What D’Ya Know

Swinging on a Star
Dave Van Ronk

What D’Ya Know

The song suggests that it is important to get an education; that going to school is a valuable thing. But what does it mean to go to school, to get an education? When we call a person educated what does that mean? Is there value in learning for the sake of learning or does the material we learn and study have to have a practical application; must it be “good for something”?

When I was young I was curious. I wanted to know about things, to think about things, and that curiosity affected the choices I made. It didn’t help me stay in college when I left high school because I had difficulty with the discipline of studying things that did not particularly interest me at the time. I was madly curious about what interested me but had little interest in learning what did not interest me. In my first years of college this lack of interest often had more to do with presentation than with the content of the discipline. I have always been curious about physics, for example, though not particularly good at it; my father after all worked in the aerospace industry and I looked at speculative NASA drawings of spacecraft from a very young age. Granted this had more to do with science fiction perhaps than with actual physics but the science behind those drawings fascinated me as well. Why was the lunar module shaped the way it was, why did the early space capsules return from space “backwards”?

College physics, though, did not capture my interest, in large part because I had difficulty following it. Still, later in my college career I took a course in physics that used science fiction to teach physics and I had a much easier time, though the course did not have nearly the depth of the more traditional physics course I took earlier. I grew up a bit in the few years I spent away from college. I stayed curious, I found things out on my own, and learned quite a bit, some from travel and some from reading. When I returned to college I was more disciplined and had an easier time managing courses I had to take but did not want to take.

Painting of Averroes

Averroes, detail of the fourteenth-century Florentine artist Andrea Bonaiuto’s Triunfo de Santo Tom├ís.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AverroesColor.jpg

So, what is the point of this? Only that there are some that delight in scholarship for its own sake, a perhaps intellectual variation on the “art for art’s sale” movement, though both art and study involve the intellect. The painting above is of Averroes, an Islamic scholar of the 12th century. He is among the Arabic philosophers that are responsible for preserving the work of Aristotle that had largely become lost to European scholars. The work of Averroes and his Jewish contemporary Maimonides were largely responsible for reintroducing Aristotle to Europe. Averroes was, it appears to me because of the depth and breadth of his interests, a man who took a certain delight in scholarship and study. I cannot know this of course, but he wrote on issues of psychology, music, philosophy, law, politics, physics, well you get the idea. If he did not enjoy study he was probably not a happy man.

Title Page to Guide for the Perplexed

Title page The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Guide_for_the_Perplexed_by_Maimonides.jpg

Averroes’ contemporary Maimonides also was a man greatly devoted to learning, but I find him attractive largely because of the name he gave his most well known book The Guide for the Perplexed. It is not an easy book to read, or at least it wasn’t for me, but because I identify so well the state of perplexity I found the title quite attractive. Like Averroes he wrote mainly as a religious writer, Averroes was an Islamic thinker and Maimonides a Jewish thinker. They lived at a time where philosophers of both faiths influenced each other’s thinking. Scholars can be as competitive as athletes when it comes to ideas and their development so it would not be fair to say that a shared commitment to thought can overcome the violent urges some cultures have to eradicate each other, but I like to think shared pursuits, like study can alleviate cultural hostilities.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian and lived about a century before Averroes and Maimonides and is known mostly as a poet of four line poems called rubaiyats (his book of poetry was translated as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam). He made significant contributions to the study of Algebra but what I like is his story. He and two of his friends had a teacher who went on to a position of leadership in the government; he became Vizier. Omar and one of his schoolmates wanted their teacher to share his good fortune with them. Omar’s friend was given a position of leadership in the government. This friend’s ambition got him in trouble and he was eventually executed. Omar on the other hand just wanted a stipend so that he could devote his time to study. He received his stipend and free from ambitions to power lived out his days rather peaceably. Though the story is probably not true, I like it because the life Omar chose in the story seems desirable to me.

All of these thoughts about scholars and scholarship were provoked by a blog article I read this week “Oh, and You Have a Degree Too” by Will Richardson. The article debated the importance that today’s culture places on getting a college education. The ideas expressed and the concerns that are at the heart of the article are, I think, legitimate but it also suggests that college is largely a place students go to learn a valuable trade, a skill that will provide a meaningful income, certainly not something to be discouraged in these economic times.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman, when he preached his first sermon in Over Worton Church on 23 June 1824
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:J-h-newman.jpg

This discussion of what a university should be is an old one. John Henry Cardinal Newman and T. H. Huxley articulated two views of the university and the kind of education it ought to provide; Newman seeing the university as a place where students pursued a wide variety of academic disciplines while Huxley argued for an institution that offered more specialized training. Newman defended the traditional liberal arts education. Newman thought:

In the combination of colours, very different effects are produced by a difference in their selection and juxtaposition; red, green, and white, change their shades, according to the contrast to which they are submitted. And, in like manner, the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. If his reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit, a point into which I do not here enter, certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind. If it is incorporated with others, it depends on those others as to the kind of influence which it exerts upon him. (Newman, The Idea of a University)

He thought that our understanding of a subject was shaped to a certain degree by the other things studied alongside that subject. That for him was the value of the liberal arts education, that no discipline was studied in isolation. The scientist was also well schooled in music and poetry and the poet was also well schooled in science. As a result both the scientist and the poet saw the larger world that lived alongside their specialized pursuits. This knowledge enriched, enlarged, and shaped the understanding of each for their chosen discipline.

