Colleges and the Professions, part 2

Note: I’m testing out a hypothesis here, so I’ll say things much more certainly than I actually believe them.

Aristotle says: metaphysics is useless for practical purposes. Get over it. It is, however, beautiful, divine, and most worth studying of all the arts and sciences; perhaps not all the time, but at least at times. The contemplative sciences, he says, tend to be like this: they tend toward happiness but not use. That’s cool, but Aristotle had slaves to work for him. I don’t have slaves; should I therefore work harder to justify doing “useless” but excellent activities, such as the liberal arts?

I tried, in part 1, to suggest some of the difficulties and possible solutions to the tension inherent in education; especially a liberal arts education. At the end of that post, however, I realized that there is a methodological problem with how I was proceeding; one I don’t think I can “solve.” There’s this: I look around and I see the benefits I have received from a fairly low-key, low pressure liberal arts education. They’re unpredictable, uncertain, and difficult to quantify benefits; ones that could mostly be expressed as: I’ve been allowed to spend most of my time learning how to be a thoughtful human being. Something, but not exactly, like that. It’s like when Chesterton tries to describe how a man might respond to being seriously asked why he prefers civilization to savagery: why, there’s books, and tea, and chairs, and carriages, and running water! But that, of course, isn’t a complete answer any more than most Christians, once they have become thoroughly convinced in the truth of Christianity, can do an adequate job of explaining why; everything seems to confirm it, right down to fairy tales and lunatic asylums.

People who have benefited from a decent education, who are the only people whose opinions count on the question of how to educate others, suffer a similar dilemma, only I don’t think we always realize it. Why is it good to have a liberal arts education? Why, there’s Tolstoy, and Newton, and Dante, and Mozart! Like I said, we don’t usually say that because, at least in my case, we suffer a bit from guilt and a sneaking sense of injustice. Why on earth should I have been permitted to spend four years reading cool books, making pots, and being snarky? We’re Americans: we don’t believe in useless, frilly, beautiful sorts of things. Why should one expect a culture that doesn’t believe in vestments and incense and whatnot because “it’s not necessary for salvation” to believe in all the other useless, lovely human adornments. Of course nice vestments aren’t necessary for salvation; of course Homer isn’t necessary for work. All the same, once humans cease from living in abject poverty, we tend to like such things.

American protestantism comes out of a tradition of religious asceticism which distrusts adornments. It also takes somewhat seriously the assertion that it is unjust for me to have a lot of something necessary and for my neighbor to have nothing. Thus, education cannot be primarily an adornment (in the sense of something that is beautiful and loved for that beauty), and whatever it is ought to be available to everyone, or at least as many people as have the capacity to understand it. Aristotle, being a pagan aristocrat, had neither of these difficulties to confront.

Even as we culturally distrust the value of beauty, we certainly do trust the value of knowledge, but we trust it in an American kind of way. The liberal arts are not valuable simply because they’re beautiful, but because through them we acquire “skills.” Critical thinking skills, communication skills, social skills, logical processing skills, orderly thought processing skills, or whatever. Then, we try to foist those skills upon as many people as possible, but not beautifully. Upon finding that these skills are not a natural object of human thought, we invent “methods” by which to convey these “skills.” Then, because we implicitly trust the value of knowledge, even once it has been chopped up into skills and dispensed via methods, we suppose that this knowledge ought to be “useful,” preferably for work one is paid to do. If it isn’t, we must have picked the wrong skills.

Umm. Right. Americans are an ingenious lot, but sometimes we’re also very dense. To say that: “The key psychological change that is needed … is to move away from ‘the old model, where you go to college and then go out and find a job’ to one in which the college years are explicitly ‘preparing for an occupation,'” is to see one thing where there are, in truth, two. There are, in the mind of a young person, both questions of: what kind of work shall I do? And also questions of: what is justice? Is virtue important? Can it be known and achieved? How does nature operate? What kind of thing is it? How ought a human live? Is there a God? Of what kind? What are my obligations to society? What is beauty? Is it enough for something to be beautiful? Is our society good and just? How might it be better? How might I contribute to that? What sort of thing is Joy? How is it properly sought? And so on and so forth. Different people have different questions, of course, but one would have to be very dull indeed to ask nothing of this sort. Job training will speak to these questions not at all. Sadly, most “liberal arts” classes end up not speaking to these questions either. All the same, there they are.

Enter a problem. It’s sort of the War and Peace problem. First, it is perhaps impossible to know what it is for a person to be who he or she is. Then, it is perhaps impossible to know what it would be for someone to have had or not to have had an experience — we make choices, but we never know what those choices are in fact choosing, because they’re choosing to become people different than we now are in ways we cannot accurately imagine. I might find this mildly terrifying if I didn’t believe in divine providence. It’s the problem of: what would it have been for my father to have had a better job, but not to have met Dr Wood in college? There’s no way to know, or even to imagine with any hope of accuracy. What would it have been for me to have gotten a better job, but not to have gone out to Alaska or here to Santa Fe? It would have been something: perhaps just as good of a something, but something entirely unknown and unknowable to me. I say that it reminds me of War and Peace, because it shows so much better than most things some of the different ways in which people’s lives work themselves out through uncertainty and suffering — that often we become much better and fuller people that way. It’s not a novelistic device though; Russians and saints and many others agree on it. So I would say: perhaps it might have been something not so good, or something involving even more difficulty.

I’m also reminded of War and Peace because of the other difficulty: that societies must work themselves out on a grand historical scale with wars and ideologies and highly complicated economies, while individual people are much more involved with our own existence, which is much more important and interesting and meaningful to us. Because of that, without any more pressing necessity than we now experience I see no reason to expect that students wouldn’t enter college with an intention to receive training in a given profession, and then continue to switch every few months for several years, just as liberal arts majors do already. Supposing that to be the case, they would have wasted even more time and energy, because they couldn’t even be working on the gen. ed. requirements in the meantime. I don’t see any reason to expect that a significant number of such students might be even more confused and irritated, because career training, for all its good points, tends to say nothing at all to those philosophical questions, while quite often literature, philosophy, art, and so on do.

Thus, the problem remains a problem any way I look at it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I have nothing to say. I would venture a few remarks. I would insist that beauty is important in its own right, and those things which are perceived as beautiful have far greater and different power than all the “skills” or “applications” that might be extracted from them. I would also suggest that someone should make a point of letting liberal arts people know what they’re in for and what some options are for dealing with it. For the most part that doesn’t seem to be a problem: there don’t seem to be many students around here, for instance, who don’t know that they’ll either have to chart an uneasy course through the world of work or get some other degrees in more immediately useful subjects. But I suppose colleges, especially this one, could be more assertive about saying: maybe you don’t want to work at a grocery store for the next five years while you figure out what you want your “real job” to be. Maybe they don’t even much want you, because all the habits that have helped you do well in discussing books aren’t habits of much work in, say, manual labor. By all means, give it a try; but here are some areas that are useful, productive, and use more of the same aptitudes as here; and here are some ways you could be qualified to do that kind of work. That could, I imagine, be helpful.


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