Sunday Snippet: Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977)

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

Tomorrow is Labour Day (or “Labor Day” for our American readers) and so children all across the land will soon be going back to school (if they haven’t already). And as they get buried in quadratic equations, the poetry of William Blake and the history of Ancient Mesopotamia, they might wonder why they even need to know about the Babylonians and Sumerians. What’s the point? Why learn this stuff at all?

While it may be true that many of the facts and formulas you learn in school probably aren’t going to be used in your daily lives as an adult, this should not discount the tremendous value of a proper education. Having a highly educated public benefits society as a whole, because it’s in no one’s best interest to be surrounded by “a bunch of stupid people.” Well, there are some politicians who might prey on that, but that’s another discussion for another day.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned over the course of university career was how to think for myself, how to educate myself, how to be skeptical of everything I hear and read. That’s the sentiment being expressed by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the educational philosopher who served as the president (1929-1945) and chancellor (1945-1951) of the University of Chicago. Prior to that, he was the Dean of Yale Law School and that was before he turned 30.

You may be able to educate yourself to a certain degree, but the structure and expertise of a formal academic environment offers tremendous benefit. When you surround yourself in a place of learning, interacting with and learning from your fellow students, you expose yourself to new perspectives and new possibilities. Higher education in particular is not necessarily about learning facts as much as it is about arming students with the tools to learn, to question and to answer.

“My view of university training is to unsettle the minds of young men, to widen their horizons, to inflame their intellects. It is not a hardening, or settling process. Education is not to teach men facts, theories, or laws; it is not to reform them, or amuse them, or to make them expert technicians in any field; it is to teach them to think, to think straight if possible; but to think always for themselves.”

To this end, and both Robert Maynard Hutchins and I are certainly biased in our opinion, but I strongly feel that a liberal arts degree is not a waste of money. It’s not meant to be a means to an end. It’s a means to a beginning. It’s a means to a process that never ends. United Methodist senior pastor Ralph Washington Sockman puts it another way:

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”

We should never stop wondering. And we should never stop looking for the answers to the questions we wonder about. That is the true value and purpose of education. Take a page out of Robert Maynard Hutchins and never stop learning.