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.”