03 May College vs. The School of Life | Inspirational Podcasts
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Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from “The School of Life” by Henry Van Dyke, published in 1905.
Life itself is the great school. Facts are teachers. Experiences are lessons. Friends are guides. Work is a master. Love is an interpreter. Teaching itself is a method of learning. Joy carries a divining rod and discovers fountains. Sorrow is an astronomer and shows us the stars. What I have lived I really know, and what I really know I partly own; and so beginning with what I know and what I own, I move through my curriculum, elective and required, gaining nothing but what I learn, at once instructed by every duty and every pleasure.
It is a mistake to say, “Today education ends, tomorrow life begins.” The process is continuous: the idea turns into the thought, the thought into the action, the action into the character. When the mulberry seed falls into the ground and germinates, it begins to be transformed into silk.
This view of life as a process of education was held by the Greeks and the Hebrews — the two races in whose deep hearts the stream of Western progress takes its rise, the two great races whose energy of spirit and strength of self-restraint have kept the modern world afloat. For the Greeks, the dominant idea was the unfolding of reason, the clarifying of the powers of thought and imagination. The ideal person was one who saw things as they are, and understood their nature, and felt beauty, and followed truth.
For the Hebrews, a heavier stress was place upon the concept of righteousness. The foundations of their school were the tablets on which the divine laws, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” were inscribed. The ideal of Hebrew education was the power to distinguish between good and evil, and the will to choose the good, and the strength to stand by it.
Thus these two great races of antiquity, alike in their apprehension of existence from the standpoint of the soul, worked out their thought of vital education, along the lines of different temperaments, to noble results.
Reason and Righteousness: what more could the process of life do to justify itself, than to unfold these two splendid flowers on the tree of our humanity? What third idea was there left to conceive, and cherish, and bring to blossom and fruition? There was only one — the idea of Service. Too often the sweet reasonableness of the Greek ideal tended to foster an intellectual isolation; too much the strenuous righteousness of the Hebrew ideal gave shelter to the microbe of hypocrisy.
A new Divine Teacher was required to perceive that righteousness is not reasonable (and reason is not righteous), unless they are both communicable and serviceable — that the highest result of our human experience is to bring forth better men and women, able and willing to give of that which makes them better to the world in which they live. In other words, the ultimate lesson that the school of life is to bring out includes — Reason, Righteousness, and Service.
But if life itself be the school, what becomes of our colleges and universities? They are, or they ought to be, simply preparatory institutions to fit us to go on with our education. Not what do they teach, but how do they prepare us to learn — that is the question. I measure a college not by the height of its towers, nor by the length of its examination papers, nor by the pride of its professors, but chiefly by their graduates’ ability to engage in a lifetime of learning. I do not ask, “Where did you leave off?” but “Are you ready to go on?”
Graduation is not a stepping out; it is either a stepping up (a promotion to a higher class) or a dropping to a lower one. The cause for which a student is dropped may be invincible ignorance, incurable frivolity, or obstructive and constrictive learning. Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison and Adams and Webster were college men. But Franklin, Washington, Marshall, and Lincoln were not. A college education is good only for those who can digest it.
The academic atmosphere has its dangers, of which the greatest are a certain illusion of infallibility, a certain fever of intellectual jealousy, and a certain dry idolatry of schedules and programs. But these infirmities hardly touch the mass of students, busy as they are nowadays with new technologies and youthful pleasures. The few who are affected more seriously are usually cured by contact with the larger world. Most of the chronic cases occur among those who really never leave the university, but pass from the class to the instructor’s seat, and from that to the professorial chair, and so along the spiral, bounded ever by the same curve and steadily narrowing inward.
Specialists we must have; and today we are told that a successful specialist must give their whole life to the study of some narrow field. For this a secluded and cloistered life may be necessary. But let us have room also in our colleges for teachers who have been out in the world, and touched life on different sides, and taken part in various labors, and learned how other people live, and what troubles them, and what they need.
Great is the specialist, and precious; but I think we still have a use for masters of the old type who knew many things, and were broadened by experience, and had the power of vital inspiration, and could start their pupils on and up through the struggles and triumphs of a lifelong education.
