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The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life

The Age of Wonder

Around midnight, on March 13, 1781, William Herschel, an amateur astronomer from the West Country of England, was surveying the northern sky with a custom-built reflector telescope. As the Gemini constellation slid into view he noticed a new object moving slowly across the foreground. On a lesser telescope, the object would probably be dismissed as a new comet — one of the hundreds being discovered at the time.  But the precision of Herschel’s five-inch, hand-polished reflector mirror was unmatched in England, if not the world, allowing him to note the absence of a comet’s distinctive tail.

This was something different.

If you review Herschel’s journal entries from this period you’ll notice that he’s no stranger to hard work. On most nights, during the good winter observation months, his notes begin around 7 pm and end near dawn. He repeated this laborious work, night after night, year after year, systematically mapping the northern sky. As Richard Holmes details in The Age of Wonder, his epic survey of the Romantic Era of science, Herschel enjoyed these labors. In a letter written to the Royal Astronomer, Nivel Maskelyne, for example, Herschel excuses his sometimes unrestrained excitement, saying it “may perhaps be ascribed to a certain Enthusiasm which an observer…can hardly divest himself of when he sees such Wonders before him.”

The attraction of these “Wonders” is made clear by the events that followed that long March night. Though it required another nine nights of careful observation before Herschel made his first “tentative communications” regarding the new object, and several months to receive confirmation from other astronomers,  its importance had long before become obvious. Herschel had discovered Uranus — the first new planet since the age of Ptolemy; an event, as Holmes puts it, that would “[change] not only the solar system, but [revolutionize] the way men of science thought about its stability and creation.”

The Romantic in the Classroom

Herschel was a man of the Romantic Era, a period spanning from the mid 18th century into the early decades of the 19th. The scientists of this era recast their work from an exercise in cold rationality to an aesthetic experience. They reveled in the difficult work of teasing truth out of a reclusive Nature, and experienced frequent moments of awe.

As a young scientist myself, this era is appealing for obvious reasons. More surprising, however, is its relevance to my role as writer of student advice. I claim that we can draw from the ethos of these Romantic Scholars a new approach to student life: one that can transform your education experience — high school through graduate school — from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

The Romantic Scholar Approach to Student Life

In a recent post, I outlined the dangers of seeing school as a trial to survive. When you adopt a mindset of suffering now for rewards later, I argued, you run the risk of wallowing in this suffering well beyond graduation, eventually losing sight of what originally motivated these sacrifices. The article, however, inspires an obvious follow-up question: What should we do instead?

My broad answer to this question is familiar to any long-time Study Hacks reader: adopt the Zen Valedictorian philosophy, which claims it’s possible to be impressive and earn interesting opportunities while still living an enjoyable life. The big picture ideas behind the Zen Valedictorian include doing much less, but doing these things much better. There are, however, many different lifestyles that satisfy this philosophy.

In this post, I want to introduce a new series that will outline a specific set of strategies for making the promise of the Zen Valedictorian a reality. I call these strategies the Romantic Scholar approach to student life. This approach is inspired by the Romantic Era scientists and their ability to experience the hard work of systematic science as a rewarding aesthetic experience. My goal is to transform your student life into one where you find deep satisfaction in your course work and experience frequent moments of wonder. I don’t want school to be a grinding process of pre-professional dues paying. It should instead be the core of live a well-lived right now.

Though I haven’t finalized all the details, I wanted to summarize the two big ideas behind this approach and the style of strategies they might inspire:

  • Finding Enjoyment in Difficult Work
    The ability to revel in the sometimes laborious craft of science was a hallmark of the Romantic scientist. A goal of this series is to transform the hard work of a problem set or knotty reading assignment into an fulfilling experience. This is not an easy shift, and it will require several significant lifestyle changes before it can become natural. Among other changes, you’ll have to commit to doing much less, starting work much earlier, and finding more adventurous locations — strategies designed to transform your motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.
  • Finding Awe in Learning
    The Romantic Era scientists were driven by what Herschel called “the Wonders” they saw before them. Our current culture of seeing school as a trial to survive, by contrast, has stripped learning of its ability to produce these same moments of awe. The second goal of this series is to reclaim this experience. Among other strategies, we’ll explore the idea of interleaving your assignments with similar work that is fully self-initiated, and the value of forming Philosophic Libation Societies: a revival of the age-old scholarly ritual of debating ideas over a stiff drink in a dark room.

My plan is to interleave these posts with the Rethinking Passion series I launched earlier this month. Whereas the Romantic Scholar series is aimed at student’s looking to take control of their academic lives, the Rethinking Passion series is aimed at graduates looking to take control of their occupational destiny. Of course, this split is somewhat artificial, and I hope readers of either series will find worth in the other, as both deal with the same underlying drive: what’s the reality of building a life worth living?

(Photo by Marquette University)

36 thoughts on “The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life”

  1. Hurray! I love this idea. Too many people are taking the fun out of school today. I agree with you that learning new things can be fascinating. New skills, projects, writing, reports, journals, all kinds of new things are a chance to grow and reach new heights of learning and skill.

    I think that the best sort of classes are challenging, but rewarding. I love your Romantic approach!

