Thoughts on Complete Education

Your work and career are a part of your life,” he said when I met with him and the Santa Fe president, Mark Roosevelt. “Education should prepare you for all of your life. It should make you a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy.” I love that assessment — the precision, balance and sweep of it.

Frank Bruni, writing about St. John’s College (emphasis added). During his visit to the Santa Fe campus and his eavesdropping on some classes:

Three dynamics stood out.

The first was how articulate the students were. Something wonderful happens when you read this ambitiously and wallow in this many words. You become agile with them.

The second was the students’ focus. A group discussing Homer’s “Iliad” spent more than 10 minutes on the phrase — the idea — of someone having his “fill of weeping.” If digital devices and social media yank people from one trumpet blast to the next, St. John’s trains them to hold a note — to caress it, pull at it, see what it can withstand and what it’s worth.

The third dynamic was their humility. They weren’t wedded to their initial opinions. They weren’t allowed to be. And they moved not toward the best answer but toward better questions. In the “Iliad” and in life, is there any catharsis in revenge? Any resolution in death? Does grief end or just pause? Do wars?

Jack Isenberg, a senior, told me that St. John’s had taught him how much is unknowable. “We have to be comfortable in ambiguity,” he said.

What a gift. What an education.

(Emphasis added)

It’s now official: if I get huffy and drop the New York Times again, Frank Bruni is part of what I’d miss, along with his more conservative brethren Ross Douthat and David Brooks. (Heck, I already miss Brooks because he’s on “book leave” or some durn thing.)

I added emphasis to the preceding item for a reason:

The end of education for the religious-minded person might be seen, depending on his or her particular religion, as, say, the salvation of one’s soul, the glorification of God, the attainment of holiness or enlightenment, that is, something distinctly transcendent or spiritual. For the secular-minded person, it might be career preparation, the material betterment of humanity, self-fulfillment, that is, something distinctly temporal and material … [B]oth extremes and those in between consider education as primarily a means to these all-important ends. For this reason, they tend to characterize the transmission of knowledge and skills as the right and only model for education, with right answers, whether spiritually or materially regarded, and the most useful skills, aimed at the good of the soul or the good of the world, the only proper curriculum.

In this view, questions and questioning are important, but only when they give rise to and are aimed at definite answers. And liberal-arts disciplines, such as logic and literature, are generally a good thing to learn, but only when directed to securing desirable spiritual or worldly goods. In this way, the priority of answers, especially the right answers, and useful skills, in a school’s curriculum and pedagogy tends to render other types of questioning and other, not-so-useful skills obsolete. Open-ended questioning, speculative contemplation, and philosophical enquiry, and those skills that are deemed “useless,” such as a capacity for wonder, an appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and a grasp of the world as a whole, are either a waste of time and money, or just mere means to obtaining “right” answers and useful skills.

Thaddeus Kozinski, Questions Are Better Than Answers: On the Socratic Method.

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