I’m standing in front of thirty college freshman. My job for the day is to make a 2,300 year old book seem slightly interesting and relevant.
We’re studying Aristotle’s Ethics, you see, and I think it’s one of the greatest books ever written. But I can’t assume my students do.
Most people don’t.
Most people have never even heard of it.
So, I have to be both entertainer and educator for the next fifty minutes.
I clear my throat to get the class to quiet down.
* * *
“There are two kinds of good things, according to Aristotle,” I announce. My students’ eyes light up with anticipation. (Just kidding.)
“Some things are simply good, whether or not they’re ‘useful’. Other things, however, are only ‘good for’ some use or other.”
I gaze around the room to see how much I’ve confused my students.
“Take gasoline, for example,” I hastily add. “Nobody likes it for what it is. They like it for what they can do with it. They put it in their cars, and use their cars to go get food. Gasoline isn’t good ‘in itself’, it’s good for something else. It’s good for making your car run.”
“But,” I tell my class, “some things are just plain good. Happiness is Aristotle’s favorite example. Happiness is good just because it’s good, not because it’s good for something else. Happiness isn’t like gasoline; you don’t use it to get somewhere. In fact, you use other things to get to happiness.”
* * *
“So,” I ask my students, “why are you taking my class? Which kind of good thing is it? Is my class good, just because it’s good? Or is it good because it helps you get something else?”
My students start to look sheepish. We all know the answer. They didn’t take this philosophy class because they wanted to. They take philosophy classes like mine because they must. It’s a “gen ed” requirement.
“Let’s be honest,” I say. “You think my class is good because it helps you get something else — namely, a college degree. But,” I continue, “what kind of good thing is a college degree? Is it good all by itself, or is it just good for something else?”
Obviously, they think it’s the latter. College degrees are good because they help you get a good job.
“But,” I ask them, “why is a job good? What’s good about having a job?”
A job is good, obviously, because it gets you money.
“But what good is money? Is it good in itself, or is it good for something else?”
It’s good for something else, obviously. You want money because you can do things with it, like buy food and housing and clothes and entertainment, etc.
* * *
Ultimately, in other words, my students want an education so that they can get a good life. To get a good life, they need money. To get enough money, they need a good job. And to get a good job, they need an education.
That is, they see education as preparation for life. It’s not living; it’s the thing they do to get ready to start living.
But did you learn to ride a bike by preparing, or by practicing? Do you learn to play an instrument by preparing, or by practicing? Did you learn to read by preparing, or by practicing?
If education’s job is (a) to get you a degree, so (b) you can get a job, so (c) you can get money, so (d) you can buy the things you need for a good life, then whose job is it to teach you (1) how to spend your money, (2) what things you actually need for a good life, (3) what a good life is, and (4) how to live a good life?
How could you call a person “educated” who spent 22 years preparing to live, getting everything in order (a degree, a job, money) but who never learned to live — who never practiced living — during that time?
And if you spend the first 22 years of your life preparing to live — waiting to live; not actually living — do you really think you’ll be able to suddenly start living when the time comes?
* * *
So, what if we decided to look at education differently?
What if the point of education isn’t just to get us a good job in the future, but also to make us good people right now? What if the point of education isn’t just to get us a degree and an income, but to make us more intelligent, more talented, more wise, and more insightful right now?
What if the point of education is to help us become better and better people, to help us get better and better at living — by being more self-controlled, more creative, more cultured, more caring — starting now, and continuing into the future?
If that’s what education is about, then it would be practice for living, not just preparation. We would see elementary school, high school, college, etc. as practice for life, not as something we do with the goal of eventually starting to live, some time in the future.
In other words, we’d start treating our education as something good in itself, rather than as something that’s just good for getting something else.
We’d stop waiting through the first 22 years of our lives, and start living them. That way, when we’re through with our education, we’ll be ready to really live.
[Micah is a Mt. Sophia graduate who is working on his doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America. He also gets to teach philosophy (as a “graduate fellow”), which he loves.]