Why “How Universities Work” and other essays

Someone wrote to say: “I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write your article on how universities work. As someone who didn’t have the advantage of a college experience it was really eye opening. Universities have always been sort of a black box to me” (link added). Which made me think about why I wrote it and several related essays; the obvious, topmost reason is because I know I have an essay to write when I explain the same concept or constellation or concepts several times to different people asking similar questions. When that happens—and it often does with students—I know that I should save myself some effort and write a complete answer I can point others to. Plus, if more than a couple students are curious about the same basic issues, I also know other people will be interested too. But there are also deeper reasons.

The further I go, the more I realize how much of official education is actually cultural and bound by all kinds of finicky little pieces of knowledge that no one or almost no one takes the time to really explain; people are simply left to figure them out on their own, or fail to figure them out and suffer for it. This preference may further explain why I like many of Paul Graham’s essays so much: they illuminate the stuff that a lot of knowledgeable people eventually intuit but then don’t bother to try making explicit to others. So at times I work in the Grahamian style, trying to make explicit what I’ve figured out, or what I think I’ve figured out.

I think my impetus in writing essays and novels is actually quite similar: I write the things I wish someone else had written, so that I could read them. Alas, no one else has, so I’m left to do it myself.

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