Caricature of T. H. Huxley

Chromolithograph of Thomas Henry Huxley in Vanity Fair
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TH_Huxley_41.5_KB.jpg

Huxley on the other hand felt that the general studies were the province of a student’s secondary education; that students entered the university with a basic foundation in the liberal arts and that the university was the place were specialization should take place. Huxley was not bothered much by the university as a technical school and saw that as part of its mission, though his idea of a technical school and ours are very different creatures.

It is obviously impossible that any student should pass through the whole of the series of courses of instruction offered by a university. If a degree is to be conferred as a mark of proficiency in knowledge, it must be given on the ground that the candidate is proficient in a certain fraction of those studies; and then will arise the necessity of insuring an equivalency of degrees, so that the course by which a degree is obtained shall mark approximately an equal amount of labour and of acquirements, in all cases. But this equivalency can hardly be secured in any other way than by prescribing a series of definite lines of study. This is a matter which will require grave consideration. The important points to bear in mind, I think, are that there should not be too many subjects in the curriculum, and that the aim should be the attainment of thorough and sound knowledge of each. (Huxley, “Address on University Education”)

Huxley does not think there is enough time in the day for students master both a discipline that will become the cornerstone of a career and to learn anything significant about the other disciplines that form the program of studies offered by a university. The purpose of a degree is to verify that a discipline has been mastered and that someone holding the degree whether it is in English or Mathematics has mastered that discipline.

I have always been most attracted to Newman’s idea of a university education but, especially in these times where the body of knowledge that can be learned is so large, Huxley’s view is certainly not without merit. It was said of John Milton that he read every book that was available in print at the time he lived. I do not know if this is true, and I imagine if it is that it was probably only true of books available in Europe. Still, the story illustrates how the body of available knowledge has grown. That the story was told and believed suggests that for Milton the story was credible. Could such a story be seen as credible if it were told of some scholar today? Probably not.

Not on the Test
John Forster and Tom Chapin

This video captures what I think is a problem with the focus of much of modern education. Whatever the limits to what we are capable of learning may be, those limits cannot be tested by an educational system that places more emphasis on rote learning than on understanding concepts and developing the minds ability to understand and solve problems. The song suggests that all standardized tests are more concerned with what can be remembered than with what is actually understood. As an English teacher it is more important to me that a student can use an adjective properly than be able to tell me what an adjective is. Obviously, there is value to being able to do both, but it is more important to be able to write a good sentence than define the parts of speech. I am not sure all standardized tests are limited in this way, though I do think many are.

Tests, no matter how well they are constructed, rarely provoke in students any enthusiasm for learning; they are something that must be gotten through. On the other hand a test does measure how much has been learned and mastered, even if what the test measures is not always worth measuring. They can also help students identify where their interests lie in that those tests that test a content area that captures the student’s interests are usually the easier ones to prepare for.

What Matters To Me Scholarship Application Video
Stefan Ramirez Perez

The student that prepared this video obviously has an interest in the subject he is studying. The video is an entrance exam of sorts, in that it was submitted to help him win a scholarship. But as a test it demonstrates by what it shows that the student has mastered the skills he needs to have in order to succeed. What I find interesting about this test is that it is a test the student created and gave to himself. Obviously before a test of this kind can work the student must already have a profound interest in the subject. Is there a way of testing that can provoke this kind of interest in science in students whose main interest is history. This to me is the real challenge of education. Where this succeeds the learning process is exciting for everyone, but this is a very difficult bar to reach and I am not sure it is possible to reach this goal with every student in every discipline. Perhaps this is a reason why some of the more traditional forms of testing will be with us for awhile.

Education Today and Tomorrow
A Byrd MS Production
Tom Woodward

This is the concern that confronts many teachers today. What kind of future are we preparing our students to enter? The rhetoric of the film shapes a view of the world that may be a bit overstated but certainly not entirely. As a teacher I want, on the one hand, for students to get the kind of thrill out of discovering something new that I get and have always gotten for as long as I can remember. But I also realize that not all students share my interest in this. As a teacher I also want my students to be ready for the world that will meet them when they leave my classroom for the last time. Part of the problem of providing this kind of preparation is economic, new technologies are expensive and by the time the costs come down to affordable levels the technology is on the verge of obsolescence, though the mastery of a soon to be obsolete technology may not be a bad place to start.

My heroes remain folks like Averroes, Maimonides, and Omar Khayyam not just because they were smart and well read but because they were curious about a wide variety of things. They also lived in a time when it was possible to master many disciplines; where one could be a musician, a lawyer, an astronomer, mathematician, poet and scientist. This does not seem to be possible any more. But it is possible for a well trained mind to entertain the itch to travel such a road.