The declining value of liberal learning

In 1784, Benjamin Franklin quoted the chief of the Six Nations who apparently had much to say about the value of education.

The chief wrote, “You who are wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things and you will not therefore take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours.”

In one way or another, people, other than the chief of the Six Nations, are insisting on the relative worthlessness of liberal learning.

And it is true that all intelligent people do not necessarily succeed in the school system.

American author F. Scott Fitzgerald was thrown out of Princeton, poet Ezra Pound could not keep a teaching position, writer T.S. Eliot preferred to keep his job as a bank clerk rather than pursue a PhD.

Charles Darwin was self-taught and lived in abject poverty, Ben Johnson was a bricklayer and Alexander Pope’s faith and physical deformity barred him from an Oxford University education.

Yes, many might agree with Albert Einstein who said, “Education is what is left after you have forgotten everything you learned in school.”

Students today argue that they come to university to gain admission to a graduate or professional school or for vocational preparation.

Countless students have asked me about the utility of a course in religion, fine arts, history of music and philosophy.

If the only goal is vocational, then indeed such courses may well be outside of one’s educational objective.

But liberal learning can be practical.

Education must be more than merely a practical goal because life is clearly more than what one practices.

If our hope is to identify the central questions of life and know how to respond thoughtfully to the many challenges such questions present; if we hope to identify the best in literature, the arts and music, if we hope to become active members of the human family with perspectives that come from a knowledge of the struggles of those who precede us; if we want to avoid the insensitivity which allows us to treat others as objects then we must become friends with Socrates, Michelangelo, Newton, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Beethoven, the Brontës, Einstein and Hannah Arendt.

They can never give us instant recipes for the “good life” but an intimate association with the great minds and spirits of our past ages can free our spirits to search for new ideas that point to greater and greater possibilities.

Jacob Bronowski once wrote, “It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers.

“That is tragically false. Consider the concentration camp and crematoria at Auschwitz where people were turned into numbers. Into its ponds were flushed the ashes of people. But that was not done by gas, it was done by arrogance, dogma and ignorance.

“When people believe they have absolute knowledge that is how they behave. We
have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.

We have to touch people.

Liberal learning has as one of its obligations to touch people, to diminish the arrogance, the ignorance and the seductive lure of dogma.

In touching people we move toward a surer apprehension of the human condition and struggle with the complexities of the human psyche and more readily accept the ambiguities in recorded history.

So such an education is a preparation for something more difficult and more noble than we have yet experienced – what happens after we have faced necessity – and this takes place before work in the morning and after work each afternoon.