Why do we need schooling? Especially, why do we need a liberal arts education?

It’s easy to see why a plumber needs to learn about plumbing, or an electrician about wiring.  A chef really should learn ingredients, sauces, knife work.  An auto mechanic had better understand transmissions and radiators.

But why does anyone need to know English literature, or American history, or elementary physics, or French?

What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?  Aristotle wrote about the study of rhetoric as being similar to the study of the martial arts (he meant boxing and wrestling, not jiu-jitsu and kung fu).  A person needs to be able to defend himself.  Even if you’re not going to argue publicly in a political or legal arena, you need to know the techniques that might be used there–so you can defend if you’re attacked, so you can judge the competition of others.

An educated person might need to know enough chemistry to understand product safety and how ingredients interact, or enough history to see when political are new and what their roots are.  For self-defense, if nothing else, a broad education with a basic grounding in most academic disciplines might be necessary.

And some people make the argument that we live in a democracy–so we, all of us, need to be able to make the decisions and set the policies that govern all of us.  And to do that, we need to be educated citizens–with a broad enough knowledge to evaluate those policies.

I would also argue (particularly when it comes to the study of art and literature–I am, after all, an English teacher) that studying literature lets us think about unanswered questions–and unanswerable questions.  It gives us the opportunity to think deeply and widely and to engage with complexity.  To see alternate points of view.  To “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I was at a symposium last week, and almost all the conversation was about what college can do to make people better employees.  “How,” businesspeople were asked, “can we our students better-prepared to help your companies?”

But are you looking for something more, from education? Is it about self-defense, or being ready to govern, or being ready for a job, or more than any of those?

Allow me to romantic for a moment–I think that education is about being the hero of your own life–it’s about finding the questions…and I mean the quests…that will define you and your world.  And education, to me, means something that can go on forever–even after schooling ends, even near the end of your life, you can be, if you undertake a wide-ranging education, like Tennyson’s Ulysses.  Sitting old, and ready to retire, you can still be the heroic king, ready to set off to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield!


Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, my own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.