcolm X nor Lila Cerullo spent their spare moments reading for any reason other than the intrinsic fulfilment of intellectual engagement.
Of course, you can expect any argument regarding the fundamental value of the humanities to meet pushback, especially as it pertains to higher education. After all, student debt is soaring, the cost of college is skyrocketing, and we are, once again, in the midst of an economic crisis. Many students literally can’t afford to invest in something that doesn’t hold value—whatever that means—to employers or graduate schools. But Hitz’s book isn’t suggesting that the humanities don’t have any instrumental value. “An education like this helps you navigate the work world; if you can fearlessly read and learn anything, then you’re a very valuable employee,” she notes. The book simply seeks to demonstrate that instrumental or pragmatic value shouldn’t be the sole purpose of learning; that if it is the only reason for education, the true power of learning has been lost.
Judging from critical reception—the book has been praised in the Wall Street Journal, Literary Review, and more (a complete list of reviews can be found on Hitz’s website)—it’s an idea that’s much more widespread than you might initially think. “At first I felt like I was saying something that no one was allowed to say, something that you weren’t supposed to say,” Hitz recalls. “What I found out, and what I continue to find out, is how many people out there think like this. There’s a ton of people who really care about learning for its own sake.”
Unfortunately, Hitz hasn’t been able to enjoy her own intellectual life in recent times. What with frantically transitioning to online learning, helping students with their annual essays, hopping onto virtual interviews about her book, and mainlining news coverage of COVID-19, there’s been little time to dive into a leisured exploration of a great text. Nevertheless, she’s looking forward to that day—and thankful to be part of an institution that encourages the pursuit of learning. “There’s a lot that I’m drawing on in the book from my time at St. John’s,” Hitz says, referencing conversations with fellow tutors, students, and community members that, in some way, shape, or form, ended up in Lost in Thought. “I’m grateful to have a community where learning for its own sake is so fundamental.”