What’s the Big Idea?
, November 28, 2012
There is a thing beekeepers use called a “hive tool.” It is designed to pry apart the different sections of a hive, which get stuck together because of honey and wax.
In college I had a pretentious acquaintance who was big on etiquette. The kind of person who insisted on a fish knife, a special spoon for grapefruit, you know the type. On a lark, we once served him an artichoke, and beside it set a mini hive tool, hoping that he would presume it was the precise implement for peeling artichokes, and be too high brow to let on that he never saw such a thing before.
In the end, like Abraham’s angel, we stayed his hand before it was too late. Eye rolls, laughs and a lesson learned. None of us liked artichoke leaves, anyway.
We obviously cannot use something the right way if we don’t know its purpose.
I have a few butter knives with crimped tips because from time to time a cabinet handle is loose and the butter knife, right there in the drawer, is an impromptu screwdriver.
So, even when we know something’s purpose, if we don’t use it as it was intended, we may often end up ruining it.
Immanuel Kant once synthesized that there are three big questions that we all have to answer: “What can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope?” I believe that the fundamental purpose of a university education should be to set each student on a path to answer the big questions in a way that each can build a life around them.
There is an oft decried utilitarian danger in viewing higher education as technical training, giving the student the capacity to accomplish a marketable task. It is still a danger today, subordinating one’s view of life to being a cog in the state machine, the corporate machine, or whatever machine happens to call you back for a second interview.
The answers to Kant’s questions would be, in this scenario, “What I need to know to do my job. My job. Decent pay and benefits, a few weeks off a year, a watch at retirement.”
Today there is another danger, proving that plotting coordinates of utilitarianism and individualism together result in a boomerang trajectory, and end in narcissism.
Refusing to confine themselves to “working for the man,” today’s graduates have been filled with enough focus on self to walk into an interview with the “I’m really interviewing you” attitude. They may even feel comfortable redefining a job profile to suit personal needs. It normally results in lower quality, since, when we don’t hold ourselves to something beyond ourselves, we tend to give ourselves license to take shortcuts. Laziness is hereditary. It walks in our human family.
“Me, me, me,” often clothed in irony or humor, is how the narcissist answers Kant’s queries.
So how can a university provide a way out of utilitarianism and narcissism? It certainly must equip students to get a job, but I believe it fails the student if it does only that. It should give the student a confident self-assurance, but also fails the student if he graduates mistaking a mortarboard for a halo.
Only by posing and reposing the big questions can a university education successfully help a student, in Peter Drucker’s words, both earn a living and live a life. If the midnight coffee conversations are exclusively about American Idol, Pinterest, and Halo III, that’s a bad sign. Young muscles expand by lifting big weights. Young minds expand when challenged with big ideas.
Cicero once defended his former tutor, a Greek poet named Archias, who was accused of not being a citizen and threatened with exile. The case was an easy one, since a whole town showed up to swear that Archias had indeed been enrolled as a citizen but the records had perished in a fire. But Cicero seized the occasion the make the argument that even if he wasn’t a citizen he should be made one, because of the great good the liberal arts do for us. After showing that these studies hold before us examples of virtue to emulate, he goes on to argue:
“Though, even if there were no such great advantage to be reaped from it, and if it were only pleasure that is sought from these studies, still I imagine you would consider it a most reasonable and liberal employment of the mind: for other occupations are not suited to every time, nor to every age or place; but these studies are the food of youth, the delight of old age; the ornament of prosperity, the refuge and comfort of adversity; a delight at home, and no hindrance abroad; they are companions by night, and in travel, and in the country.”
Can you say that about your university studies?
The big questions are the ones we all need to answer, and we do answer one way or another. Their answers mold our worldview, and are implicit in our choices. Our answers may change slightly as we age, but to fail to give the big questions serious consideration is to live a life less than fully human, and to surrender to be cogs in a machine or stars in our own fantasy film.
Kant summarized his three questions into one: “What is man?” That is not an abstract question, although it masquerades as one, like a teenage girl whose “friend” has a problem. “Who am I?” is a very important question to answer.
To fail to know our purpose or to deliberately disregard it leads to unhappy, unfulfilling, even ridiculous lives. I’d rather eat artichokes with a hive tool.
A university cannot do everything, but if it does not encourage students to think deeply about these questions, and help them sketch an answer that they can build their lives upon, then it has failed in its most important task.
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