Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Purpose of Education

A month or so back there was an article in The Boston Globe about how Harvard University is encouraging its students to concentrate more on the classics — Homer and Plato and Cicero and all those guys — in a “learning for learning’s sake” approach, as opposed to zeroing in on such majors as economics or government for the more career-oriented. Somehow, someway, an education steeped in classics as arcane as, say, Sanskrit and Indian Studies, may in the end promote success in completely unrelated careers through, I assume, the all-important “formation of the individual.” Said Harvard President Drew Faust of the value of a liberal arts education, “That kind of critical thinking and questioning is something we should encourage and instill more fully than we do.”

This is all noble and very nice, but only for people who have the means to learn Latin or Greek or Sanskrit and indulge themselves in a brilliant education before finally enrolling in something more mundane and marketable. I truly believe my life would have benefited from such scholarly pursuits, and my understanding of the world would certainly have been enhanced for it, but money can be a big decision-maker. For most, it comes down to a question of, should it be “Food and Diet in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” or maybe something that can more directly help earn that MBA? Student loans won’t pay themselves, after all. Anyone who’s read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure knows there can be a downside to learning for learning’s sake. And think of all those philosophy and latin and greek majors selling real estate right now. Maybe they can dispute whether a person can actually “own” something or not, or question if the house really exists, or determine the derivation of every word in a purchase and sale agreement, but beyond that their education has little application to their livelihood.

So what am I saying? Hell, I don’t know. Deep down I agree with President Faust. Maybe it’s this: the purpose of a liberal arts education may either be to (a) give us the tools to continue our own general education independently or (b) teach us how to figure out a restaurant tip. Assuming it’s (a), you understand what I mean. It’s sort of the old “teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for life” kind of thing. For instance, the scanty liberal arts education I received in college way back in the Iron Age whetted my appetite for literature and for that I am eternally grateful. Reading Crime and Punishment opened my eyes. A 19th century English literature course sparked a lifelong devotion to such luminaries as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, et al. This desire to read has, among its many benefits, increased my vocabulary and generally helped my ability to comprehend and focus. Very often, something I read in one place makes me want to read something else in another place, and so on. Unwittingly, I become broadened in the process.

Among the many books I’ve read over the years is that great philosophical tome, My Turn at Bat, written by the venerable Ted Williams. In it, Teddy Ballgame lamented how he wasted his high school years because it wasn’t until later in life that his mind grew curious. Well, count that as the only other thing I have in common with the Splendid Splinter (the first being that I’m a splinter myself). When I think back on what I could have done in high school with the resources that were available to me, and then when I think back on what I did do in high school, I weep copious tears of regret . . . for what I did, my friends, was not much. Not much at all. I think I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to make up for that sad fact.

In summation, let me conclude with those searing words that adorn the base of Emil Faber’s statue, the educator who founded the great bastion of learning so reverently depicted in Animal House: “Knowledge is Good.”

9 Comments:

Blogger LL said...

I, on the other hand, have been cursed with curiosity from my time as a mere lad.

Curiously enough... Harvard still charges tuition for the broadening of the student's horizons. If the president was indeed serious, he'd change the policy of Harvard and offer those classes free of charge to the students there. Then you would see just who was there to learn for learning sake...

10:18 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

Schprockie, ol' boy, do not shed one more regretful tear over your misspent yoot.

Had you been of a mind to partake of those resources, you would have. But you weren't of a mind, and had you attempted to partake, you would have grown bored quickly and abandoned it. When you became aware, when you became curious, you had already evolved into quite a different person than you were when you were in high school. You became curious when you became curious. You couldn't have started it any sooner, nor could you have stopped it when it started.

Now quit yer blubberin' and put your nose back in that book!

7:21 PM  
Blogger Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Dunno, Schprockie, you're a pretty widely read man. I know people with graduate degrees that haven't got your breadth of knowledge.

And as far as school goes, like Dylan says, "I only useta get juiced in it." Most of what I learned was in Independent Study, and that's, like, independent. You don't need to go to school for that.

I did study Latin and Greek, though. In fact, it's all Greek to me.

8:48 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I did me a little book learnin' in school. Some of it has even been useful in my current life. That said, if I had done what I wanted to do, I'd have majored in culinary arts and minored in foreign language. I could have been traveling the world right now, bringing cookies to poor folks. That darn tuition threw up a roadblock. Instead, I have an associates in Bus Admin and am working on a paralegal. How far we get away from our intentions in 10+ years!

11:43 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

YOU know, going through a divorce kills reading. Working does too. I miss my classics. Now I read so little and find myself not able to leave me (or my problems) behind. School didn't lead me to the classics. It kind of drove me around for them. I had to want them. Then I loved them.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I feel the sentiment of the commenters, but I can feel your pain on this one. What Farrago says is probably true--it certainly is in my case. There's no way I would have done anything more with my education, which is to say anything more than barely getting by. But it is a damn shame.

In high school I was accidentally put into the honors English program. The teacher took me aside on the first day and informed me of the mistake, and asked me to change classes. He didn't want me dragging the other kids down. He didn't say that, but it was a legitimate concern on his part, and I was a disruptive influence, being a kid who really didn't value education in the slightest in a class of kids who studied and got excellent grades. But when I told me dad, he told me not to budge, so stay I did.

That year we read MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet. I think I've told you about this before, but if it weren't for this scheduling accident, I would probably still think Shakespeare was some overhyped blow-hole.

My dad always wanted me to be educated and to take a better path than he did, but he wanted this without giving me any direction or stable home life. I might not have valued education, but like you I certainly do now. I can see from Jackson how easy it would be for him to slip into the same school malaise, but I maintain a consistent message: education isn't just important; it's everything. It separates the Wall Street execs from the vagabonds with tin cups and cardboard signs.

So I have the same regrets that you express. My reaction is to make damn sure my kids don't make the same mistake.

5:42 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with LL.

The world will end in 3, 2, 1...

But learning for learnings sake should be free, to anyone who shows up and does the work. Hell, maybe liberal arts should be mandatory before one can move on to get any degree. (You know, if the liberal arts was free... somehow.)

11:56 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Don't tell me you've just been studying and reading the classics since May? Cuz that's not a good enough excuse for not posting more often than me!

11:24 AM  
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1:15 AM  

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