Purpose of Education?: “The World Needs You to be Smart”

[Last January I handed the following piece to the seniors in my 21st Century Short Fiction and Poetry Class. We were just about to finish a collection of short stories by Stephen Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter) and begin a poetry collection by Louise Gluck (A Village Life). A contemporary of mine at Sewanee, the author of the piece, Thomas Lakeman, has written three published novels and was the 2009 Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence. He currently serves as Director of Creative Strategy for eclipse Advertising, and he is a former Jeopardy! champion.]

The World Needs You To Be Smart

by Thomas Lakeman on Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 4:29pm

Each semester I ask my students the same question: What is the purpose of your education? As always, the most common answer is “To get a better job,” followed (distantly) by some variation on “To live a more fulfilling life.” These are good reasons, although I sometimes suspect that the most common unspoken answer is, “Because it’s expected of me” or “Because I don’t know what else to do.”

Just food for thought: is there anything wrong with the answer, “Because your country needs you to be smart”? Substitute “world” if you don’t want to stop with the U.S. Why is education almost universally spoken of as a selfish pursuit?  Come to think of it, why is happiness?

I haven’t read “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” yet (have you?), but I have to admit that what little I’ve heard about it has me stumped.  Western culture is so steeped in the concept of “The Pursuit of Happiness” as an individual right that we take it as axiomatic that a confident, fully self-realized, mentally free individual is not only happier but also has a greater chance of success in life.  What if that turns out not to be true?  Suppose that it could be proven that you will be more effective, more productive, more useful to society, and more brilliant if your brain is traumatized by self-criticism and your spirit perpetually crushed by the need to serve the ambitions of your ancestors?  Would you rather use your talents to the fullest, or would you rather be content?

I suppose it all matters how you define happiness.  We usually equate it with “feeling good about yourself,” “having what you want” or, more nebulously, “following your dream.”  If that’s the standard, then many of our brightest and best fail the test.  John Lennon, Mother Teresa, and Abraham Lincoln were able to accomplish a hell of a lot without ever quite managing to feel good about themselves.  Some, like Peter Sellers, were only capable of making strangers happy.  Part of what makes our captains of industry so industrious is that so many of them appear incapable of having what they want.  It’s what you don‘t have that drives you on.  And as for following the dream?  I myself am a big proponent of this standard of happiness, although I freely confess it has a tendency to put one out of touch with reality.  I could go so far as to say that’s the whole point of having a dream.  No matter what disappointments life throws your way, the dream endures — sublime, perfect, untouchable.  Meanwhile the world trammels on its way, untouched.

As near as I can figure, the only standard of happiness that makes sense is to be the cause of happiness in others.  And that education, so far as it has a practical purpose, exists to make this possible.  So that the goal becomes not to be happy, but rather to be inspiring, helpful, entertaining, enriching, comforting, enlivening, alive.  Of course, you can’t achieve this if you’re wasting your talents or doing something that you’re not very good at, or in the wrong environment altogether.  So I guess you need to be a little happy before you can be of any use to anybody else.  I don’t claim to have this completely worked out.  All I know is that I don’t see the point of my happiness if it’s just for me.  And I certainly don’t see the point of being miserable unless it’s doing somebody some good.

When I read Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics or laugh at a Peter Sellers movie, I feel the joy that life has so often denied to these people while they were creating their great works.  I am thankful that I owe so much of my liberty to people like Churchill, Lincoln, Grant, and Adams who were chronically dispeptic and depressed.  Think how many medical cures, great works of art, or social innovations were born as the response to some person’s individual tragedy.  When my grandfather was a young man, his infant daughter died partly because there was no hospital in South Baldwin County.  His response was to build a hospital in South Baldwin County.  The great thing is that you can replicate this story a millionfold.  Thomas Jefferson said that the art of living is the art of avoiding pain.  With all respect to Jefferson, he’s a liar.  He’d never have gotten anything done if he’d stayed happy.  And what good ever came of avoiding pain?

I imagine there are many people who will tell me, “But I am happy, and I am successful.”  I believe you.  Just as I will believe you if you tell me you’re beautiful, or smart, or an excellent tap-dancer.  I also know that whatever you are was not merely a genetic accident or the happy result of good parenting, but at least partly because you worked seriously hard to be those things.  And, things being what they are, they resulted because you were unhappy about something.  Has that source of unhappiness gone away?  Or is it still buried down there — a persistent itch, an ancient wound, still driving you on?

So this is how I want most to answer my students whenever the purpose of education is discussed:

Our country needs you to be smart.  The world needs you to be smart.  It’s how we beat the Russians into space.  It’s how Norman Borlaug fed the planet.  Stop feeling so good about yourself.  It’s holding you back.  Go get hurt a little.  Feel stupid.  Fail.  Learn from it.  You have a job to do, so get to it.

Think they’ll be happy to hear that?

[I found this a wonderfully provocative piece for at least two reasons: one, for Lakeman’s definition of happiness (“to be the cause of happiness in others”), and, two, for his assertion that our education is not for us alone but for our country and for the world. I particularly like his answer back to his students at the end, as well as the fact that he admits he does not have all the ramifications of what he is presenting worked out–I certainly don’t either.

Working in a school that boldly asserts that it wants to graduate students prepared to “serve and lead in a changing world,” I have found myself thinking back on Lakeman’s words for the last year. That is not to say I am ready to announce I fully align with each statement he makes–I struggle, for instance, with his assertion that: “I also know that whatever you are was not merely a genetic accident or the happy result of good parenting, but at least partly because you worked seriously hard to be those things. And, things being what they are, they resulted because you were unhappy about something.” While I readily agree that hard work is a common denominator of success, I am unwilling to concede that unhappiness is the only catalyst for success.  

To Thomas: thank you for allowing me to reprint your thoughts here. I hope you will write more on this topic someday. Happy New Year!] 

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