Collected Wisdom: An Argument for Understanding

Revisiting J. Z. Smith’s 1982 Aims of Education address

By Jordan Holliday

Before getting too far along in this "Collected Wisdom" series, I should mention that the second word of that title couldn't have been chosen with tongue planted any more firmly in cheek. The Maroon does what it can to report the news (and if you've got a tip, here's our e-mail), but of course we make no pretense of having exclusive scoops on wisdom or weighty truths. We leave that stuff to our Hum instructors.

The one exception to that disclaimer may be today's entry, which came to the Maroon and the Class of 1986 courtesy of J. Z. Smith, the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities and a historian of religion.

This is a recent photo of Smith:

His interview with former Maroon editor Supriya Sinhababu is one of the most-read pieces in our site's history. Looking through that interview will give you a good idea what Smith is about. At risk of understatement, I'll just describe him as a B.M.O.C.

In 1982, Smith delivered the Aims of Education address, an Orientation Week tradition in which one faculty member explains to the newly-arrived students why exactly they all just paid however many thousands of dollars and moved their belongings however many hundreds of miles to this fine University.

Really, it's the sort of topic—aims of education—that might fairly be broached sometime before Thursday of O-Week.

To that end, here are a couple fragments from J. Z. Smith's remarks to Class of 1986, which he delivered on September 24, 1982, and which were printed in their entirety in the October 1, 1982, edition of the Maroon. Smith began by saying that with the etymology of "aims" and popular understanding of "education" being what they were, "A Guess about Education" would be a more-fitting title for his speech.

(As a quick teaser for tomorrow's Collected Wisdom, a fourth-year and Maroon columnist name of David Brooks—who later offered another take on the Aims of Education elsewhere—wrote a response of sorts to Smith's talk. That'll be up for perusal tomorrow evening.)


I have already stipulated [our] domain when I said, earlier, that "education, in the context in which we gather this evening, means baccalaureate education or liberal education." But what is that?

The species "liberal" of the genus "education" implies there are other sorts of education meant to be excluded, but which, by contrast, might help in understanding the term. Alas, in common parlance, the term "liberal" has been so co-opted by sectarian politics that I would not be surprised if somewhere, someone harbors the delicious thought that "fascist learning" is the obvious antonym—but that is scarcely what is usually implied. I must confess that, at least for me, the original contrast is no less political, and, in many ways, more embarrassing.

Resorting again to the dictionary, that common resource of both learned speakers and authors of freshmen term papers, one finds that the original contrast was between the "Liberal Arts" and the "Servile Arts," the former being:

…worthy of a freeman, pertaining to persons of superior social station, i.e. a gentleman.

Worse yet, the Oxford English Dictionary goes on to illustrate the meaning of the word "liberal" in the Liberal Arts with the following quotation from 1801:

Two centuries back, horse racing was conceived as a liberal pastime, practiced for pleasure not for profit.

Much of what I hear from colleges appears to continue this tradition of understanding Liberal Education is a "gentlemen's agreement" in every sense of the phrase. Robbed of but a bit of its social discrimination and snobbery, most of us in the academy remain faithful to this original sense—the "Liberal" as opposed to the "Servile"; "a pastime practiced for pleasure not for profit"—when we all but automatically juxtapose as the polar categories "Liberal Education" to "Professional" or "Pre-professional Education."

In the time of the old Colonial colleges, admission to a profession was largely through apprenticeship, after or alongside of the Baccalaureate course of study. What formal professional academic programs existed were remarkable chiefly for their brevity. College was where one acquired "character"; outside of college, or after college, was where one acquired a career. This understanding of a College of Liberal Arts was not only a "gentlemen's agreement," it was designed to make gentlemen agreeable.

Colleges were understood to be, primarily, finishing schools. Courses in general education (and most were), courses in the range of the Liberal Arts, were designed to impart a certain savoir-faire, a broad civil, cultural, and civic veneer to a group of largely middle- and upper-class students (predominately male) for most of whom jobs were waiting and leisure time assured. Liberal Arts Colleges were designed to lay the foundations for the fruitful enjoyment of the non-working portions of their students' lives by introducing them to an appreciation for, and convention of discourse about, the arts; to a broad range of intellectual and historical generalizations which would serve to make them informed, urbane laypersons and citizens. Liberal learning was the acquisition of the civilized art of gossip—both in the sense of intimate, chatty talk, and in the more archaic sense of god-sibb, "a kinsman." That is to say, putting the two together, it was the acquisition of skills in the sort of talk appropriate between closely-related equals, either by birth, class, or station. The campus green, that inevitable feature of all old-line colleges, served as but a miniature version of (and, later, substitution for) that genteel, civil space for leisurely discourse known variously as the "promenade" or "boulevard."

