In Defense of “Aimless” Learning
(This is an installment of CommonSensical.)
Envisioning and designing the University of Virginia in his later years, Thomas Jefferson imagined a haven of higher learning where students could come and go at will, seeking whatever knowledge they pleased and laboring under no expectation to earn a degree. In fact, degrees would not even be offered. It was to be a Utopian bastion of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Back in my days of institutional higher learning I was a student in the Jeffersonian mode (though I didn’t even know it). I hungered for knowledge but never really cared about obtaining a degree. Not a few of my elder relations and teachers chafed at this academic lassitude of mine, and amid our culture’s attitudes about university attendance I felt myself being branded an underachiever and pushed out of the system. Only the career-minded need apply. I never did acquire the coveted, gold-embossed, frameable, cardstock certificate.
Ultimately, despite the social pressure to either a) proceed lock-step along the academic path or b) admit myself a wash-up in the gutters of higher learning, my reasons for resigning my university career and not seeking a degree were my own. Maybe I was a young kook, but I came to believe that knowledge and culture could be found all around me at relatively little or no monetary cost (primarily through libraries, conversation, and travel), whereas a full and formal college education was sure to set me on a lifelong path of debt. I figured my self-expansion and edification could happen more economically and more effectively on my own terms and by my own methods of inquiry. I sought the most liberal of liberal arts education.
Maybe I’m still a kook, because now, years later, my convictions about the ready availability of knowledge remain pretty much unchanged. Devoid of a degree as I am, I have never stopped reading, inquiring, and exploring the world of ideas and facts. All this is not to deny, of course, that formal education is good in its way (and naturally some specialties — law and medicine most notably — absolutely require old-fashioned collegiate training). But I still believe deeply in the worth and merit of impractical learning — that is, learning not yoked with any particular worldly ambition — and I wish that this kind of “aimless” learning could find better cultural legitimacy.
In 1892 the thirty-four-year-old poet and classical scholar, A.E. Housman (1859-1936), gave a lively, stylish lecture on the subject of why human beings seek knowledge. It’s the best defense of “aimless” learning I’ve ever read. Here follows an inexcusably brief abridgment.
Housman kicks off with a retort to a contemporary writer who “define[s] the aim of learning to be utility,” and thus science to be the single most desirable subject of learning. Ah, but can any one type of knowledge really hold the claim of being better, or more beneficial, than another?
The popular view…is that the aim of acquiring knowledge is to equip one’s self for the business of life; that accordingly the knowledge most to be sought after is the knowledge which equips one best; and that this knowledge is Science.
… In short, the fact is, that what man will seek to acquaint himself with in order to prepare him for securing the necessaries of life is not Science, but the indispensable minimum of Science.
… In addition to the initial studies of reading, writing and arithmetic, [a person] needs to acquaint himself…with the indispensable minimum of those sciences which concern the trade or the art he earns his bread by: the dyer with chemistry, the carpenter with geometry, the navigator with astronomy. But there he can stop.
… A life spent, however victoriously, in securing the necessaries of life is no more than an elaborate furnishing and decoration of apartments for the reception of a guest who is never to come. Our business here is not to live, but to live happily. …Our true occupation is to manufacture from the raw material of life the fabric of happiness.
… The acquisition of knowledge needs no…justification: its true sanction is a much simpler affair, and inherent in itself. People are too prone to torment themselves with devising far-fetched reasons: they cannot be content with the simple truth asserted by Aristotle: `all men possess by nature a craving for knowledge.’ … This is no rare endowment scattered sparingly from heaven that falls on a few heads and passes others by: curiosity, the desire to know things as they are, is a craving no less native to the being of man, no less universal in diffusion through mankind, than the craving for food and drink. …The desire of knowledge does not need, nor could it possibly possess, any higher or more authentic sanction than the happiness which attends its gratification.
But now Housman pauses to acknowledge that “we see, every day of our lives, plenty of people who exhibit no pleasure in learning and experience no desire to know.” So is the human thirst for knowledge really as involuntary, and crucial to one’s survival, as one’s bodily thirst? Well, yes! The man who ignores his natural thirst for knowledge and chooses to wallow in ignorance may still appear to be a living, thriving human being, but…
…though the man does not die altogether, part of him dies, part of him starves to death: as Plato says, he never attains completeness and health, but walks lame to the end of his life and returns imperfect and good for nothing to the world below.
But the desire of knowledge, stifle it though you may, is none the less originally born with every man; and nature does not implant desires for nothing, nor endow us with faculties in vain.
… The faculty of learning is ours that we may find in its exercise that delight which arises from the unimpeded activity of any energy in the groove nature meant it to run in. Let a man acquire knowledge not for this or that external and incidental good which may chance to result from it, but for itself; not because it is useful or ornamental, but because it is knowledge, and therefore good for man to acquire.
… For knowledge resembles virtue in this, and differs in this from other possessions, that it is not merely a means of procuring good, but is good in itself simply: it is not a coin which we pay down to purchase happiness, but it has happiness indissolubly bound up with it. …The pursuit of knowledge, like the pursuit of righteousness, is part of man’s duty to himself; and remember the Scripture where it is written `He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul’.
In fact, argues Housman, knowledge of some type will come to us all whether we like it or not — through the maturing process of passing years, through tragedy, through regret. This is the nature of life (“live and learn”). So is it not natural, then, to seek knowledge outright, and empower ourselves against avoidable regrets and mistakes?
It is and it must in the long run be better for a man to see things as they are than to be ignorant of them; just as there is less fear of stumbling or of striking against corners in the daylight than in the dark.
… The pleasure of learning and knowing, though not the keenest, is yet the least perishable of pleasures; the least subject to external things, and the play of chance, and the wear of time. And as a prudent man puts money by to serve as a provision for the material wants of his old age, so too he needs to lay up against the end of his days provision for the intellect. As the years go by, comparative values are found to alter: Time, says Sophocles, takes many things which once were pleasures and brings them nearer to pain. In the day when the strong men shall bow themselves, and desire shall fail, it will be a matter of yet more concern than now, whether one can say `my mind to me a kingdom is’; and whether the windows of the soul look out upon a broad and delightful landscape, or face nothing but a brick wall.
Well then, once we have recognised that knowledge in itself is good for man, we shall need to invent no pretexts for studying this subject or that; we shall import no extraneous considerations of use or ornament to justify us in learning one thing rather than another. If a certain department of knowledge specially attracts a man, let him study that, and study it because it attracts him; and let him not fabricate excuses for that which requires no excuse, but rest assured that the reason why it most attracts him is that it is best for him.
(Here I’m reminded of a past discussion on this blog, in which Soul Shelter Director of Fortune Clark introduced (COOTTM), Clark’s Option on Opportunities Theory. Tim was confronting a reader’s question: ‘Is education always a good investment?’ His response? “No. But if you have serious thoughts about going back to school, that’s a powerful sign that it’s a very good idea for you.”)
…Other desires perish in their gratification, but the desire of knowledge never: the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing. Other desires become the occasion of pain through dearth of the material to gratify them, but not the desire of knowledge: the sum of things to be known is inexhaustible, and however long we read we shall never come to the end of our story-book.…
(Read Housman’s lecture in full, here.)
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