There is much discussion nowadays of the subjects which may be, or must be, taught in a college. At least a part of this controversy is futile. For the main problem is not one of subjects, but of aim and method. There are two ways of teaching any subject: one opens the mind, the other closes it. The mastery of the way to do things is the accomplishment that counts for future work. I like the teacher who shows me not merely where they stand, but how they got there, and who encourages and equips me to find my own path through the maze of books and the tangled thickets of human opinion.
Let us keep our colleges and universities true to their function, which is preparatory and not final. Let us not ask of them a yearly output of (quote) “finished scholars.” The very phrase has a mortuary sound, like an epitaph. The student who can learn no more has not really learned anything. What we want is not finished scholars, but well-equipped learners; minds that can give and take; intellects not cast in a mold, but masters of a method; people who are ready to go forward wisely towards a larger wisdom.
The chief benefit that a good student may get in a good college is not a definite amount of Mathematics and Chemistry, Botany and Biology, History and Logic, Business and Economics, though this in itself is good. But far better is the power to apprehend and distinguish, to weigh evidence and interpret facts, to think clearly, to infer carefully, to imagine vividly. Best of all is a sense of the unity of knowledge, a reverence for the naked truth, a perception of the variety of beauty, a feeling of the significance of literature, and a wider sympathy with the upward-striving, dimly-groping, perplexed and dauntless life of the individual.
I will not ask whether such a result of college training has any commercial value, whether it enables one to command a larger wage in the market-place, whether it opens the door to wealth, or fame, or social distinction; nor even whether it increases the chance of winning a place in the red book of Who’s Who. These questions are treasonable to the very idea of education, which aims not at a marketable product, but at a vital development.
The one thing certain and important is that those who are wisely and liberally disciplined and enlightened in any college enter the school of life with an advantage. They are “well prepared,” as we say. They are fitted to go on with their education in reason and righteousness and service.
I do not hold with the old epigram that “the true university is a library.” Through the vast wilderness of books flows the slender stream of literature, and often there is need of guidance to find and follow it. Only a genius or an angel can safely be turned loose in a library to wander at will. Nothing is more offensive than the complacent illusion of omniscience begotten in an ignorant person by the haphazard reading of a few volumes of philosophy or science.
There is a certain kind of reading that is little better than an idle habit, a substitute for thought. Of many books it may be said that they are nothing but the echoes of echoing echoes. If a good book be as Milton said, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured,” still the sacred relic remains solid and immovable. It needs a kind of miracle to make it liquefy and flow — the miracle of interpretation and inspiration — wrought most often by the living voice of a wise master, communicating to the young heart the wonderful secret that some books are alive.
Never shall I forget the miracle wrought for me by the reading of Milton’s poetry by my father in his book-lined study on Brooklyn Heights, and of Cicero’s Letters by Professor Packard in my Latin class at old Princeton. The Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians. But the Phoenicians used it for contracts, deeds, bills of lading, and accounts; the Greeks for poetry and philosophy.
Contracts and accounts, of all kinds, are for filing. Literature is of one kind only, the interpretation of life and nature through the imagination in clear and personal words of power and charm. And this is for reading. To get the good of the library in the school of life you must bring into it something better than mere bookish taste. You must bring the power to read, between the lines, behind the words, beyond the horizon of the printed page.
I want books not to pass the time, but to fill it with beautiful thoughts and images, to enlarge my world, to give me new friends in the spirit, to purify my ideals and make them clear, to show me the local color of unknown regions and the bright stars of universal truth.
Time is wasted if we read too much looking-glass fiction, books about our own class and place and period, stories of American college-life, society novels, tales in which our own conversation is repeated and our own prejudices are embodied. When I read, I wish to go abroad, to hear new messages, to meet new people, to get a fresh point of view, to revisit other ages, to listen to the oracles of Delphi.
The only writer who can tell me anything of real value about my familiar environment is the genius who shows me that after all it is not that familiar, but strange, wonderful, crowded with secrets unguessed and possibilities unrealized.
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