The Most Useful Education
|Dionysius:||“Why do I always see you philosophers knocking on the doors of the rich, but I never see the rich knocking on the doors of philosophers?”|
|Aristippus:||“Because philosophers know what they need, and the rich don¹t.”|
Occasionally a young person will ask, “How do you get a cool job like working for a foundation? What’s the best training for that?”
I really have no idea. I studied literature, philosophy and history when I was young, and still do today. I had no thought of getting a cool job in a foundation, or really, of having a career of any sort, except perhaps as a teacher.
I was the exception among many (but certainly not all) of my friends. They studied law, medicine, business and engineering. Some became hugely successful in a financial sense; others did not. Either way, they were primarily interested in learning something useful to earn a good living. Probably because of my exposure to a classic education in the liberal arts, I was more interested in living a good life.
As a result, I don’t recommend any particular philosophy of life. Instead, I recommend a life of philosophy. Not only do you get to spend time examining the thoughts of the greatest minds in the world, but you also learn how to disentangle a skein of thought wherever it may occur, including in your own head. As method, philosophy sharpens and deepens both analytical and communicative ability. As content, philosophy sharpens and deepens the human experience, situated as it is in examining the basic questions of this astonishing life: Who are we, why are we here, and what are we supposed to be doing?
In that regard, it saddens me that philosophy, and the liberal arts more generally, has been relegated to the back of the higher education bus, which today is mostly filled up with science and technology studies, career preparation for the new technocrats, and trendy interdisciplinary studies addressing this or that major “problem” or “emerging field” of study. That’s where the money is, so that’s where the bus is headed. Commerce, not the critical examination of timeless ideas and ideals, is the coin of the realm in our educational institutions today.
One has to make a living, of course. After a stint as a road musician in the 1970s, I went back to school to study philosophy and education, thinking I could probably teach somewhere and write interesting books. I couldn’t find a teaching job when I completed my degree, however, so I put on a suit and passed myself off as a fundraiser, where I came into contact with people with money and influence. One thing led to another, and I eventually found myself running a private foundation in the Midwest.
In my own case, an exposure to philosophy and literature turned out to be highly useful. First, I learned how to critique, advance and defend an idea without unduly alienating those who hold different views. Second, I had endless practice in debate and writing. People who write well and make persuasive arguments will do well no matter where they end up, because so many people coming out of our schools today can do neither. Third, steeping oneself in the great literature and thought of different cultures and historical periods deepens the imagination and increases empathy for others. That is perhaps the most useful result of all.
Ideas may be unequal, but people aren’t. A liberal education is inherently democratic. Most everyone can find something useful studying the classics in literature, history, the arts and other fields. You start by being a voracious reader. Read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Hoffer was a self-educated longshoreman who spent every spare second exploring the libraries of the world and surrounding himself with books. He didn’t have a college degree, and he didn’t need one. Today he would probably be on the Internet as well.
I wouldn’t recommend skipping a college degree in today’s world, but it’s only the start, and not the end, of a proper and truly useful education. Be a lifelong learner. Immerse yourself in the liberal arts. Who knows, you may stumble across a cool job somewhere along the way.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.