I see a meme pop up on Facebook from time to time of a young lady telling her family she’s decided to major in philosophy, to which her brother responds, “That’s good because they just opened up that big philosophy factory in Green Bay.” The meme is apparently inspired from the iconic That 70’s Show, and different variations on it can be seen on social media.
The meme betrays the inherent skepticism we have toward education that does not fulfill a utilitarian purpose. To study philosophy is a gigantic waste of time because it is not a job that will put bread on the table or support the common need of the nation. Philosophy is just the stereotype used, but the reaction is also true of any of the liberal arts and especially of the liberal arts as a whole. Just tell an adult you are going to major in the liberal arts and wait for the reaction; it will almost definitely be one of, “But what do you do with a liberal arts degree?”
The question that is never asked, though, is why do we respond that way? The unexamined assumption, that education has to have utilitarian ends, remains unexamined. Maybe it is time to ask the question, to examine the unexamined assumption. In a book I am currently reading, Leisure the Basis of Culture, author Josef Pieper writes:
Perhaps the reason why “purely academic” has sunk to mean something sterile, pointless and unreal is because the schola has lost its roots in religion and divine worship.
His perhaps ought to be more than just a perhaps. Schola, the Greek word for leisure from which we get the English word ‘school,’ had always been connected to religion and divine worship. This is true not only for the Greeks and Romans, but also for Medieval Christians and the ancient Hebrews. Education was ‘leisure’ precisely because it was rooted in celebration of the Divine. The fact that we so closely connect education and utility has carried over to our leisure. We no longer celebrate, in our leisure, the Divine, but rather use it as a utility to prepare us with the rest we need to go back to being utilized in the work force. More than that, though, that the purpose of education is utilitarian betrays that the purpose of man is one of utility. Education is no longer rooted to our religion and divine worship, because we no longer believe the purpose of man is for divine worship.
When someone asks you for what purpose you would study philosophy or the liberal arts, or what can you do with a philosophy or liberal arts degree, we ought to consider that the answer can and should be ‘better worship God with my whole body, mind, soul, and strength.’ And that’s okay, because the one who seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness will have the other things (food, clothing, and shelter) added unto him.
Maybe, we can return the question (lovingly, as unto a neighbor, as unto ourselves) with some questions of our own.
Does my education have to be in something I can do?
Is my purpose one of utility to society or is my purpose to glorify God and enjoy Him forever?