We do not reflect often enough together on the delicious yet terrifying freedom undergraduate education offers by [its] rigid temporal restraints. Regardless of what we do, we must do it in the equivalent of four years. This is an article of numerological faith more firmly held by the academy than reverence for the number seven was by the ancient Pythagoreans. What this means—once more—is that we cannot, we do not, have to "cover" everything. As long as we conceive of the Bachelor's degree as having a completion and integrity of its own, then there is nothing that must be studied or taught, nothing that cannot be left out. A college curriculum, whether represented by a particular course, a program, or a four-year course of study, thus becomes an occasion for deliberate, collegial, institutionalized choice. This, then, is what our common discourse needs to be about. This is what binds us together as colleagues. How together can we forcibly seize this freedom? This can only be addressed by subjecting our guesses to mutual clarification and argument.

I take as a corollary to this that each thing taught or studied is taught or studied, not because it is "there," but because it is an example, an exempli gratia of something that is fundamental, something that may serve as a precedent for further interpretation and understanding by providing an arsenal of skills and paradigms as resources from which to reason, from which to extend the possibility of intelligibility to that which may first appear to be novel or strange.

Given this—that that which is taught or studied is by way of an "e.g.," that the curriculum is an occasion for institutionalized choice—then the primary choice, by both faculty and students alike, is what shall the things studied, what shall the things taught, exemplify? This ought to be explicit in every academic endeavor, at every level of the curriculum.

Behind such a view of education stands a set of presuppositions, of guesses, if you please, concerning knowledge. Chief among these is that the world is not "given." It is not simply "there." We constitute it by acts of interpretation. We constitute it by speech, and by memory, and by judgment. It is by an act of human will, through projects of language and history, through words and memory, that we fabricate the world and ourselves. But there is a double sense to the word "fabrication." It means both "to build" and "to lie." Education comes to life at the moment of tension generated by this duality. For, though we have no other means than language for treating with the world, words are not, after all, the same as that which they seek to name and describe. Though we have no other recourse than to memory, to precedent, if the world is not to be endlessly novel and, hence, forever unintelligible, the fit is never exact, nothing is ever quite the same. What is required at this point of tension is the trained capacity for judgment, for appreciating and criticizing the relative adequacy and insufficiency of any proposal of language and memory.

What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult enterprise of making interpretative decisions, and facing up to their full consequences, ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study.

In this regard, college is not unlike the work-a-day world. Perhaps the major difference is that we are allowed the privilege elsewhere limited only to television cameras when they cover sports. For we can make our decisions in "slow motion," we can have the benefit of "instant replay," in order the that processes of arriving at a decision, as well as its outcome, can be carefully studied, evaluated, and argued.

The fundamentals of a collegiate Liberal Arts education, from such a viewpoint, are decisions between interpretations, the skills attendant upon the understanding of particular interpretations, and the ability to translate one interpretation in terms of another. Above all, they are that which leads to the capacity for argumentation, and, therefore, to responsible judgements. My guess about education is that it is, essentially, argument. Education is argument about interpretations.

Despite what you may have been told, college is not a "learning experience." Planaria, bees, mice, perhaps even machines, can all learn. They can process information and retain it. They can discern repetitive, significant patterns on the basis of past experience. They can undertake efficient and effective action on the basis of such information and patterns. And, if this fails, perhaps they can innovate. But no other being than man, as far as we know, can argue. For argument is not based on the world as it is, but rather on what the world might imply. It is the world refracted—no longer the world, but rather our world—a world of significance, interpretation, and, therefore, of argument. It is a world of social beings, not biological ones. For significance, interpretations, and argument are impossible without fellow men. Even as words, they seem strangely naked without their attendant prepositions: significance is significant for; interpretation is interpretation to; argument is argument with. It is this "second environment," the social, in contradistinction to the natural, that is the area and object of education.

All of this has been put with uncommon elegance in a lapidary formulation by that gifted and ingenious Argentinean author, Borges:

Reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but hypotheses may not.

To translate Borges into our more prosaic terminology, this difference is caused by the fact that we do not argue with the world, but with each other. We argue with one another's hypotheses, proposals, and interpretations, with the way each construes the world or its parts.

I do not know what came to your mind when you heard Borges's word, "interesting." Although, for me, it is the most solemn and powerful word I can utter, it has suffered grievous banalization.

We say "How interesting" when we really mean, "Ho hum." "How was Smith's talk?" "Oh, it was interesting," constitutes a prime example of what is meant by "damning with faint praise." To find something interesting is often no more than what a Frenchman means when he finds it "very amusing" (tres amusant).

Such a notion of "interesting" is appropriate to that genteel social world constituted by gossip. Here, what is "interesting" is the unexpected, the slightly out-of-place. "Is he handsome?" "No, but he has an interesting face." "Isn't it interesting"—raised eyebrows—"who she was with last night?" "

This understanding of "interesting" reminds me of those sixteenth century "cabinets of curiosities," direct ancestors of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and "That's Incredible," more remote ancestors of our contemporary museums. The cabinets displayed a hodgepodge of exotica, arranged in pleasing aesthetic patterns. Thus seashells, coins, fossils, a coconut, a shrunken head, a dried seahorse, a mermaid's hand, an oriental dagger, and a "fragment of the Tower of Babel" (to quote one catalog) would be juxtaposed, one to the other, with no reason except that they "catch the fancy" of the spectator. Note that with the possible exception of the mermaid's hand and the fragment from Babel (which were genuine artifacts mislabeled), everything in such a collection was "real." The objects were factual, but they were meaningless, they were insignificant in the strict sense of the word. For they told no story, they raised no questions—they were inarticulate. Or, at best, they provided an occasion for gossip. "See that? Tres amusant!"

