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I have a truly smart niece who is a serious scholar about to achieve her PHD. When people whom I have not seen for some time ask me about her I always announce this proudly, since I admire her dedication to her goal immensely and honor the sacrifices she has made to get where she is. It amazes me how many people have less enthusiastic reactions to my update on her life. They often do mental math which establishes that she is 31 years old and ask me things like, 'What has she been doing all this time?' or 'How has she been living?' What they really mean is why would anyone go to school that long and how has she managed without a 40 hour a week job, a mortgage, and a couple of kids?
In our highly specialized technological society scholarship no longer has much in the way of value. There was a time when the acquisition of knowledge was a meaningful and admirable thing – now much of society considers it largely useless. It is assumed that scholars will end up teaching in universities, passing on their useless knowledge to young people pursuing equally useless knowledge. I know a young man who is currently getting a degree in engineering who believes that all liberal arts degrees are a monumental waste of time. To him, technology is all there is and anything that has no practical applications is useless. I find this very sad for many reasons. Granted, the amount of things to know, which has only increased exponentially with each generation, is vast, and there is so much of it that it has become rather necessary to concentrate primarily on one subject area, but despite that, I find the attitude toward academic scholarship a little limited and arrogant. In my mind, the pursuit of any and all knowledge is a value entirely unto itself which requires no justification. Why do we have this great big, honking brain if not to fill it with as much stuff as we can? Isn't that the most singular aspect of humanity that sets us apart from other creatures? Isn't that what we are supposed to do?
There was a time when I was substitute teaching a history class in middle school and I used to have students, who hated history, ask me why they had to study it and what it had to do with their lives anyway? I got a lot of that. I always answered it by asking them to pick a situation in current events that was of some concern to them. Naturally, if there is a war or conflict going on at the time, they generally chose that. Then I would walk them backwards through history to attempt to discern how things evolved to conflict level in the first place. We always had to go back much farther than they expected into history that they neither knew or had ever heard of. It was amazing how many of them had to rethink their positions on things when they had a better sense of history and how surprised they would be by events in the past that seemed extraordinarily stupid in hindsight. I would point out that the present point in time would also eventually become hindsight, and hence, history. That made them think about the possible stupidity of events in real time. The important point is – it made them think.
Everyone likes to believe that thinking is a natural kind of activity requiring no instruction. This is true if you happen to be thinking about what to have for dinner or what to wear to the prom, but there is a big difference between thinking and reasoning, which is an altogether different kettle of carp, and I fear that we no longer assign the art of reasoning any value or bother to teach it to anyone. Reason has been replaced by opinion, which as we all know, is a dangerously flawed bit of business.
I recall a nice young man telling me that he was going to vote for a particular candidate for office because this person gave the impression of being an ordinary person.
“...just a regular person like me. Not some over educated smarty pants” he said.
“I see.” I commented. “So, you think that a regular person like yourself, your family, or your friends, someone with no more education or experience than you have is qualified or capable to manage the government and international diplomatic policy?”
“Are you kidding?” He asked, looking absolutely appalled, “No way.”
“Then why do you think this other regular person is qualified?” I asked.
Judging by the shocked confusion on his face, I gathered he had not thought about it from that angle. It is no wonder that statistics show that our children have very little interest and see minimal value in general education, we have compartmentalized knowledge into little cubbyholes and are perfectly happy with people being knowledgeable in one thing and hideously ignorant about everything else. It is the way of our world.
In the meantime, scholarship will continue to devalue, like the dollar, and scholars will have the dubious honor of teaching others and being in demand as a partner for games of Trivial Pursuit. That'll teach 'em.
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