A Speech For all Graduates, Past and Present: Is Education a Good?

for Nancy, Joe, David, Zach, every Sarah I know, Constance and a million others who I wanted to congratulate but didn’t have the right words at the time. This is only a speech: the thoughts in here are subject to being revised, and like some of my rhetoric, certain problems are purposely not being addressed because of the situation.

In high school – at Camden Catholic – Mr. D’Antonio used to say that education was good because “it’ll enhance your life.”

My relation to that statement has wavered – sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. I hate it mainly because it does not address to what degree education is necessary, and I don’t just mean “dealing with dumb people sucks.”

I mean this: if we’re in a job where we don’t learn, we’ll call the job “dead end” and leave it. If someone puts us in a situation where they openly refuse to teach us, we’ll take it as an affront to our dignity and walk away. And if we’re with a lover who doesn’t want to explore life, we will wonder how someone who can’t love life can love us.

However: exactly what good does education provide?

We can say it provides a “variety of goods,” and therefore “education will enhance your life” is a worthwhile start for getting a grip on this question. But we can’t leave it as a “variety of goods.” Something has to unite the things we consider Good, otherwise we can’t use the word “good” for each of those things. You can see this problem in the Platonic dialogue Meno: when asked by Socrates what virtue is, Meno responds that a man has this virtue, a child has another virtue, a woman has yet another, etc.

Socrates doesn’t waste any time saying he has been given a great number of virtues, but not told anything about why the word is used in the first place. “What is virtue” is an important question, one that might be answered fully.

The “form of the Good,” which would underlie all things that are good, is a trickier proposition. To use my field as an example: the end of the Platonic/Aristotlean political project is that the Good can be understood as devotion to virtue. Hence, the Good can be comprehended (at least incompletely) as a diversity, not as a unity: we Athenians respect the Spartans because of their devotion to courage, they respect us because of our desire for prudence, the want to manage our dominion responsibly. Both cities can live in peace, respecting each other without relativism.

I used to say that there is no Form of the Good, period. Professor Parens has rightly corrected me about this, not because I wasn’t onto something, but I think because the question has to be left open. I wanted to deny it outright so the Platonic/Aristotlean project could be more easily contrasted with Christianity. It’s not as simple a contrast as that, of course: the question, slightly more refined, could be whether the Form of the Good is “beyond being” and what that means.

For Christianity, what “beyond being” means is that God – the “Good” simply – is outside of Time entirely. The beginning of philosophy: being as a whole itself is “beyond being.” Being is truth, and all we can hope for are true opinions.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the relation between Being and the Good, or more properly, on the relation of Truth and the Good. It is clear Truth is necessary for the Good, and we can already see a very dark teaching in the very setup of the problem, given that the domain of “what is” extends far beyond “what is good.”

We’re back at square one: we’re back to education being necessary. Attempting to seek out how the Good relates to all things considered goods has failed; there is no simple relation. The entire value of your education and mine and everyone else’s relies on your answer to this question: did we, in attempting to see how we use the very term “good,” waste our time?

If we did, it is possible that useless, unnecessary endeavors can be cut from learning. In fact, what can happen is not unlike the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin is given extra brains by a robot and told to enjoy the rest of the years he would be in school. Why did your striving uselessly for knowledge, in some cases, teach more than memorizing everything?

The answer lies in the distinction necessary to make any sense of our inquiry. The movement from “what is” to “what is good” is a narrowing, a refinement. We’re looking for something unique, something unlike anything else. Most things we encounter are useful; the useless we have put aside entirely, it isn’t clear we could even observe the useless if we wanted to.

Now the most unique thing, the ultimate good, would be wisdom simply: the contemplation and holding of Being.

Such a good would be useless. What does one do exactly with knowledge of all there is?

We move, then, from the useless to the useful to the useless finally. It is no coincidence that education mirrors the three stages of life given to us by the Sphinx’s riddle. Only – the Sphinx implied that man is somehow less than himself in his final stage of life. Socrates in both Xenophon and Plato continually reminds his audience he would be the worse for wear if allowed to continue living.

Both are dark jokes on a danger that an uninformed piety confronts us with: we want vindication from the next life, we want vindication from how we are remembered. What about being able to live with ourselves in this life? Christian teaching is that we will be remembered by God if we remember Him here: in other words, we can go confidently knowing we have done right. The Platonic/Aristotlean teaching is the same – we can know what is right, by starting from considerations of our life, our dignity, and our love. We can live without external vindication, for each true opinion mirrors the nature of Being not imperfectly, but truly, with an eye to something Being itself cannot grasp: the Good within.

3 Comments

  1. Note: The Thomistic and Augustinian arguments ultimately hold that “God is being:” evil is some sort of nothingness. They establish hierarchies of being to that end.

    I obviously differ in where Scripture is truly grounded, in this speech at least.

  2. Lilamae’s pragmatic approach: Education is what you make it. I guess a more thoughtful explication would be to say that education cannot be static. One gains knowledge (becomes a bit more “educated”) then proceeds (hopefully) to make use of that knowledge to move forward in life. The results of knowledge acquisition may be infinite. Most certainly they are unpredictable.

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