“Knowledge is flour, but wisdom is bread.” – Austin O’Malley
Today, I will drive to LAX to pick up our youngest daughter who is returning from her sophomore year of college. Next week, our oldest daughter begins a graduate specialty program for working with deaf and hearing-impaired students. And when you add that my wife and I live and work on a university campus, it seems safe to say that education is an important part of our lives. And that we are familiar with student loans.
Everyone seems to agree that education is important. There are significant disagreements on how to go about it, of course, but it is rare to hear anyone say that education is unimportant. Stay in school. Hit the books. Do your homework. Go to college. Study hard. All cliches by now, but all motivated by the idea that education is uber-valuable.
Why? Why is education so important? As a recent education professional, I spent some time with that simple yet complex question. Is it knowledge acquisition? Is it to prepare students for the working world and increase their earning potential, or more broadly, become contributing members of society?
I arrived at a working answer. In my view, the purpose of education is so that students may acquire wisdom. In other words, in its highest form, education goes beyond the impartation of knowledge and allows students to use the knowledge and skills they acquire for good purposes in this world. It teaches discernment.
The entire project may best be described by Gene Kesselman, a WW2 vet from New Jersey in his mid-nineties, who told a local magazine writer last year, “You know the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing you don’t put tomato in a fruit salad.”
My new office is in the heart of Seaver College on the Pepperdine University campus, and after close to a decade in a law school setting it is interesting to be around undergraduate students on a daily basis. This has led me down memory lane.
I earned my undergraduate degree a full quarter century ago at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. My specific bachelor’s degree was in secondary education, but I took more history classes than any other subject, and my favorite was an upper-division course titled “History of the American Indian” with Dr. Elliott West. I never carried on a personal conversation with Dr. West but have often declared him as my favorite professor of all time. As proof, I recall showing up to class one day to discover a sign on the door informing us that class had been canceled — and feeling disappointment. Even then I realized that any professor who was good enough to cause a college student to be disappointed when class was canceled was something special.
Dr. West was a brilliant scholar who knew his stuff, but he was also an engaging and entertaining lecturer who kept us on the edge of our seats eager to hear what he had to say. One of his unique approaches was to flat out lie. That’s right, lie. Dr. West would intersperse his lectures with outlandish statements that sometimes took us a second to realize were outlandish statements, which had the beautiful effect of keeping our slippery attention.
He told us that he had formerly used that technique with freshmen but abandoned it after one occasion when he was explaining how President Lincoln used to wander around Washington wearing a negligee when a freshman finally raised his hand at the back of the room. Relieved, Dr. West called on the student who then asked, “How do you spell negligee?”
Given today’s never-ending avalanche of information via social media and news outlets more interested in viewers than objectivity, it makes my brain hurt to wonder how many lies we believe each day without batting an eye.
Critical thinking is an endangered species. I may not have time to verify everything I hear in this Information Age, but I can sure commit to not believing everything. I learned that in college.
Famed journalist, David Brooks, was the featured speaker at a recent conference at Pepperdine, and much of the conversation focused on an op-ed he wrote a year ago in The New York Times titled, “The Big University.” The thought behind the article is summed up in a single sentence/paragraph:
In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.
Brooks applauded this development and prescribed four tasks for colleges and universities:
- Reveal moral options.
- Foster transcendent experiences.
- Investigate current loves and teach new things to love.
- Apply the humanities.
While all four are worthy of reflective conversation, I am particularly drawn to the call to foster transcendent experiences. Brooks wrote:
If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty—with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain—there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.
Yeah, I dig it.
Last week, I was thousands of miles from home in Akron, Ohio, with a couple of unexpected hours and zero plans and somehow ended up hiking through a beautiful park amid the blazing colors of autumn. The very next day, even farther from home in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, I had more unexpected time to spend while awaiting a meeting in a Fifth Avenue skyscraper and wandered into iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral to experience an early afternoon Mass in that stunning venue.
A peaceful forest. A majestic cathedral. Two good choices. And why did I have to travel so far to make such choices?
Brooks’s encouragement may have simply been intended for college students, but seeing that I feel a little thirsty for transcendence myself, my choices in those two moments make me wonder what might happen if I altered my routines to create “regular and concentrated contact with beauty.”
I just might do it. And if nothing else, fostering transcendent experiences in my own life might make me more effective in fostering such moments for others.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged akron, beauty, college, david brooks, experiences, hiking, manhattan, nature, new york city, new york times, ohio, pepperdine, st. patrick's cathedral, transcendence, university
I write this on a dark airplane late at night on my birthday. It is at once the most consequential and inconsequential birthday of my life because who really cares about birthdays on the day you leave your youngest child a thousand miles away at college?
We began the college search process a long time ago, and it was a brilliant success. All the lists, tutors, visits, tests, applications, and t-shirts produced the perfect outcome. It was also a blast. The parent-child memories extend from a Dairy Queen in Wisconsin to an anarchist bookstore in San Francisco to crab cakes in a Maryland bar to, in the end, Seattle. As the credit card commercial says, priceless. It turns out that the credit card statement is more specific.
It may be an act of will that I am happy tonight. How can you already miss someone like crazy and still be touchdown-celebration happy for this person who held your heart from the moment you first held her when she was two seconds old?
I suspect it is love. Pure, unselfish, father-daughter love.
Several friends want to know what today feels like so they can prepare. For me, it feels great. Well, great, with a touch of nausea. Yes, I’d say three parts great and one part nausea. After all these years, what a great and slightly nauseating day this turned out to be.