I remember the first time I realized that learning could actually be pleasant. I was a freshman in college, crunched under a library desk with Dante Alighieri at 2 in the morning, cramming for a final exam. Since “Literary Tradition 2” was one of those core classes everyone complained about having to take, it caught me off guard when I was struck by the odd realization that I wasn’t miserable. Actually, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than huddled under that desk with Dante and a cold cup of bad cafeteria coffee. “I actually kind of LIKE this… weird.” I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time.
After graduation I realized that moment was the first time I had experienced the wonderful effect on my soul that came from doing something I was hard-wired for: pursuing the good, the true and the beautiful. We live in a culture where education has come to mean expertise – a specialized study in a narrow field one has chosen on the basis of one’s individual inclinations and talents. This can be a good thing, and the productivity that has come out of this type of learning has built up the world we live in and allowed individuals to exercise their unique talents. But I’m afraid something has been lost in the process; very few people these days get to experience that Dante-moment like I did when I was 19.
These days education seems to be so focused on the objective, the end goal of achieving your dream job, that much of the pleasure of it is lost in the process. I hear often about people who try to knock out their “gen eds” at community college so they can move on to another school to get specialized in their field, or even about people at liberal arts schools who slog torpidly through 2 years of core classes, anxious to begin their major electives because those are the classes that REALLY matter. Philosophy, Western Civilization, Great Books are regarded as “classes I HAVE to take before moving on to the good stuff that actually pertains to me and my life.”
But there’s something wrong with this view. I would argue that the core classes are the most essential part of a liberal arts education, and even the foundation for education itself.
Let me try a thought experiment. Step outside the modern mindset about education for a second and imagine that the purpose of education is something more than getting a job. Imagine that education is meant to shape the soul and form the character. This is exactly what happens when you put 20 young minds, one wise instructor, and a couple of thousand-year-old books in a room together. Kids suddenly realize that Homer is speaking directly to them about that anger management problem, and that Shakespeare has been there in that moment when their boyfriend is acting crazy and they don’t know what to do. Even more: they have answers. If this worked for Odysseus then it just might work for me. Why? Because some things never change. Encountering those things that never change, those eternal truths about the human soul, is tremendously delightful.
But it’s also instructive. We don’t study timeless philosophy and poetry because it’s fun to see how people thought a long time ago – they teach us to use our minds in a way that a hyper-specialized degree couldn’t, because the orientation is different. Where most modern universities tend to focus on a narrow set of data and information to teach expertise in a particular field, the liberal arts strive for the broadest, most general, most unchanging, most universally applicable truths known to man. These are the things that trigger that inward spark of recognition, because they are the most human things. As such, they have relevance in any situation.
The Core is a selection of classes that have been deliberately chosen for their special relevance to all men at all times. I’ve heard people say that the liberal arts aren’t for everybody, and for a while I wondered if they were right. It’s true that not everyone is inclined to enjoy cramming their noses into books until the wee hours; everyone is different and not everyone is naturally built to enjoy academic life. But if given the attention they merit, these classes can be tremendously rewarding because they appeal to things that are most profoundly human in everyone. There is no one who can’t profit from a little exposure to thoughts and sentiments that have been true and relevant for thousands of years, and when they are taught well I’ve found that they are almost always universally enjoyable. Seeing oneself reflected in an ancient story strikes a certain chord with people, and can foster reasoning skills that can’t be learned from technical formulas. This is the type of wisdom that one learns from core liberal arts classes, and the whole reasoning behind having a core curriculum; there are certain books and certain ideas which are good for everyone to know, no matter who they are, because they appeal to our shared nature as human beings.
Does this mean people should give up learning practical skills or taking specialized degrees to achieve the job they want? Certainly not. This type of training has an important place in the world we live in. My point is simple: don’t sell the core classes short. If you go to a liberal arts school, don’t be in a hurry to rush into your major electives; love the core, and be open to the knowledge, formation, and pleasure it has to offer you. If you don’t go to a liberal arts school, read the great books. There’s something there for everyone. There are certain types of wisdom that are a central part of human life, and if given the chance, they can make you fall in love with them the way I fell in love with Dante under the desk at 2 a.m.
But don’t ask me why I felt compelled to curl up underneath the desk instead of using it like a normal person. Some things will always remain mysterious.