The True Aim of Education

2012-09-28

Recently I had the pleasure of re-reading Lin Yutang's fine book The Importance of Living, which was a bestseller in America back in 1938 but seems to be hardly known today. Lin was a writer and inventor and lexicographer, as well as a humanistic, almost Epicurean thinker in the Chinese tradition. One essay in particular from The Importance of Living strikes me as nearly perfect: his reflections on learning and education, entitled "Good Taste in Knowledge". I quote it here in full, with some comments afterward.

The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct. The cultured man or the ideal educated man is not necessarily one who is well-read or learned, but one who likes and dislikes the right things. To know what to love and what to hate is to have taste in knowledge. I have met such persons, and found that there was no topic that might come up in the course of the conversation concerning which they did not have some facts or figures to produce, but whose points of view were deplorable. Such persons have erudition, but no discernment, or taste. Erudition is a mere matter of cramming of facts or information, while taste or discernment is a matter of artistic judgement. In speaking of a scholar, the Chinese generally distinguish between a man's scholarship, conduct, and taste or discernment. [Hsüeh (scholarship); hsing (conduct); shih or shihchien (discernment, or real insight). Thus one's shih, or power of insight into history or contemporary events, may be "higher" than another's. This is what we call "power of interpretation," or interpretative insight.] This is particularly so with regard to historians; a book of history may be written with the most fastidious scholarship, yet be totally lacking in insight or discernment, and in the judgement or interpretation of persons and events in history, the author may show no originality or depth of understanding. Such a person, we say, has no taste in knowledge. To be well-informed, or to accumulate facts and details, is the easiest of all things. There are many facts in a given historical period that can easily be crammed into our mind, but discernment in the selection of significant facts is a vastly more difficult thing and depends upon one's point of view.

An educated man, therefore, is one who has the right loves and hatreds. This we call taste, and with taste comes charm. Now to have taste or discernment requires a capacity for thinking things through to the bottom, an independence of judgement, and an unwillingness to be bulldozed by any form of humbug, social, political, literary, artistic, or academic. There is no doubt that we are surrounded in our adult life by a wealth of humbugs: fame humbugs, wealth humbugs, patriotic humbugs, political humbugs, religious humbugs and humbug poets, humbug artists, humbug dictators and humbug psychologists. When a psycho-analyst tells us that the performing of the functions of the bowels during childhood has a definite connection with ambition and aggressiveness and sense of duty in one's later life, or that constipation leads to stinginess of character, all that a man with taste can do is to feel amused. When a man is wrong, he is wrong, and there is no need for one to be impressed and overawed by a great name or by the number of books that he has read and we haven't.

Taste, then, is closely associated with courage, as the Chinese always associate shih and tan, and courage or independence of judgement, as we know, is such a rare virtue among mankind. We see this intellectual courage or independence during the childhood of all thinkers and writers who in later life amount to anything. Such a person refuses to like a certain poet even if he has the greatest vogue during his time; then when he truly likes a poet, he is able to say why he likes him, and it is an appeal to his inner judgement. This is what we call taste in literature. He also refuses to give his approval to the current school of painting, if it jars upon his artistic instinct. This is taste in art. He also refuses to be impressed by a philosophic vogue or a fashionable theory, even though it were backed by the greatest name. He is unwilling to be convinced by any author until he is convinced at heart; if the author convinces him, then the author is right, but if the author cannot convince him, then he is right and the author wrong. This is taste in knowledge. No doubt such intellectual courage or independence of judgement requires a certain childish, naïve confidence in oneself, but this self is the only thing that one can cling to, and the moment a student gives up his right of personal judgement, he is in for accepting all the humbugs of life.

Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship; he said, "Thinking without learning makes one flighty, and learning without thinking is a disaster." He must have seen enough students of the latter type in his days for him to utter this warning, a warning very much needed in the modern schools. It is well known that modern education and the modern school system in general tend to encourage scholarship at the expense of discernment and look upon the cramming of information as an end in itself, as if a great amount of scholarship could already make an educated man. But why is thought discouraged at school? Why has the educational system twisted and distorted the pleasant pursuit of knowledge into a mechanical, measured, uniform and passive cramming of information? Why do we place more importance on knowledge than on thought? How do we come to call a college graduate an educated man simply because he has made up the necessary units or weekhours of psychology, medieval history, logic, and "religion"? Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student's mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?

