Against “Practical” Knowledge

The value of a Classical Liberal Arts Education.

Given the mess that is today’s politicized college campus, students have even more reason to wonder, as they so often have wondered, why it is that they are being made to enroll in courses that at least appear to be devoid of all “practical” value.  Why should a mathematics major have to spend a semester enrolled in courses studying philosophers and poets?  

This is not an unreasonable question. Nor should we expect for students to think otherwise given our culture’s emphatic, indeed, dogmatic, insistence that the only type of knowledge worth having is “practical” knowledge, i.e. knowledge that regularly lends itself to uses from which one can expect substantive (typically monetary) dividends. 

Nevertheless, just a moment’s reflection on daily life readily puts the lie to the conventional wisdom that “useless” knowledge isn’t worth possessing, for such awareness reveals that it is wholly inaccurate to describe much of what human beings value, and what they value most, as “practical.”  

Whether it is love, compassion, honor, or honesty, it would be a gross injustice to characterize the worth of these virtues in terms of their “practical” value.  The relationship between friends, say, is not a mutually advantageous transaction, a “practical” arrangement that serves the interests of both parties. And millions of human beings don’t spend endless hours on social media perusing the posts of “friends,” followers, and strangers alike because they think that the knowledge that they’re deriving from doing so is going to serve a “practical” purpose.

One resolutely non-practical, “useless” activity in which people tend to relish (even if they aren’t always so good at it) is that of conversation. This undeniable fact about the human situation supplies faculty with an answer to this common inquiry among students: A classical liberal arts education is necessary because in being exposed to a variety of disciplines, students are becoming conversant with the several voices that compose the civilization to which they belong. 

In educating students into those excellencies of head and heart that a classical liberal arts education was designed to instill, students will become better conversationalists.  

To put this point succinctly, the liberal arts, ideally, constitute a conversation.  

Talking per se is not conversation.  Neither is argument to be confused with conversation. 

Argument is defined essentially by its end, the end of victory.  Participants in argument assume the personae of opponents and its terms are those of thesis and antithesis.       

Conversation, in contrast, has no end beyond itself.  Conversation is its own reward, an intrinsically satisfying activity that grants participants the opportunity to share themselves with one another.  Thus, conversation can only be had between those who assume the role of friends.  

Conversation can certainly contain disagreements and argumentative episodes, but it is never to be confused with an argument as such.  The argument is combative, the conversation intimate. The argument can agitate, while the conversation consoles.  The argument inflates its participants’ self-conceit, but the conversation serves as an antidote to the egocentricity of the interlocutors. 

Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say of conversation that inasmuch as it grants us a reprieve, however temporary, from the buying and selling, the doings of everyday “practical” life, it provides us with an intimation of immortality, a glimpse of eternity (If you want proof of this, consider the common experience of “losing all track of time” while engaged in a good conversation). 

Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance French thinker who pioneered the genre now known as the Essay, communicated this truth that conversation is worth pursuing for its own sake when he said of conversation that it is “the most delightful activity in our lives.”  Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, underscores this point when he remarks that conversation “is not instrumental.”  He quotes Judith Martin, the author of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciating Correct Behavior: “From the direct sales pitch to a play for the goodwill of influential people, the rule is that if it is designed to advance your career, it isn’t conversation.”

The 20th century philosopher Michael Oakeshott says of conversation that far from being “an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit,” it is “an unrehearsed [i.e. spontaneous] intellectual adventure.” For partners in conversation, “there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.”  Thus, fellow conversationalists “are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another,” but to “differ without disagreeing.”

That a conversation is an apt metaphor or model for a liberal arts education is established easily enough.

First, unlike argument, which allows for one and only one kind of voice—what one observer has called the voice of “science” or “argumentative discourse”—conversation accommodates a plurality of very different kinds of voices, of disciplines.  

Second, the image of a conversation underscores the autonomy of each of the disciplines that compose a liberal arts education.  Conversation is impossible in the absence of multiple voices, and the conversation that is the study of the liberal arts is impossible in the absence of multiple disciplines.  The disciplines, in other words, are irreducibly distinct voices. Hence, it is as impossible as it is rude—Oakeshott calls it an exercise in “barbarism”—for any voice to evaluate others by its own standards: the integrity of each voice precludes such attempts.

This last point entails a third: the cornerstone virtue inculcated by an education in the liberal arts is not, as has typically been thought, “tolerance.”  Of course, the latter is necessary, but it is considerateness that is paramount.  Participants in a conversation, inasmuch as they must be at least as committed to listening to the voices of others as they are committed to articulating their own, must be considerate of their interlocutors in two respects: They are equally obliged to contribute their respective voices to the conversation and permit others to do the same.  Listening, then, is as important as speaking. 

Finally, unlike the argument, the knowledge gained via a conversation is not limited to propositions. If one thinks of knowledge primarily or solely in terms of the latter (which, unfortunately, is how far too many of us today think), then insofar as they are likely to forget a large share of the propositions imparted to them on the white boards and power point slides of their instructors, students are apt to think that they will become once more as ignorant of the subjects that they were made to take as they were before they took them.  So why bother?

Once, though, it is understood that knowledge is not exhausted by propositions, then this objection is put out to pasture. It is worth noting the observations of William Cory, an English school master from the early 20th century who remarked that students “are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism [.]”

While a “certain amount of knowledge” can be secured and recollected, much is forgotten, Cory acknowledged.  Yet the latter is no cause for regret, “for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects” students “from many illusions.” Still, Cory asserts, an education isn’t so much for “knowledge as for arts and habits [.]”  More precisely, the knowledge is largely arts and habits.  

A liberal arts education supplies students with “the habit of attention;” “the art of expression;” “the art of assuming at a moment’s notice, a new intellectual position;” “the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts;” “the habit of submitting to censure and refutation;” “the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms;” “the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy;” and “the art of working out what is possible in a given time [.]” 

Cory adds that a liberal arts education understood as a conversation breeds “taste, discrimination,” “mental courage and mental soberness.”  Perhaps most importantly, an education makes possible a degree of “self-knowledge” that would have otherwise remained foreclosed to students.

So, going forward, perhaps it isn’t just students, but all of us, who would be well served to discern in the liberal arts a grand conversation extending over time and space between the “voices” of the human race.

This is why it is valuable. ​


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