The Use and Abuse of a Liberal Arts Education
By Siddartha Rao '04
I want to speak to you today about why it is that every year some of the brightest young minds in the world come to Middlebury College to spend four years getting a liberal arts education. I'll start by relating a recent conversation I had with my friend Sam Rodriguez. Those of you who know Sam at all know that he has a penchant for coming up with bizarre hypothetical situations. Today he was in rare form.
It was a nice spring day, and we were walking leisurely (as one often does when one walks with Sam) to Ross to get some lunch. He turned to me and said,
"Sid, you have a choice: Either you go to Middlebury or some other liberal arts college, spend four years of your life and a lot of money, work towards getting a degree, get whatever GPA you merit within that work, and graduate. Or, for half the cost and a tenth of the time, you can get that big machine from the Matrix and upload knowledge almost instantaneously to your brain. Which would you do?"
While I too would like to learn Kung Fu and gain the ability to operate specialized aircraft all in under a minute, I still opted for the first option, a plan of four-year study at a liberal arts college. This was not merely because I fear the discomfort of having a plug in the back of my head, but because I believe that this whimsical proposition gets to the heart of a very deep question: What is true learning and how is it obtained?
If I had this machine and uploaded, for example, all the Shakespearean sonnets into my head so that I could recite them on demand, would I really understand Shakespeare? Even if I uploaded all of the literary criticism that surrounds these sonnets, I would be, at best, a parrot of the learning of others. But would I have gained anything of value?
It is clear to me, at least, that I would not have gained anything worthwhile. Because before we can learn, we must feel and experience-we must be able to feel and experience with our souls. Romeo and Juliet, for all its beauty, will contain nothing of use to one who has never been in love. It is by itself dead and useless: the soul of the student, of the reader, of the audience member at the theater-that is what brings it to life. True knowledge cannot be got by a "force feeding to the soul" but must arise from the soul through the hard work of living and experiencing. Then knowledge is truly our own, in our own authentic voices. Then there is harmony between what we think, what we feel, what we say, and what we do. Then, and only then, are we full human beings. And then, and only then, can we look forward to a future of new ideas, new art, and new discovery.
There is a danger in every institution of higher learning that it produces a mere recycling of old ideas, a class of students who enter upon their education like a membership at a country club, the better to judge the zeitgeist of society's elite, to have all the right stories to tell, and to be able to make intelligent conversation with all the right people. It is easy to identify with one monolithic group, perhaps to model oneself after those chic and fashionable sketches that litter the pages of the Hipster Handbook, or to wear the right suit and necktie, to find the correct fashion for the correct time in everything: clothes, tastes, speech, even thought. The work of finding one's own truths, is a work of patience and dedication, and is unfortunately not to be found in the circuits of a machine.
There is a passage by Friedrich Nietzsche that I first heard in Paul Nelson's Politics, Philosophy, and Education class last semester. It is the end of the prologue to Nietzsche's book, Daybreak. This small paragraph very beautifully describes the value of patient contemplation, the value of a place like Middlebury College (secluded as it is from the parade of the outside world) where students can come to spend time to learn. Nietzsche says:
But, after all, why must we proclaim so loudly and with such intensity what we are, what we want, and what we do not want? Let us look at this more calmly and wisely; from a higher and more distant point of view. Let us proclaim it, as if among ourselves, in so low a tone that all the world fails to hear it and us! Above all, however, let us say it slowly ...This preface comes late, but not too late: What, after all, do five or six years matter? Such a book, and such a problem, are in no hurry; besides, we are friends of the lento, I and my book. I have not been a philologist in vain-perhaps I am one yet: a teacher of slow reading. I even come to write slowly. At present it is not only my habit, but even my taste-a perverted taste, maybe-to write nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is "in a hurry." For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all-to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow-the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of "work": that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is intent upon "getting things done "at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not "get things done" so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes ... my patient friends, this book appeals only to perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!
I believe that the purpose of a liberal arts education is not primarily to produce "educated people," but rather "self-educating" people. The great works of the past, the music, the literature, the science the poetry, the history, art, film, philosophy, in short, the whole landscape of a liberal arts education, are nothing but Socratic "midwives." They are useless to the barren soul. We students go to them because we are humans first and then artists-humans and only then laborers, humans, and then thinkers, athletes, and scientists. It is for this reason that every semester during exam period you can see students working for days on end-needing so badly that redeeming day of sleep, and showering which signals the close of a semester-still come back to Middlebury at the start of a new semester and do it all over again. It is because we affirm our humanity that we study the liberal arts. It is to be full authentic people in an age of rampant specialization that we study the liberal arts. It is to connect with the greatness of the past so that we may fashion out of it a worthy future that we study the liberal arts.
The great Indian philosopher Sankaracarya once said, "Unless the disciple can roar like a lion against what the guru is saying, his experience is not complete." I urge the class of 2004 on this day, when we graduate and begin a new chapter of our lives, let us not follow the dictates of any teacher-be it the media, our friends and family, even the great minds of the past-who does not speak first to our soul. Let us not be afraid to roar like lions. Thank you.