A Useless Education

In my senior capstone seminar, students have to review their college education and identify what has been meaningful to them. Inevitably, they vent. The following is a response I recently wrote to a student who complained that much of her education has been irrelevant to real life:

I was impressed by the depth of self-reflection in your first portfolio paper. You certainly satisfied the demands of the assignment, which was subjective in nature. The college wants students to engage in this reflection before leaving. That’s all that was required, and you did it well. I hope you’ll forgive me, however, if I respond to your paper at length. Something you wrote affected me.

In your analysis, you selected a variety of courses, but primarily those that were applicable to something you called “real life.” You also said that you do not enjoy taking classes that cause you to ask “when am I ever going to need that information again?” I always feel an immense sadness whenever I hear students say this, for it suggests that we educators have failed on some fundamental level. Indeed, a lot of people believe that an education should consist solely of information with a direct practical application.

But what if that’s wrong? What if a good education ought to contain some things that cannot be directly applied to anything? Here’s what I mean. I teach Shakespeare and, believe me, there really is just no practical use for Shakespeare. Having read him won’t make you a better person, a better accountant, a better nurse, or a better elementary school teacher. But taught well and with passion, Shakespeare might just awaken the human imagination and, more importantly, the human heart.

Sadly, a keener sense of the beauty, preciousness, and fragility of human life has little practical application; nor can you wring much profit from your emotional engagement with the plights of characters enduring unspeakable tragedies. In the end, Shakespeare cannot show us how to live more productive lives. He can only show us what life is.

There's nothing to be gained from such knowledge. Even so, if you remove Shakespeare, music, art, and the great articulations of ethical and religious principles from education, I fear we will become what the sociologist Max Weber called “specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart.” Believe me, there is nothing more useless than poetry, but people’s souls die every day for the lack of it. I truly believe that.

Well, I’ve preached long enough. Forgive me. I know I’ve been tedious. I fear that you and I are destined to disagree about what education is really all about. In the end, I have nothing useful to impart, only questions that I hope might spark some utterly, utterly useless thoughts.

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