Elephants and Education

During the year I started teaching in South Africa, Victoria Falls beckoned. On a visit there I took a walk along the right bank of the Zambezi River from the rain forest that surrounds the Zimbabwe side of the falls. Away from the mist, the rain forest thins to what one might call “ordinary” jungle, though I was all eyes for the first such scenery I had ever viewed. I saw a troop of monkeys in front of me at one point tossing a baby back and forth among themselves as they chattered and clambered among the branches. Were they playing catch? Were they trying to confuse the two-legged predator about which monkey had the baby? Were they trying to be sure that no child was left behind?

Then, rounding a curve in the trail, I saw in front of me an elephant—a solitary bull elephant. It looked at me, flapped its ears, and charged. I was not a Transformer, but I instantly changed from all eyes to all legs. I lost twenty-five years of my age as I ran again like the young adult I used to be (well, that’s the way it felt). Was it my imagination that felt the thumping of the elephant’s feet as it ran, its toes eager to make human jam? Maybe the thumping was my heartbeat. I then seemed to pass an invisible property line, after which the bull stopped chasing me. Some time later I stopped running and decided that my only resemblance to Dr. Livingstone was that I had seen a statue of Henry Morton Stanley near the falls.

Though at the time I seemed to lose twenty-five years, in retrospect I see that I also lost about twenty thousand years as I found myself among the trees chased by an animal seemingly determined to turn me into a grease stain on the jungle floor. It occurs to me now that this kind of time travel can also go in the reverse direction, for a liberal education recapitulates civilization. Hence José Ortega y Gasset’s claim that “if a whole generation ceased to study, nine-tenths of the human race then alive would die a violent death.” What is more, he says, “Techniques can be taught, mechanically. But techniques live on knowing, and if this cannot be taught, an hour will come in which the techniques too will succumb.”

To Ortega “knowing” is more than recall, pattern-recognition, and fulfilling job requirements as  “human capital.” It is people—not human capital—creating disciplines of study “out of brute force” because “they needed them so badly that they had to have them.” And the need is not always immediately practical: Apollonius of Perga “needed to know” about ellipses 1700 years before practical use was made of his work. Fortunately for post-Renaissance astronomy, liberal education preserved that knowledge even though it didn’t help anyone become more marketable. And liberal education preserved calligraphy at Reed College, where an ex-Trappist monk taught it to the young Steve Jobs.

Against an elephant-stampede to turn much of education into cheap or profitable dullness, some schools in the U. S. are making the right choices. A friend of mine reports substitute-teaching at a public high school in rural Wisconsin. “His” class almost didn’t need his presence as it read and discussed Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written at about the time modern astronomy found a use for Apollonius and sixty years before the Trappist order of monks was founded. It was a time when calligraphy seemed to recede in practical importance, though it clearly kept its inspirational power. I hope that if some of those students end up in politics and education, their own liberal education will remind them what a Faustian bargain is.


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