Translated into the world of collegiate education, such a gossipy, inconsequential understanding of "interesting" is what often governs the elective curriculum and, all too often, the survey course.

What I have described, thus far, is the notion of "interesting" as often trivialized for common discourse. But there is another understanding, one closer to its original meaning as continued in the legal and commercial term, "interest." In this understanding, things that are "interesting," things that become objects of interest, are things in which you have a stake, things which place you at risk, things which are important to you, things which made a difference.

When a book, an idea, an object is found "interesting" in this sense, it is not because it titillates, but rather because it challenges. Ultimately, because it challenges the way in which you have construed the world. It is "interesting" because it may compel you to change.

In contradistinction to the objects displayed in the "cabinets of curiosities," objects of interest are supremely articulate, or rather, they require you to be articulate. They call forth speech and discourse, not gossip. They provoke argument. As such, they cannot be allowed to stand alone as isolated specimens, or be arranged in superficially pleasing patterns. They must be integrated into a coherent view of the world, or they must challenge your previous proposals of coherence and integration. Things may be most "interesting" when they are capable of being construed in a variety of ways, and when we may tot up the gain or loss of each proposal. Things are "interesting" in the fullest sense of the word, when they exemplify, when they signify, when they criticize, when they entail—in short, when they have consequences, when they are consequential.

Such objects of interest ought to be the focus of a Liberal Arts collegiate education. To allow such "interest," the curriculum as well as each course must be coherent and integrated, or be critical. Each must strive self-consciously to be consequential. This cannot be left to chance or whim, to the random accretion of distribution requirements and the like. Courses must be designed to be "interesting." For students cannot be asked to be consequential while the faculty abstains. Students cannot be asked to integrate what the faculty will not. Students will not be critical if the faculty is not.

In a few days, many of you will begin courses in the "Common Core." It is the place in the curriculum of this College where this understanding of "interesting" is most clearly, articulately, and persistently striven for, if not always achieved. It is possible to view these courses as the introductions, as beginning moments in the study of particular subject matters or disciplines. It is possible to view many of these courses as surveys of great books or great ideas in the development of our culture or its many aspects. But to do so, I would hold, would be to trivialize them. We do not undertake such studies for the sake of gossip, but rather for the sake of argument. We do not participate in courses in the Sciences, the Social Studies, and the Humanities in order to learn a smattering about each to enliven future cocktail parties, or to make us better consumers of the evening's news.

I do not care if months from now you no longer recall what particular thing Aristotle or Weber said, if you no longer remember what a virtual proton is thought to "be" according to some perturbation theory. But I would insist that you gain some sense of the arguments between these major forms of human knowledge. What if man and the world is as the Humanities, or the Social Sciences, or the Sciences would have it? What then? What would it be like to live in such a world? What modes of speech would you have to master in order to translate your perception of the world and your humanity into theirs? Or, to translate these rival perceptions into each other's terms? Is man and the world constituted by speech and by symbols—as some would have it? Is man and the world constituted by both indeterminacy and law—as some would have it? In each of these major arguments, although the data may often be the same, what "counts," as well as the methods and strategies of persuasion, will be quite different.

So too with the rest of the curriculum. Despite the staggering array of courses that we offer, you have not entered some supermarket in which a variety of cultures, ideas, techniques, and world views are displayed in order to tempt you to pick this one for today and some other for tomorrow; a supermarket in which you will cheerfully pick up the special of the week, pay the cashier, hand your coupons (i.e. your credits), and receive a diploma. We are here to traffic in "interesting" matters; at times, in life and death questions for ourselves and others. There are arguments and decision to be made as to "what is the case" and how we should treat with it. For we have the option—you and I—of living in a world that we think of as being merely "at hand," or a world that is constituted by our arguments, and ratified by our accepting full responsibility for the consequences of the critical, interpretative decisions we have made.

I do not speak of some conversion experience by which you accept this or that interpretation as true for all times, some "Eureka!" after which everything will become clear and plain to see. Each proposal, no matter how imperialist its claims or persuasive its justifications, is but partial. That is why, after all, there is argument about, and between, interpretations. That is why there is education.

Indeed, there is more. Above all, there is the never ending work: the task of mastering the diversity of objects of interest, and the acquisition of the varied languages for intelligent discourse about them; the labor of constructing integration and coherence; the exertions of criticism; the responsibilities of judgment. This is the work of a lifetime, and it is the work of life.

For, in the end, to guess about education is to guess about the world. To undertake the work of education is to undertake the work of the world. In challenging you to accept these tasks, I charge you in the words of an ancient teacher:

If not by us, then by whom? If not now, then when?


More Collected Wisdom: Welcome to Chicago