Monday, May 04, 2009

`Our Better Education'

Frank Wilson has devoted much thought to education and how to distinguish it from vocational training, and I witness almost daily the sabotage of true education, in Frank’s sense:

“The idea that a person should go to school in order to learn to appreciate life and art, and to think clearly and speak what he thinks clearly and eloquently is alien to our society. How many people with Ph.D.s today spend any time listening to Beethoven's late quartets or even stop into a museum to see a favorite painting by a favorite artist - a Chardin still life, shall we say, or a Sargent watercolor? How many read the classics? Such things are not mere entertainments. They are a means of enriching the soul.”

Such language will seem quaint to those whose education was nonexistent or strictly utilitarian, and who have never read Montaigne, Burton and Nirad C. Chaudhuri – the last, author of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). Chaudhuri (1897-1999) is one of the great charmers of the 20th century, the patron saint of provincials and late-bloomers. He was born in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, son of a lawyer who thought Nirad was the one among his six sons who would never succeed. At the start of the chapter devoted to his father, Chaudhuri paints an oblique portrait of a truly educated person:

“The thing my father was primarily interested in was education. He never tried to define his idea of good education, but his casual remarks on this subject, his verdicts on men and things, and his emotional reactions to the different kinds of human activity, made it plain that what he understood by education was acquisition of knowledge, accompanied by and inseparable from the training and development of all the mental faculties, and more especially the intellect. These two aspects of education were to him not only equally essential but, as he seemed to assume, automatically contributory to each other’s growth. He not only felt that the one was useless without the other, he also felt that they were, like the twin gods of Aryan mythology, always present together and always to be worshipped together.”

A 19th-century Indian lawyer shares a sensibility with one of Frank’s favorites, Albert Jay Nock, an unclassifiable American thinker who was a close contemporary. Chaudhuri’s father probably would have appreciated Nock’s distinction between formative and instrumental knowledge. Chaudhuri writes of his father, in language that recalls both Frank’s and Nock’s:

“…what he had assumed was that worldly success would attend us as a corollary to our better education without being made its primary purpose. He was not disposed to treat education as the means to an end or as vocational training.”

Every day I meet people whose training for life has been narrowly and systematically focused, and who seem almost without exception to be bored, lonely and without purpose. After 13, or 17, or more years in school they have succeeded in remaining uneducated.

1 comment:

Anthony Whittaker said...

The challenge, enjoyable though it may be, is the recognition that one's education was grossly sabotaged and the adult attempt to ameliorate the consequences of that sabotage.