An education shouldn't be useful, argues The Public Discourse.

For the most part, though, books and articles discussing what has gone wrong in the American universities appear to have done little to seriously investigate the ancient and medieval origins of universities themselves....

In Book VII of The Republic, Socrates defended knowledge as sought after “with a view to the beautiful and good,” contrasting someone who deals with numbers for the sake of buying and selling with one who contemplates the mystery of numbers themselves. Aristotle perpetuated this liberal tradition (as opposed to servile tradition), defining ‘liberal’ as “that which tends to enjoyment… where nothing accrues of consequence beyond the using.” Education’s end, for Aristotle, was the pleasure of knowing itself. Cicero agreed, adding that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was “a condition of our happiness.” Such truth, he suggested, is the first thing pursued “as soon as we escape from the pressure of necessary cares.” This enterprise, as systematized by Marcus Varro and fortified by Augustine and Boethius, generated Western civilization’s curricular DNA, which we know as the liberal arts. Probably the best modern articulation of this tradition came with John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which—I am sorry to report—seems to have made no appearance at all in our current harping about the humanities. Newman, without requiring religious commitment, articulated the Socratic inheritance exquisitely:

Truth has two attributes—beauty and power; while Useful Knowledge is the possession of truth as powerful, Liberal Knowledge is the apprehension of it as beautiful....

Should this principle—knowledge for its own sake—be understood, the amount of time it takes to obtain a degree in the humanities comes into focus. Menand complains, “You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years.” But it is here that the medieval perspective illuminates, making nearly a decade of study seem not ridiculous, but just about right.
If a decade of intense study produces nothing but enjoyment, then it is rightly priced at the cost of a hobby: people often pour endless hours and cash into hobbies for mere enjoyment.

However, it seems to me that we know the arts are greater than that. They may have no point other than seeking the true and the beautiful, but that is not to say that they are good for nothing. Indeed, the ancient and medieval tradition -- which seeks and believes it can find the True and the Beautiful -- proves to be good for everything.

This is because truth and beauty are "transcendentals," qualities that belong to all categories instead of one only. That is as much as to say that all the categories belong to them. To know something about the true and the beautiful is to know something about everything.

You will rarely find in history a man of great accomplishment who has not taken this road at least a little way.

"Well," you may say, "fine for the medieval mind, or the ancient one; they were fools who believed that we could actually get (at least closer to) the 'True' and the 'Beautiful.' Today, of course, we are smarter and know better!"

That points the way to a useless education. Notice that the difference is really a principle of faith.

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