College and the Use of Useless Studies—Part I

By Devin O'Donnell

Our education is strongly oriented toward achieving practical success. Could that be why we see so little of it?

Young people often arrive on a college campus to begin their classes with great expectations and little direction. The choosing of one’s major may be irrelevant to those who go to a liberal arts university, where majors and minors are either non-existent or subordinated to the staples of a standard core profile. But for those accepted into the conventional university system, the selection of a major may haunt one’s entire college career. For some, the process is not unlike competing in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” game, which soon results in running the gauntlet of college requirements. The Tetris-like sport of rightly-timed class choices ensues, and only the fittest survive the natural selection of the ever-shifting course prerequisites. In the end, the race seems definitely to the swift. He who decides his major first (and does not deviate) usually “wins” by graduating first.

And what is the reward for winning this race? Getting a well-paying job? A beautiful, fulfilling calling in life? A rewarding vocation and the possession of a good life? No. We know better. And this is where the paradox of learning and success comes into sharp focus. It may well be that college benefits one’s life in meaningful ways; it may not. It may be that one is equipped for a lucrative vocation; it may not. What shall we say, when anywhere from half to three-quarters of college students change their majors, graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and find, after all their efforts, that they cannot secure a job they like or a job that likes them? What shall we tell the aimless students who upon graduation discover they have no better direction in life?

While it is true that modern higher education may be broken and may itself be to blame for these things, it is also possible that our own vision needs repair as well. Modern education is utilitarian, to be sure: it encourages and often rewards pragmatism in us all. But we can still choose to have different expectations. Regardless of the college, regardless of whether we even go on to attend university, our approach needs recalibration.

Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion—in the real.

In his essay “Our English Syllabus,” C.S. Lewis—strangely, to our utilitarian-trained ears—asserts that leisure is the purpose of education:

The purpose of education has been described by Milton as that of fitting a man “to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and war.” Provided we do not overstress “skillfully” Aristotle would substantially agree with this, but would add the conception that it should be a preparation for leisure, which according to him is the end of all human activity.

By “end” Lewis, of course, means “purpose.” The ultimate purpose of studying Latin, for instance, is not to increase test scores, nor to produce professional Latinists. Neither is it merely a means to securing a larger goal of college admission. The purpose of studying Latin—or anything else, for that matter—may be called a kind of sacrament, or (to use Eastern Orthodox language) a mystery. The benefits of such an activity are concealed and hidden, in the same way medicine and physical exercise might not always be immediately palatable.

The true use of a thing is always a mystery, its good something of an enchantment. We cannot know in advance what benefit one experience might have over another, or what one activity or course of study might have over another. This is why it may be best to look at life as a romance: that is, an adventure wherein each experience, regardless of how difficult or evil, may contain “some soul of goodness” (as Shakespeare’s King Harry says), “would men observingly distill it out.”

Lewis continues: “Man is the only amateur animal. All others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it.” Leisure, σχολή (scholē) in the Greek, is the origin of our word for “school.” Philosopher Josef Pieper calls leisure the “basis of culture.”

Go here for Part II.

Devin O’Donnell—a classical hack who came up through the manhole covers of Academe to find wisdom—is the author of The Age of Martha, a book on leisure and education (Classical Academic Press, 2019). He served as Research Editor of Bibliotheca, and has taught literature for fifteen years. He is the current Headmaster of St. Abraham’s Classical Christian Academy, and contributes to the blog of the CiRCE Institute.


If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the journal, like this author profile of Moses Maimonides, this discussion of the idea of fate, or this post on racism and American culture. Or check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

Published on 6th January, 2021. Cover photograph of the Oxford Union‘s debate chamber taken by Barker Evans, made available under an FAL license.

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