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In Defense of “Aimless” Learning

books_colored_row_pshrink.JPG(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 figureduniversity-of-virginia_pshrink30.JPG 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.

a_e_housman.jpgBut 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.)books_colored_row_pshrink.JPG

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9 Comments to In Defense of “Aimless” Learning

On Oct 21, 2008, Dan commented:

The three most intelligent people I know do not have a college degree. They all are voracious lifetime readers. Learning is a lifetime pursuit. Chief justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, while reading Plato’s Republic at 92 years old, was asked by a friend why he was reading it. He said “To expand my mind.”

On Oct 21, 2008, Mark commented:

Nice anecdote about Holmes, Dan. I hope I remain as open to mind-expansion if I should be lucky enough to reach such an age. ~Mark

On Oct 22, 2008, girl from EU commented:

Great post. I have a degree and I’m glad I chose courses I was passionate about, but I know people who saw their directions in life by themselves. A most inspiring example is a person who, instead of becoming an engineer as his parents wanted, studied as autodidact and is now a published writer as well as a (wonderful) translator from 2 languages. Too bad culture per se is so undervalued nowadays. I’ll never be paid accordingly to my real skills and knowledges while other people who can hardly speak properly (cough marketing cough) act as masters of the world.

On Oct 22, 2008, Grover commented:

Robert Louis Stevenson also had something to say on this topic in his essay “An Apology for Idlers.”

On Oct 22, 2008, SugarMag commented:

Nice post. I fully support “mindless learning”.

Probably because I did the same – didn’t finish a degree until age 36 – and had 190 undergrad credits in every field of study, just not enough in the right place until I decided to pay attention to finishing. Glad I did though. I don’t use it for work so I can still respect myself :)

Still got plenty of reading, coversing and traveling to do too.

On Oct 22, 2008, ExpatKat commented:

I have a Masters degree which has so far been no use to me during my life. My husband has no degree at all, but has become top of his field!
We have 3 children and have lived in three countries in the past 15yrs. Our High schoolers are now trying to adapt to American culture that prizes formal education above experience, yet live within a family that is testiomony to the opposite.
I believe strongly in lifetime learning and that there is more to a person than their SAT scores or a degree.
We are totally anti-debt and dread having to fund our kids education here with loans, but are afraid that US society may not recognise the skills they have acquired from their unique childhood.
I guess we’ll just have to hope that ‘the powers that be’ expand their minds’ by reading this!!

On Oct 22, 2008, by Mark commented:

@Girl from EU: As you and reader Dan both remind, it’s likely that all of us know somebody who defies the mercenary education model out of a passionate love of knowledge/culture in its own right. And these folks, though it seems we’re meant to forget it, have exemplars all through history (a great many of them artists whose works have been – ironically – canonized, anthologized, and codified for use in university instruction!).

@Grover: Many thanks for directing me to the Stevenson. “…All experience as a single great book.” Ah, yes. I sense the makings of a future CommonSensical post!

@SugarMag: Funny, your note about taking a degree at 36 reminds me that despite all my earnest protestation in this post, I still toy with the notion of ‘completing’ my institutional education…. Maybe someday it will seem personally necessary – and will be possible to do gratis. For now, I’m having too much fun reading, writing, and roaming. Best to you as you do the same.

@ExpatKat: Your kids are lucky for your insights. More power to you and them!

@all: In all this discussion I’m reminded of Morris Berman’s book The Twilight of American Culture (2000), which I profiled briefly in a post this past summer. Berman, admittedly a bit of a crank, does a refreshing takedown of our emerging cultural attitudes concerning higher ed, what he calls the “kowtowing of university administrations to market forces (consumer demands).” “In an educational world now subsumed under business values, students show up – with administrative blessing – believing that they are consumers who are buying a product.” And he quotes from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “Another bad effect of commerce is that the minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected.”

On Oct 23, 2008, Ben commented:

My close to four decades of living has lead me to the following – life needs to be embraced as a life-long learning experience. I think that undue emphasis is placed on obtaining a degree (undergraduate and upwards) as the pinnacle of learning. I work at a university, a few years shy of two decades, as an audio/visual technician and many students are amazed at my eclectic interests and knowledge – like I should just be learned in audio/visual technology. Learning comes from reading, cooking meals for my family, being a father, solving Sudokus and other puzzles, reading blogs and so on.

The key to embracing “aimless” learning is to be internally motivated by an endless curiosity about life. Being compelled to “formally” learn to meet external motivations – studying for a career – not a passion, going to college because it’s the parental expected and socially accepted path to “knowledge” seems to me to be a recipe for growing a dislike of learning.

My last point may be controversial, but it comes from many years of observation, that the higher education system is broken because it compels young adults to choose a determined path, when they really need to roam free and obtain learning from the world of work.



P.S. I’ll check out some of the other entries on this blog.

On Oct 23, 2008, Mark commented:

@Ben: Very eloquently put. Many thanks for reading and for lending your voice. ~Mark

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