I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of education recently not in small part because I work with teens investigating college, and because this summer at NELLS Matt Amory (Hi Matt!) talked about enjoying being a librarian because he could support “independent intellectual inquiry.” I think that is such a lovely phrase and an important goal of the library. But today I’ve been thinking about it because it came up during conversation last night. Last night, while watching football, I was discussing someone I had recently met who had not finished college. I was saying that initially without thinking, this was upsetting to me. I was afraid at first that he didn’t value education and a college education specifically, but then learned that he just didn’t finish because of various circumstances and intends to go back. He values reading and music and learning new things, so I relaxed. I was wondering why this bothered me momentarily because at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the degree but about the attitude with which someone approaches education.
Education has been vital to me. I come from a family where it was certainly expected that we get good grades in high school so we could go on to get good grades at a good college. My “job” during the school year in high school was to study so I could earn scholarships. I realize that this is a very privileged background: to have parents who not only valued education but who both had Master’s degrees, that through the efforts of family we could afford to go to private colleges away from home, that I was allowed to study whatever I wanted even if it was not very practical like English and music. Before I go on talking about college and education, I want to make it clear that I know all of this and I am grateful. I acknowledge that this can be rare and that not everyone will have this experience. I am understanding and I don’t think that an expensive private college like mine is for everyone. There are lots of other more inexpensive options for people.
But college and education is important. I honestly believe that grappling with the classic works of literature, the weight of history, the ineffability of the arts, the theories of science and philosophy are good for the soul. They make you a better person. And it’s better not a competitive way, not in a “I’m better because I went to college than that person who didn’t” way, but in a “I’m better as a person, individually, not in relation to anyone else” because I have this educational experience. The point is to have an education where you are stretched away from your assumptions, taught to think critically, to question, to reason, and ultimately, to care. Education creates empathy because it makes you learn about that which is different and makes you understand the causes and effects of issues. How can you not care after spending time inhabiting a new and different world for a few months?
College is an easy way to learn the discipline of independent intellectual inquiry: you pay often a great deal of money to be there, there are social pressures of parents, professors, friends, and others to get good grades, and yes, many jobs do require a college degree. But that still doesn’t mean that I think education is an means to an end. It should never be. Education is the end in and of itself. It’s good for the soul. One text I read in college that has greatly informed my view of education was John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. He was writing during the Industrial Revolution to combat the prevailing opinion that liberal arts education was becoming less important because people needed to learn the vocational skills required to work in the factories and other middle classes trades that were developing at the time. (Or at least that’s what I remember….) He argued that education, specifically that of the liberal arts, is important because those arts matter. They are worthwhile even if you do become a tradesman or work in a factory because they teach us how to be wise and opinionated and more self aware. Here’s one quick quote, I added the “human” bits because I’m a lady and I want be to educated, too: “Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman [or human]. It is well to be a gentlemen [or human], it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.” John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, Discourse V, part 9.
So while everyday I don’t necessarily use everything I learned in college and in some ways, I’m not even in the same field. I’m not a professor, poet, musician, novelist or all the other wars that I thought I could use my literature and music degrees. But I do use them and I don’t regret studying them. Sure, every day I’m not thinking about the precision touch that Hadyn requires or the nature of Chopin’s rubato but I will cry every time I hear Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. My piano teacher performed this with our orchestra at the end of my senior year a few days before graduation and every time I listen I remember all of the amazing and challenging times we had together. She taught me how to practice, how to love art, and how you can fall down, mess up, and still be full of the joy of music. I’m not always reading critical theory about the classical canon of literature but I do use my experience and education in literature to evaluate YA and other books. These books and experiences follow me around even when I think I’m not thinking about them. When looking at the ocean (or obviously at the New Bedford Whaling Museum – which is amazing) I can’t not think of Ahab’s megalomania and obsession, and the amazing and ridiculous article I read in college entitled, “Meville’s Ichthyphallic God.”
(Side note: This is my annotation of that article, “Meville’s Ichthypallic God,” from my senior year in college when I read Moby Dick: The authors suggest that Melville is a modern day Cynic who desires to obscenely mock social conventions and people groups. The specific group on which Melville chooses to comment is Christian readers; even God himself does not escape his critical eye. Through a series of off-color phallic jokes and puns in the novel, Melville rails against the Calvinistic God whom he sees as demanding submission. More specifically, Moby Dick the whale himself is shown as the phallic extension of God and Ahab hopes to enact his revenge upon God by killing Moby Dick, and thus castrating God. Tell me you don’t want to read Moby Dick now!)
It’s been immensely valuable to me to have these experiences and they make me the person who I am today: someone who loves the arts, the well-written word, a great story, the breadth of human experience. And throughout library school – which is another valuable learning experience, though in a slightly more vocational way – and after, I’ve cultivated a passion for still learning. I’ve discovered I like Plato and sometimes Nietzsche, learned new music (Mussorgsky! awesome!), published a few poems, developed a deep abiding love for John Singer Sargent’s art, and more. College has taught me how to have a passion for independent intellectual inquiry. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it has been good for me in that way. Whatever it takes for you to cultivate a love of education in and outside of a classroom, do that. Do it often enough until it’s a habit to pick up a book, listen to a real piece of music, and engage with art. Do it until it becomes part of your personhood.
This idea of independent intellectual inquiry can seem a bit nebulous, a bit something-different-to-every-person, but that’s okay, it’s Truth. (Yup, I went with a capital T, deal with it.) You have to find it, even when it’s hard. To leave you with more Moby Dick, take this with you as you go: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”