First, possess a soul

Tony Whall

May 24, 1991|By Tony Whall

MY STUDENTS and I sometimes have conflicting ideas about why they've come to college.

They're here, they tell me, to prepare for careers in this or that discipline -- nursing, business, teaching and so on. If that's so, I ask them, why are they studying Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas' poetry with me?

The more disaffected among them will respond that studying literature will "make me more well-rounded." And when I ask what that means, they tell me that referring to Hamlet someday might impress a jury, or quoting some poetry might perk up a patient. They don't really believe this will ever happen, but they tell me these things to assure me that I'm not wasting my time, or theirs.

Then I tell them that I'm afraid my course won't make them "well-rounded." I tell them that it's probably not going to help them either get a job or keep one. Most are puzzled by this admission; a few are resentful. Well then, they want to know, why are they required to study this stuff if it won't help them with their careers? Because, I say falteringly and with increasing trepidation, it may help you with your lives. Then come the frowns, the rolling eyes, the sighs. Someone looks at a watch as if to say, "Yes, well, let's please get on with it."

For many of my students, you see, education doesn't seem to have much to do with living their lives. For them, education is a tool, an instrument to be employed to attain security and success in the "real world." Education, that is, has very little to do with learning, and almost everything to do with training.

Little wonder, then, that history and philosophy and biology might be perceived by some as hurdles to be gotten over so they can get on with the real business of education -- career training. Little wonder, given this attitude, that they get so little out of their time spent in college.

The most depressing aspect of the sophisticated vocationalism which has crept into higher education in recent years is that it is so inhibiting -- so demeaning. Learning is liberating; it is directed, or should be directed, toward larger and better understanding, toward more artful living, toward more civil association, toward a fullness of life in affection, exuberance and action.

Assuming that the purpose of education is to prepare one for a career negates this nobler objective. Where learning calls us to the service of ideals, training calls us to labor for nothing greater than our own material needs. Where learning equips us with a historical and ethical perspective with which we may examine the status quo and, if necessary, strive to change it, training equips us to maintain it. Where learning imbues us with powers of reflection, discrimination and judgment, training inculcates in us a capacity for and willingness to follow directions and to obey. Where learning prepares us for leadership in the world, training makes us instruments of that world. Training, indeed, can enable us to make a living, but only learning can make living worthwhile.

Many of my students, especially the younger ones, don't buy any of this, of course. Their aim is to use education to secure a responsible and maybe even respectable position in the work place. Then, they insist, they'll have time and inclination for Mozart, for Rembrandt, for civic responsibility, for charity. But as they get older, and as they approach the day when they'll enter what they still perceive to be "real life" (as if college were but a dream), a few of them begin to wonder if perhaps they haven't missed something during the past three or four years.

They'll stop by the office and talk about their hopes and plans, and they'll ask about the poem we read in 102 about the boy and his girl and the owl in the attic. And we'll recall with pleasure Anthony Hecht's wonderful "End of the Weekend" with an eagerness and delight that was not possible four years ago.

At that moment I just might break out my copy of Cardinal Newman's "The Idea of a University," which argues learning is crucially, essentially useful for all who would be intellectually free and flexible, who would be more than well-honed instruments of commerce and industry. And this time, I know, they'll know what he means.

I attended my university's graduation ceremonies. As I watched the new graduates file past, I thought of the sacrifices they and their parents had made to prepare them for this day. I whispered to a friend and colleague, "I wonder how many of them have jobs." He looked at them for some moments, then turned to me and said, "I wonder how many of them have souls."

His is the wiser concern. Students must learn to worry about becoming more than laborer-consumers. They must come to us with a desire to think, write and speak truthfully and clearly. They must learn that their primary concern is to possess, above all, a soul. Then learning can take place, and training, as Newman wrote, will readily and easily follow.

Tony Whall is honors program director and professor of English at Salisbury State University.

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