The reason is simple. We have this system because we are educating people in masses, as if in a factory, and anything which happens inside a factory must go by a dead and mechanicial system. In order to protect its name and standardise its products, a school must certify them with diplomas. With diplomas, then, comes the necessity of grading, and with the necessity of grading come school marks, and in order to have school marks, there must be recitations, examinations, and tests. The whole thing forms an entirely logical sequence and there is no escape from it. But the consequences of having mechanical examinations and tests are more fatal than we imagine. For it immediately throws the emphasis on memorization of facts rather than on the development of taste or judgement. I have been a teacher myself and know that it is easier to make a set of questions on historical dates than on vague opinions on vague questions. It is also easier to mark the papers.

The danger is that after having instituted this system, we are liable to forget that we have already wavered, or are apt to waver from the true ideal of education, which as I say is the development of good taste in knowledge. It is still useful to remember what Confucius said: "That scholarship which consists in the memorization of facts does not qualify one to be a teacher." There are no such things as cumpulsory subjects, no books, even Shakespeare's, that one must read. The school seems to proceed on the foolish idea that we can delimit a minimum stock of learning in history or geography which we can consider the absolute requisite of an educated man. I am pretty well educated, although I am in utter confusion about the capital of Spain, and at one time thought that Havana was the name of an island next to Cuba. The danger of prescribing a course of compulsory studies is that it implies that a man who has gone through the prescribed course ipso factor knows all there is to know for an educated man. It is therefore entirely logical that a graduate ceases to learn anything or to read books after he leaves school, because he has already learned all there is to know.

We must give up the idea that a man's knowledge can be tested or measured in any form whatsoever. Chuangtse has well said, "Alas, my life is limited, while knowledge is limitless!" The pursuit of knowledge is, after all, only like the exploration of a new continent, or "an adventure of the soul," as Anatole France says, and it will remain a pleasure, instead of becoming a torture, if the spirit of exploration with an open, questioning, curious and adventurous mind is maintained. Instead of the measured, uniform and passive cramming of information, we have to place this ideal of a positive, growing individual pleasure. Once the diploma and the marks are abolished, or treated for what they are worth, the pursuit of knowledge becomes positive, for the student is at least forced to ask himself why he studies at all. At present, the question is already answered for the student, for there is no question in his mind that he studies as a freshman in order to become a sophomore, and studies as a sophomore i order to become a junior. All such extraneous considerations should be brushed aside, for the acquisition of knowledge is nobody else's business but one's own. At present, all students study for the registrar, and many of the good students study for their parents or teachers or their future wives, that they may not seen ungrateful to their parents who are spending so much money for their support at college, or because they wish to appear nice to a teacher who is nice and conscientious to them, or that they may go out of school and earn a higher salary to feed their families. I suggest that all such thoughts are immoral. The pursuit of knowledge should remain nobody else's business but one's own, and only then can education become a pleasure and become positive.

In the spirit of Lin's principle of being able to say why you like a poet or a thinker, here is why I so like this essay...

First, taste or discernment is essentially wisdom. Indeed, the Latin cognates of sapience (as in Homo Sapiens) are the verb sapio (to taste of or have the flavor of, to have a sense of taste) and the noun sapor (a taste, a relish, a flavor, a savor). Thus Lin's insight about taste or discernment is quite congruent with the ancient roots of Western civilization and the true meaning of philosophy as the love and practice of wisdom.

The connection of wisdom with intellectual independence and getting to the bottom of things is something we also find in Thoreau: "Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe...till we come to the hard bottom of rocks in place, which we can call reality." And Lin's list of humbugs could to some extent come straight out of Epicurus, with the latter's disdain for celebrity, fame, wealth, politics, established religion, and other unnatural pursuits.

In order to escape the humbugs of life, one must have courage and independence and a fundamental confidence in oneself. One must, in a word, think. Yet our factory school system discourages thinking and self-confidence and independence and courage, because it focuses on the mass and not on the individual. Any minimum stock of knowledge quickly becomes a maximum for most people because the minimum is appropriate only for the least common denominator in any given subject (and don't forget that the minimum for me in a given subject might be quite different from the minimum for you: I am not deeply interested in, say, biochemistry but the subject might utterly fascinate you). A mass approach takes all the pleasure out of learning, and only if pleasure goes hand-in-hand with learning will one continue to learn though one's entire lifespan. Lifelong learning is deeply important because it is evidence of an ever-growing, ever-green spirit of curiosity and exploration. One who has stopped learning is spiritually and intellectually dead inside, even if they make other people happy or earn lots of money. Lin is not saying that making other people happy or earning a living is immoral, only that it is immoral to hold those things as the goal of learning; for the true aim of education is a neverending upward path to wisdom, which is one of the primary goals of a life well lived.


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