Has our Execution-focused age smothered our love of learning?

Why do you read books?  (or blogs, or magazines, or anything else?)

We live in an ever-more utilitarian age.  We read in order to do something.  We read in order to implement.  To put it in business terms, we read in order to “execute.”  In fact, we read the book Execution in order to execute.

There is an irony here.  Most people read, and then fail to execute.  But that is another discussion.

I’m writing about something deeper.  Has our execution-centered age lost something profound about the love of learning?  Last Sunday night on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney hinted at this.  It was prompted by the problems of unemployment.  He argued that we need more people “doing things.”  But, if they do, what about their college educations?  He ended his piece with these words:

Would it be a waste of education for someone who graduates from Yale for example, to become a plumber, an electrician or a bricklayer? We need people who can actually do things. We have too many bosses and too few workers.

More college graduates ought to become plumbers or electricians, then, go home at night and read Shakespeare.

John Henry Newman

I thought of all this as I read an excerpt of The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, the Oxford-educated Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland from 1854 to 1858.  (I read the excerpt in the volume The English Reader, selected by Michael Ravitch and Diane Ravitch).  One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Newman:  “To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have grown much.”

In The Idea of a University, Newman wrote:

I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart:  I answer, that what I have already said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end. Though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself.  Knowledge is capable of being its own end.  Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward…

Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind.

…it is more correct to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction…

I think about our monthly event, the First Friday Book Synopsis.  It is a wonderful collection of people who come for many reasons  — great food, great networking.  But I think that some (maybe most) of the folks who show up come for this simple reason – they want to learn.  They enjoy learning.  Not learn in order to do.  Just learn for the sheer joy of learning.  And, as I have often said, the more you know, the more you know.

Yes, it is true that learning might produce ripple effects that help in the utilitarian/execution arena.  But learning, just learning, learning for the sake of learning, is a noble pursuit – one that should be admired and cultivated.

——–

If you found this post worth pondering, you might want to also read this post:  Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books.

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