In today’s globalized market, where things, or ideas that can eventually produce things, are the only real global currency, the ancient Greek concepts of episteme (systematic knowledge) and sophia (wisdom) hold little value. In the US, both conservatives and liberals alike increasingly view education as merely a means to an end and not as an end in itself, i.e., as the way to deepen, enhance, and “heighten” life through the passionate and life-long pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—regardless of their market value. In other words, education, as we have known it in the West now for over 2500 years (called “the liberal arts”), has been reduced from wisdom and the joy of discovery (including self-discovery) to mere job-training and job-seeking. Wisdom has been set aside for the single-minded pursuit of profit and (therefore) power. And in the process, humanity has forsaken its true home in the realm of the sublime, which alone makes life worth living, in order to embrace instead the intellectual vacuity of vocational education. And along with this fundamental change in the purpose and conduct of education goes any chance of forging an ordered, well-regulated, rational society and government: For a people without rationality can never govern itself wisely.
Ever since Socrates, education was meant to counter the nihilism of a person wrongly valuing riches, fame, sensuality, and power in order to rightly value the passionate and life-long search for truth, goodness, and beauty, a quest begun here in this life but continued into the next. From Socrates and the great Greek tragedians (among many others) have come that wisdom which is cathartic in expelling vice and ignorance, and which has been handed down in unbroken succession in the West—until now—for over two and a half millennia.
But with conservatives, foundations, think-tanks, and CEOs stressing education simply for jobs; universities stressing increasing profits; and liberals stressing education merely for the glorification or indulgence of self; the passionate and life-long search for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which has given western civilization its Homer and its Sophocles, its Shakespeare and its Dante, its Goethe, Newton and Tolstoy, among others too numerous to mention—these monuments to intellect, goodness and beauty are no longer forming, or informing, our youngest minds. And the result, if finalized, can only be a permanent desiccation of their intellect and soul that cannot but make life even more difficult and more troubling both for them and for society than it already is.
A Liberal Arts education is the one true oasis in the desert of specialization and job-training. It is literally what men live and die for—what makes life worth living. Without it, we become merely obedient and clever dogs—we can (for either government or employer) run on cue, chase our tails, and bark at shadows…but most assuredly we cannot think—not as human beings should think, and were created to think. Humans alone share this ability to think, this capability, with God (“man was created in the imago Dei,” in God’s image), and it is this, the thinking of “divine” thoughts, that separates us humans from all other creatures on earth. For only we can aspire to and sacrifice for truth, give of ourselves to others out of goodness, and create works of indescribable and lasting beauty—that can wring tears from our souls, expressive of life’s deepest and most profound meanings.
But so little does this view of education obtain today that one is tempted to say that it is dead—moribund it most certainly is, but in many places, alas, also dead… and buried. And if this is true in the US, with its long and storied history of liberal arts, that once turned our European barbarian ancestors of earlier ages into more civilized human beings, and along the way gave to humanity (and not just to the West) democracy, the rule of law, justice tempered with mercy, constitutions, the separation of powers, universities, hospitals, the arts, philosophy, the theater, opera, mathematics, literature, science, inter alia—one must expect it to be true a fortiori in Asia where there is no millennia-long history of liberal arts to draw upon, and where technology, and the use of technology, now passes for “culture.” But lap-tops, cell phones, and TV are not, nor can they ever become, the equal of a Shakespeare, a Plato, a Bach, or a Michelangelo.
In Korea, e.g., where I now live and teach, and where the traditions and wisdom of a Confucius or a Buddha seem largely forgotten (or where remembered, so watered down as to be of virtually no help for living), education, as in so many other Asian countries, is merely for the sake of obtaining a well-paying job, period: And test-taking is the sole means to that end. Education in Korea, put in classical Greek terms, is mere, and only, techne (Gk. skill), not a broader search for truth, understanding, or general principles with which to guide one’s life by, let alone a passionate love of and devotion to truth and wisdom in order to bring joy and peace to one’s soul, and to make a contribution to one’s family, community, nation, or the world. As we know from Socrates, education was to reach through the individual to the larger community in which he lived. It was never intended to be an idiosyncratic (private) pursuit which could not help, directly or indirectly, one’s fellow citizens on the path and pilgrimage of Life.
So strong is the idea in Asia in general, and Korea in particular, that education is simply for jobs; and so willing and eager are Koreans to pay high fees in order to achieve this positive job-result, that offering to teach education for free, as I have done, simply for the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty for their own sakes, is taken to be either a sign of madness or incompetence or else a subterfuge for baser motives. For no one here takes the western liberal arts view of education seriously. The life of the mind here (as our great teacher Socrates instructed us as to how it should be) in Korea is a “dangerous idea”, just as it was in Greece for Socrates himself (who was accused of “corrupting the young” and “introducing new gods” and was executed by Athens as a result—he, Socrates, the wisest and best man of his time according to Plato).
There is indeed nothing so dangerous, so revolutionary, so upsetting, both to families and to governments, than an individual’s life-long, single-minded devotion to the pursuit of truth, and the living out, as best one can, of a life of goodness, supported by deep and passionate attachment to beauty (in its various guises of poetry, piety, art, architecture, empathy, self-giving love, literature, etc). Forget the dangers of revolutionaries like Marx. Nothing in history has proven to be more dangerous to the status quo than a person who can think—truly think—for himself. As tyrants like Kim Jong-Il of North Korea know only too well, you can kill the body but you cannot kill an idea—and so it is with ideas—especially ideas of justice, goodness, and righteousness—that make every tyrant’s soul tremble the most. (This trembling, of course, being but a foretaste of divine judgment.)
The whole revolutionary idea of Western culture, of the liberal arts, may be conveniently summed up in the extraordinary words of Jesus: “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Alas, there are many among us who choose to continue to live in prisons of their own making. And when they do so, they thereby encourage tyrants, like Kim Jong-Il, to make prisons for their bodies as well. For prisons of the mind inevitably and necessarily lead to shackles for the body. Only the Truth can set man free.