“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall” — Paul Simon.
Today I came across a meme that said: “Name something you learned in school you have never used in your adult life.”
It’s popular to doubt the value of all the things I must learn, or at least temporarily remember, to graduate from high school then to earn college degrees. The person who posted the meme asked, “How much of what you learned have you actually used?”
I answered, “I’ve used it all.”
Even that portion I’ve never applied directly has enriched my being with a spark of the breadth and depth of human intellectual endeavor. And if Homo sapiens were not knowing, I wouldn’t be sapient. I wouldn’t be human. Knowledge and education have provided my only route to rise above my innate animalistic nature.
There is nothing wrong being an animal: I am an animal, after all, and I rather enjoy being an animal at times, but the one opportunity I have to break through my narcissism and animalism lies in getting in touch not with myself but with the human community that lies outside the bounds of myself. The greater nexus lies not within me but outside of me in the ongoing history of human thought and endeavor.
“When America’s devastated and laid to waste by nuclear holocaust these are the skills that are gonna save ’em. Not finger painting or home economics, or ‘What is the capital of Texas?’ but survival! Rebuilding a civilization from a smoking ruin!” — Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast.
In the movie The Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) uproots his family from their pleasant if boring pastoral existence on a Pennsylvania asparagus farm, where Fox works as a fix-it man, and takes them to the aptly named Mosquitia (which is either a fictional country or a region of Honduras, which, by the way, means the depths, also apt for where Fox is headed). Fox is a perfectionist applying his practical engineering to the imperfect world as he passes through it — in the book he even installs rocking counterweights on the ship they take to Central America so the boat won’t rock so much in ocean swells.
Fox’s compulsive re-engineering expresses his discontent with the way things are made, and his technical discontent is a metaphor for his societal discontent. He rages against the cesspool of materialism that America has become. He rages against mindless consumerism. He rages against a perceived Japanese takeover of the American economy (in the 1980s people worried about Japan the way we worry about China today — in Blade Runner, another 1980s movie, America, even as it is building dismal off-world mining colonies, becomes an economic and cultural colony of Japan).
Fox is largely a self-made man who eschews education. In a narrative voice-over, his son tells us, “He dropped out of Harvard ‘to get an education,’ he said.” This hubris, as in all tragedy, is the seed of his downfall. At the risk of pulling a hackneyed cliché out of my hat, an autodidact has a fool for a teacher. And the fool’s pitfall lies in centering the learning in myself and not within the great human endeavor that went on before me and continues to go on without me. Allie Fox’s Utopia in the thick of the Mosquitia jungle is doomed from the start because it draws the reality of humanity like a sugar cube draws flies.
I disagree with Fox. After a nuclear holocaust — may the gods forbid — what makes rebuilding worthwhile lies in whatever troves and scriptoria that will enable us to have a true rebirth, a Renaissance, and yes, that includes finger painting, human ecology, and “What was the capital of Texas?”
The Philistine’s lament over “superfluous education” comes from my innate narcissism. Education liberates me from the prison of self, with its all too brief lifespan, and puts me on the enduring plane of humanity, which, if not eternal, has existed several millennia and will presumably continue well beyond the extent of my mortal coil. Perceiving learning in terms of how useful it is to my ephemeral corporal being totally lacks the perspective of humanity as a whole.
Too many people confuse universities with vo-tech schools. Even when we receive our vocational, technical, or professional training at a university, most schools pay at least lip service to the idea of a liberal arts education in which we learn about the great ideas and discussions. Professional training teaches me how to make a living, but an education teaches me to live, takes me to a whole new level in which I crack through the narcissism that swaddles me from birth. I begin to realize that, no matter how small and insignificant, I am part of that great human history that exists within and without me, before and after me.