  2. I’ve once invented something with a friend of mine, we call it the ‘philosophy garden’. A place in a student city (here in the Netherlands we don’t have campusses and such) where students, the Romantic kind, can come together, read certain books and discuss them. A garden, where students can sit, hang out and discuss interesting, hard topics. Not a place to hang and drink beers with friends, but a place to develop the Romantic and Enthusiast student inside. A place where students can encourage each other to look further than the material you have to study for an A.

    We still hope to realize this project, as it would be a great place to be!

  3. For quite some time now, we have had your site on our blogroll, encouraging our readers to visit your site. Our target audience is high school seniors and college students. We engage them in conversations with the goal of appreciating that there are more than 2 or 3 ways to view any issue; there are at least 27.

    Hopefully, the discussions in which we engage will better prepare them to make decisions as they navigate their college years. We believe that when people recognize that there are many different ways to view an issue, they also can devise more options to address difficulties.

    It’s sort of like having more arrows in one’s quiver. Come check us out.

  4. @Stefan : The description you made about your groupe remided me of the Dead Poets Society, I don’t know why. Anyway, I think it’s a great idea to have such projects ! Wish you luck in realizing it 😉

  5. It’s so wonderful that you are writing about such things. It can be discouraging sometimes to see how students are treating their studies as torture devices, something to be avoided or gotten over with as soon as possible. It’s glorious when you sit down with a reading assignment and get caught up in the material because of how fascinating it is. Or you can’t wait to go to class or to learn, because it’s so enthralling to discover more. Learning is an art, and the subject learned is in itself an art, and the mastering of that art should be seen as enjoyable, challenging, and worthwhile. Can’t wait to hear more, Cal!

  6. 🙁 Cal, How do your readers underschedule a rigid engineering course? For most schools, each year has around 6 to 8 required intensive classes – almost all with labs. Our electives are the only ones that are like breathers.

  7. So ironic that I’m taking Astronomy right now and just learned about Herschel’s discovery. I completely botched up my freshman year of college because I did the exact things like overscheduling, overworking, and getting involved in too many extracurriculars. This year is completely the opposite and I’m hoping for a big improvement.

    Cannot wait for the series! =]

  8. I’m very much looking forward to these series. It’s easy to get bogged down in what feels like something mundane, in the hopes it’s leading to something better, and then always feeling like you’re waiting.

  9. Cal, I have a question: What strategy would you recommend students who have six exams in one week? I feel like I can’t memorize it all…

  10. Hi k,

    I understand your pain, as I was an engineering major as well. I’m currently working on a product that would help you handle the issue so that at least you have more sanity as an engineering major. Cal and Scott Young has a fair bit of tactics that would help you avoid doing stupid shit that takes up too much time though, which I would recommend you to read on my work while covering the essentials from their advices applicable to you.

    Hope it brings your spirits up,


  11. Thanks Cal. I studied philosophy and religion because I was lucky enough to have a dad who said “study what you want.” This choice has filled my life with the understanding that it is possible to find wonder in life. I work in finance now and with the help of some Zen meditation practices like staying in the moment, and your thoughts on loving what I do, I am able to do this work with joy. I am able to find wonder both at work (not as much) and outside work. A real pleasure to read this post.

  12. I think that the best sort of classes are challenging, but rewarding. I love your Romantic approach!

    I agree. Stay tuned…

    I’ve once invented something with a friend of mine, we call it the ‘philosophy garden’.

    Stefan, you should e-mail me with more details, this will be quite useful for future posts in the series.

    Cal, How do your readers underschedule a rigid engineering course? For most schools, each year has around 6 to 8 required intensive classes –

    There are obvious things you can do: spread out the courses, do very little outside of them, be very efficient. But if in the end, a certain major requires that you be overworked, change your majors. It’s a metaphor for life in general: avoid things that guarantee unhappiness.

    So ironic that I’m taking Astronomy right now and just learned about Herschel’s discovery

    Perfect timing. You were destined to read this series.

    Cal, I have a question: What strategy would you recommend students who have six exams in one week?

    Start preparing EARLY.

    I work in finance now and with the help of some Zen meditation practices like staying in the moment, and your thoughts on loving what I do, I am able to do this work with joy.

    By the way, the fact you majored in philosophy and religion and now work in finance is further evidence of the fact that people should stop stressing so much about their major choice.

  13. I’d like more information on the history and justification of Philosophic Libation Societies. At home, I was a member of a Cigar Club that focused the stimulation of fine tobacco on intellectual discussion, and now I am trying to found a chapter at my university.

  14. Agreed. I’ve been building exactly that sort of attitude towards my education, which is partly why I take 60% course load and only take courses with the best profs, meaning constant insights and awe-inspiring wonders. I’ve also been building my own Philosophic Libation Society, except we’re in for paninis. I thought to myself after failing my first year due to deep procrastination (and other things), how I wanted to come back to school and decided to take control of my education and do it on my terms–terms that were sustainable over a long period (4+ years is a long time), and didn’t make me wish that school was over as quickly as possible. I wrote a bit more about that here:

  15. It’s too bad that you do not post more frequently. You generate very good stuff.

    I am absolutely convinced that the development of “curiosity” in children goes hand and hand with your premise here, although it may not intuitively appear to do so.


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