The Necessity of Gratuitous Education

As we look over the plethora of options for education available to us, how we to decide what education is best? There is “on the job training,” vocational schools, technical schools, nursing schools, and the list goes on and on. Among this array of choices is “liberal arts education.” Looking over a truly liberal arts education, we might be struck to see the lack of similarity among the classes. We find classes in literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, speech, possibly theology, and the sciences. What exactly is the point of all this? Why would anyone pursue this kind of education? A liberal arts education will not train us to be bricklayers, it will not make us into doctors or lawyers, and it will not enable us to buy a home. It seems entirely gratuitous—something a rich person might indulge in until forced (if ever) to get a “real job.”

First, what exactly is meant by a “liberal arts education”? Many programs today which call themselves “liberal arts” would be unrecognizable as such fifty or more years ago. Today, many “liberal arts” programs have been reduced to “general studies” which contain little to no common core and an abundance of elective choices. Instead, a liberal arts education is one which has no electives whatsoever, for to allow the student to choose his own course of study is to turn over the process of education to the one who is in the least position to know what needs to be known: the student. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “it is the student who is the master under the elective system … the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity.” In a liberal arts education, all students receive the same education because the end of liberal arts education is the cultivation of the human mind, not the training for a productive career. Since all are human, all require the same education.

250px-Grigorii_chudotvoretzIt is the end of liberal arts education itself which is the greatest argument for its pursuit. We should pursue the liberal arts because we are human. No one can choose not to be a human being, one can only choose whether or not to be a good one. To become fully what we are means the cultivation of the mind. James V. Schall states that within each of us is a “longing to know … [this is] the very heart of what we are as rational beings.” Most importantly, and yet often least known, is the need and desire to know “ourselves”—who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Liberal arts education aims to reveal the student to themselves. Gregory Thaumaturgus claims that this was one of the highest things that Origen taught his students: “teaching us to be at home with ourselves, and to desire and endeavor to know ourselves, which indeed is the most excellent achievement of philosophy, the thing that is ascribed also to the most prophetic of spirits as the highest argument of wisdom—the precept, Know thyself.” This indeed is the beginning of knowledge. For without knowledge of ourselves, no amount of our struggling will bring us closer to what we truly need.

So no, the liberal arts will not help you get a bigger boat, a better job, or a beautiful spouse. It will, however, teach you why none of those things, in themselves, will make you happy. Instead, the liberal arts will enable you (no matter what possessions you have, no matter what career you choose, no matter whether you are married or single) to be more human, more of what you were intended to be, and consequently, happier.

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Adler, Mortimer Jerome. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind. Edited by Geraldine Van Doren. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Schall, James V. On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001.

Gregory Thaumaturgus. “Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen.” In The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble, 179-80. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.

 

In Over My Head?

I’m taking a course next semester: “Mathematical and Scientific Reasoning.” After looking over the reading list, for the first time in a long time, I fear I might be in over my head:

Plato, Meno
Euclid, The Elements
Archimedes, On the Equilibrium of Planes
Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic
Sir Thomas L. Heath, Greek Astronomy
Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy
Galileo, Two New Sciences
Bacon, Novum Organum and The Sphinx
Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
Huygens, Treatise on Light
Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry
Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again

It will be a challenging few months – to say the least! My plan is to invent a new form of calculus, that ought to be enough to pass the class!

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Why I Hate Christmas

[N.B. This is a re-post from last year, but I thought it worth sharing again]

OK, I don’t really hate Christmas.  But there is a part of it that I despise.  I remember once being at a Christmas party where several people exchanged gifts – all the gifts, it turns out, were gift cards.  These folks basically just swapped cash, an empty gesture if the balances are equal, and the only one who really benefits is the merchant.  I thought, “Couldn’t we just skip the gift-giving and celebrate the birth of Christ? Why these meaningless exchanges of goods?” Surely whatever money we spend on gifts could be put to better use.

Now, there are times in which gift-giving is a joyous experience.  Take the following commercial for example:

I’ve often come across something that “would be just perfect for so-and-so.”  And I knew it would bring them great happiness to receive it.  And sometimes I’ve even received such gifts.  But those are few and far between.

C.S. Lewis in his essay, “What Christmas Means To Me,” identifies four reasons that this whole burden of gift-giving should be condemned:

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it…in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out–physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making…They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

One needs only hear the annual horror stories of “Black Friday” sales to know this is true.

Black-Friday-2012-Filled-With-Violent-Outbursts-as-Americans-Mindlessly-Participate-in-Consumerism

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own.  It is almost a blackmail…

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3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself–gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

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4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade…But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity.  For nothing?  Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

So, will I abstain from buying gifts for mom, dad, and grandma?  Probably not, but if we are casual aquantences and you get me a gift, don’t expect one in return – I’m drawing a line in the sand.  Here, and no further!

Merry Christmas!

Pity the Beautiful

Pity the Beautiful
BY DANA GIOIA

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

Technological Impoverishment the Key to Education?

From Sean Fitzpatrick’s A School Without Success

Students should live a life of “technological poverty,” where the use of electronic media is prohibited. This policy should not be enforced out of paranoia, ignorance, or a will to oppress, but to create an atmosphere conducive to education—to the experience of joy and contemplation. This restriction is radical, but radical action is called for. Modern technology and the habits surrounding it distance people from creation. The influence of television, video games, and popular music distort human vision by deforming the imagination, inclining more to bizarre fantasy than to reality.