An Evening With George Saunders
Yesterday, Northwestern University’s Contemporary Thought Speaker Series brought best-selling author George Saunders to campus to close out its three-speaker series on the value of a university education in the 21st century.
The Contemporary Thought Speaker Series—known by a very select few as the “intellectual equivalent of Dillo Day,” and by slightly more as “Nerdfest 2K13”—managed to bring out Northwestern’s cardigan-clad intelligentsia from the darkest depths of Unicorn Café to hear the rising literary rock star speak his mind on the moral responsibilities of an educated student. A full Harris Hall gazed intently at two spindly chairs positioned uncomfortably close together on the Harris Hall stage for the writer to bestow his intellectual heft upon us all.
George Saunders looks like Chuck Klosterman if his fellow GQ writer had an M.F.A. and a professorship, and talks in a similar Midwest-style that’s replete with sincerity, humor, and a fly suit-tie-jeans combo. Saunders contradicts the dominant conception that successful writers must have an ego from here to Brooklyn in order to have the conviction that their work is something that others want to read. He immediately appears as a hard-working, earnest guy who straight-up believed in the things he said, a man who meticulously honed his craft and could transition seamlessly from moral discourse to discussing the perils of viral infections contracted while swimming in a river of monkey shit in Sumatra.
If only the same could be said for the moderator of the evening, Professor Nathan Hedman, who spent most of his time bathing in his self-satisfaction derived from the liberal arts at the expense of engineers and asking questions more meandering than Saunders’ career from a knuckle puller in a slaughterhouse to a MacArthur Genius fellow. When you’re tasked with moderating a speaker series, it’s generally best to let the genius do most of the talking.
The Chicago Bulls tipped off in Miami against the Heat just as Saunders got down to the role of higher education in contemporary times.
For Saunders, a geophysics major from the Colorado School of Mines, a university education is about trying to become better people, kinder people, to enlarge one’s heart and learn how to abide with the reality of life. Education in this sense becomes a quasi-spiritualized process of self-enlargement, in which the student gets the confines of his or her perspective blown apart by a diverse and rigorous education, countering the kind of intellectual parochialism that leads people to listen to Foghat or only watch Fox news.
Saunders uses the phrase “Hemingway boner” to describe how his stylistic emulation of his favorite author limited his natural charm as a writer. An especially dangerous affliction among men aged 17 to 55, if a Hemingway Boner lasts for more than 5 years please contact your doctor for immediate assistance.
The Bulls were up 19-13 as Saunders discussed the moral implications of higher education’s task of filling a student with a diverse array of thought and knowledge. Saunders’ conception of the role of a university harkens to an Edwardian era form of education, holding that a university can alter our behavior for the better by teaching non-conceptual modes of thought—the kind of knowledge that is attainable but not conceptually articulable—like hitting a tennis ball or learning how to get that one guy from ski trip to buy you a drink at the Deuce. In other words, there are some ineffable skills that can be taught through the process of iteration, repetition, and microadjustment, the same exact process that’s so necessary to picking up Comm majors.
I think Saunders is absolutely correct that the fundamental feature of the university is to provide space for our native charm to unfold. We can only become virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate citizens by exercising the mind and filling it with a diverse and useful ornamentation of thought. In the end, one of the greatest gifts a liberal arts education is the opportunity to learn how to become a more expansive person, a more courageous person, a kinder person who can navigate the world.
That said, this university in question also helped foster the native charm of Sherman Ave to unfold, if by “native charm” you mean “abject heinousness.”
It’s 37-37 at the half, and I think Saunders is the literary equivalent of the Bulls. He’s charismatic, hilarious, brilliant, gritty, methodical, devoted, and critically praised. Also, Saunders sat a lot while people vehemently watched him, performing a pretty killer Derrick Rose imitation.
The Bulls ended up beating the Heat 93-86, a feat almost as fortuitous as getting to see Saunders during his rise from anonymity to both critical and popular literary fame. Between the Bulls’ victory, listening to one of the greatest writers alive in person, and drinking at the University’s expense during the post-talk dinner (albeit at the kids’ table surrounded by creative writing majors discussing the foibles of Faulkner), the day was a success. Intellectual discipline and free-flowing discourse are essential to the value of this university, aided mostly last night by the presence of wine and George Saunders.
 My parents would be quick to inform me that the current value of a Northwestern education is just a Morty whisker away from $60,000/academic year.
 To Professor Hedman’s credit, he did point out that Colorado School of Mines is the worst place in the United States in terms of hookup culture, narrowly edging out Slivka in the upset of the century.