It’s Good to Know Stuff, Part 3
In Parts 1 and 2 I explained how I answer the perennial student question, “Why do I have to know this?” The key is to avoid the common assumption that education is or ought only to be useful in some pragmatic way. Aristotle got me thinking about means and ends and convinced me that knowledge is among those things we obtain not just as a means to some ultimate end, but also as an end in itself. In other words, we learn stuff because it’s good to know stuff.
So I literally answer the question this way:
Student: Why do I have to know this?
Me: Because it’s good to know stuff.
But I admit it can be taken too far. Remember, there are three categories: things that are ends, things that are means to and end, and things that are both means to an end and an end in themselves. I argue that too many put knowledge in the 2nd category, but I am not suggesting it belongs in the first. It clearly belongs in the third. Knowledge is an end in itself. There is pleasure and intrinsic benefit in knowing. But knowledge is also a means to other ends.
So, if the question “Why do we have to know this?” really means, “Why do we have to know THIS — as opposed to a million other things we might be learning,” we’ve got a real poser.
Let me be clear. I believe that knowledge is good, but I don’t believe that all knowledge is equally good. Some knowledge is more valuable. And even though all knowledge need not be useful, the fact that knowledge can be and often is useful means we ought to take this into consideration when we select courses of study.
We have to be practical at times. Education is costly, after all. College tuition has been skyrocketing for years. And not only does college cost a lot of money, there are also opportunity costs to consider — the things we could be doing with the time we choose to spend in college.
I ran into a former student of mine at a wedding some years ago. He was finishing up college and I asked him what major he had selected. “Philosophy,” he said. I raised my eyebrows and, anticipating my concern, said facetiously, “Don’t worry. If I can’t get a job as a philosopher, I have a back up plan. I’m minoring in drama.” Last I heard, that student is working as a cabinet maker.
Is this a tragedy? Not necessarily. If the money he and his parents invested in his education was intended to lead to a career, then at least in some sense, this is disappointing. It means tens of thousands of dollars and four years of effort invested in knowledge that is never put to its originally intended use.
But were those years entirely pointless? I can’t imagine the student thinks so. The study of philosophy is intrinsically valuable. It’s very possible that this student is better able to understand himself and his fellow man as a result. Maybe he’s happier. Maybe he’s able to help others handle life’s challenges as a result of his philosophy degree. Was the time and money that degree cost him worth it? Well, that depends. Dollar for dollar, probably not. But what’s the value of happiness and wisdom and pleasure? Who knows?
I tell students in my literature classes that reading great books makes them better people. I believe this. Not superior people in some kind of elitist way. I just think that encountering timeless truth beautifully expressed by some of the great minds of history bears fruit in the reader. I’m not necessarily better than you because I’ve read Hamlet. But in some sense I’m better than I was before I read it. Studying literature won’t make many of us richer financially, but it makes all of us richer as human beings.
Don’t get me wrong. Every student who enters college needs to think about the practical value of his course schedule to his future career. Literature, music, philosophy are all valuable in some sense, but if you aspire to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, you will have at most a very limited time to pursue such studies. Other classes that are more practically important must take precedence.
And keep in mind that it’s not necessary to get a college degree in the arts in order to benefit from them. It makes sense to get your degree in computer engineering, get a job that you find fulfilling and rewarding, and pursue the arts at your leisure. It’s silly to think one can only learn about music and fine art by studying it in school. There are museums and libraries and websites and organizations of all kinds that can help us pursue knowledge of these things.
As my former pastor used to say, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. We do need to make wise decisions about how we invest time and money in our education. College is too costly for most of us to fail to derive some practical, career-oriented benefit from our studies there. Some stuff really is more valuable to know than other stuff, even as some stuff is valuable in different ways than other stuff. What I’m not saying when I say “It’s good to know stuff” is that it doesn’t matter what you study in school because it’s all good to know. It matters.
But stuff is still good to know.
Go ahead, make my day. Post your thoughts below.
A hundred and fifty years ago Thoreau went into the woods for a year and came out enlightened. Or something like that. Now we take most every young adult and send them to a University for four or more years for the same sort of enlightenment.
If an eighteen year old me they were going to college to major in Philosophy, I would tell them to find a mentor, then get an iPad and go hike the Appalachian Trail. In the winter apprentice as a carpenter (or something). The next summer repeat with the Pacific Crest trail.
If they were going into Computer Engineering they would get the same advice, except their work would be in software.
Other fields (medical, law, engineering needing a professional license, etc.) I would spur them onto college.
All of this may seem tangential to Brian’s post, except that I think the reason we’re even getting these questions from children is that we’ve (our society has) chosen to teach them in deficient environments, with deficient methods, at least for most children and for most goals.
If they’re asking “why,” we’ve already lost the battle.
I don’t want to major in philosophy, but hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails (with an iPad) sounds pretty appealing.
I agree (more and more) that schools in general are deficient environments with deficient methods. But I’m not sure I have a solution to offer. I’m glad that homeschooling is legal in all 50 states and that parents who care about such things and have the wherewithal can customize education for their kids.
Even so, as homeschooling parents, my wife and I regularly recognize blind spots and missed opportunities (We just asked two of our kids how many books they’d read over the summer and they said “zero.” We probably should have asked sooner).
And I’m not sure the “why” question is a sign of a lost battle. It’s not always asked with admirable motives, but “why?” is a good question for scholars.
I like that you point out that it is not necessary to get a college degree in something in order to benefit from the knowledge. If you need a practical college degree, get one. Then read, travel, volunteer, explore, seek mentors, and experience life for all the knowledge that will make one’s life richer.
Why do I have to know *this*? Because you have to start somewhere, and here is a good place. 🙂