What we get taught

School is back in session and more vital than ever.

August 29, 2012

School days are with us again. And, putting aside local teachers union vs. school district issues and ever-increasing college tuition costs, let’s pause for a moment and try to recall why higher education is so important to us as individuals and a society.

There are few things I believe in more fervently than education. Like the philosopher Alain de Botton, I think that education is “the most effective answer to a range of society’s gravest ills; education is the conduit to fashioning a civilized, prosperous and rational society.” Without offering solid educational opportunities at every level — grammar school, high school, and college — I am convinced that an enlightened egalitarian society cannot be sustained.

My mentors and guides regarding higher education are two 19th century English social reformers, Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill. Arnold argued that schools/universities should be a home for “the best that has been said and thought in the world.” Schools should challenge us to think, to create, to critique the world around us. It should be a “safe place” to question, to probe, to pursue the known and unknown. It is a place, suggested Arnold, where we search for Sapienza, wisdom.

John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of Utilitarianism, argued for a more practical side to education. School should teach us to do things, give us a better handle on the world. For Mill schools should teach us technologia, technological skills. But he is quick to point out that skills alone are not sufficient. “The object of universities,” said Mill, “is not (just) to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.”

I think the university experience must be a blend of Sapienza, wisdom, and technologia, technical skills. We need both to survive and thrive. And we need both to achieve what Matthew Arnold believes is the final and formal purpose of all education. “A proper cultured education should inspire in us a love of our neighbor, a desire for clearing human confusion and for diminishing human misery.”

Al Gini is a Professor of Business Ethics and Chair of the Management Department in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago