One need not leave one’s armchair to undertake the Journey of the Hero. Such can happen entirely inside one’s skull. Though it is gradually coming to seem downright quaint these days, this concept of education was the rule rather than the exception until quite late in the 20th century. This is my personal account of how I embarked upon that journey, and why it is not over.
Life-changing moments are usually recognized as life-changing only in retrospect. But occasionally, such a moment is recognized, however dimly, as life-changing at the time it occurs. One of the latter, for me, occurred when my advanced-placement (AP) eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Gordon Morse, handed out copies of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses” for us to read and to discuss in class the next day. I tucked the poem away in the “English” filing folder of my briefcase – yeah-yeah! … I carried a briefcase to and from school when I was in the eighth grade … I was a hyper-nerd … pity me! – and read it when I got home that afternoon. I was stunned: here was someone from the 19th century, writing in Victorian England, expressing in words the feelings and aspirations and restlessness that I thought were unique to me, that I would have sworn no one had ever felt except me. And this grey spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought. Yes, indeed. My blood still sings when I read those words! Later on, in college, as both an undergraduate and as a graduate, I had other life-changing moments, some even more transformative. But the first such, the Tennyson / “Ulysses” moment, though it took me years to articulate it, taught me what education should be about, what I had always wanted it to be: a voyage into Mystery in which the winds of curiosity and wonder fill one’s sails and take one to places beyond imagination. That such a description of education in terms of Mystery, curiosity, wonder, and imagination seems hopelessly, perhaps embarrassingly, naive these days only demonstrates how impoverished our concept of education has become. We have fallen prey to the belief that education is only about making a living, and has next to nothing to do with making a life.
The result – or perhaps the cause … a chicken-and-egg question — is what has been called the “monetization” of education: the belief that any field of study has to justify itself in terms of a quantifiable dollars-and-cents return-on-investment that will qualify a student who majors in that field to be gainfully employed upon graduation. Hence the contemporary emphasis on the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And, for equally obvious reasons, such a criterion means the death, or at least the morbidity, of the humanities / liberal arts: art, literature, philosophy, history, etc. Stanley Fish writes about this with characteristic mordancy in several New York Times op-ed pieces over the last several years. As Fish notes elsewhere in his essays, this change has come about because, at least since the middle of this decade, private funding of universities has increasingly supplanted public / state funding, with the result that corporations tend to fund those fields and disciplines that show a quantifiable return on investment in the sense of providing professionally skilled bodies to populate corporate cubicle-farms – which certainly ain’t the humanities. Hence the rise of “University, Inc.” and books with that very title.
Nor is it a matter of the specific, discrete, particular disciplines one studies. Any field of study, when pursued far enough and as an end in itself, leads into Mystery, into wonder. As the old Scholastics expressed it Omnia exeunt in Mysterium: “Everything culminates in Mystery”. The primary reason I majored in math and physics was because I was, and still am, mesmerized by the subtlety and elegance of physical law and what Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” therefor. STEM disciplines can be gateways to wonder no less than philosophy and art. But for them to be conduits of wonder, the STEM disciplines, like all others, have to be, as it were, “bracketed off” from their purely pragmatic, dollars-and-cents uses, rather as one concentrates on beauty, and not on the chemical composition of the canvas and oils, when admiring Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Causes being as they may, what concerns me deeply is how this “monetization” phenomenon, whatever its origins, will affect the humanities / liberal arts themselves, and, most particularly, how this trend will affect the availability to succeeding generations of students of my inside-out transformative experience of education-as-heroic-Ulyssean-journey-into-wonder-and-Mystery. My English composition teacher during my freshman year at Wichita State University told me that what she admired most about me and about my writing in particular was the very thing she admired most about higher education in general, and the capacity she believed it was the purpose of a university-level education to instill in students. Mrs. Briggs gestured with her hands as if she were tossing a captive bird into the air and allowing it to fly freely, saying, as she did so, “It’s your ability to do this with your mind, the ability I wish more students had, the ability that universities exist to teach them”. As you can probably tell, her gesture and her words,which I paraphrased, have stuck in my memory over the intervening almost-50 years.
In an educational environment increasingly preoccupied with vocational / professional training, with giving students marketable skills, with being an assembly line for turning out students prepared for the job market in the oligarchy of the Corporate State … in that kind of environment, how much opportunity will there be for the inculcation of wonder, of curiosity sheerly for its own sake? How much of an opportunity will there be to toss the bird into the air and set it free? Will the system encourage and cultivate a Ulysses-like intellectual wanderlust that sees … all experience [as] an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when [one moves]. / How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! Or will the system, in the interest of naked economic advantage, induce students to be content to remain … By this still hearth, among these barren crags, / … [To] mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed?
Either outcome is possible. Certainly there is no shame or dishonor in making a living. Everyone has bills to pay, obligations to meet. (I probably didn’t pay enough attention in college to the “making a living” part. I majored in math and physics, not in order to get a job, which seldom ever entered my mind, but because I was interested in math and physics. I also added a third major in philosophy — and wanted to add a fourth in English literature, until the university administration put its foot down — which more or less tells you where money-making ranked in my scale of priorities.) But succeeding generations of students will be the losers if my experience of education-as-wonder is no longer available, no longer useful in making a life. These are the kinds of questions with which Fish concludes one of his more pointed essays on “monetization”: Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?
In 1969, Dr. Robert A. Wilson, then director of the National Accelerator Laboratory (“FermiLab”) in Batavia, IL, during a funding hearing before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, was asked by Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore what FermiLab did to enhance the defense of the country. Replied Dr. Wilson: “ … [FermiLab] has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending”. Similarly, the liberal arts, the humanities, curiosity for its own sake, education-as-heroic-journey, etc. … these make education and human culture worth having.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? — Mark 8:36,37 (KJV)
Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. — George Santayana
– James R. Cowles
© 2015, essay and header illustration, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved; photographs – Stanley Fish courtesy of “Today at Brown” (Brown University); Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des canotiers, Public Domain; books, original source not found, may be subject to copyright; FermiLab, United States Government.