College and the Use of Useless Studies—Part II

By Devin O'Donnell

A utilitarian education is not only inadequate to human dignity; it even fails at its own stated purpose.

Go here for Part I.

Modern schools and universities have discarded the classic vision of leisure. Instead of an education that points us to higher things—divine worship, virtue, and the qualities of a good life—our systems of education produce what Lewis calls “professionals.” The unhappy paradox is that usefulness may not be found in things which immediately appear useful. Students should remember this when choosing a course of study, a major, or a university.  

At a time when even ordinary life skills and training seem comparatively poor, it is normal for us to focus our energy on bolstering those skills and training. But our efforts as parents and teachers ought to be aimed higher than the making of more professionals, and the decisions of young college students ought to be governed by some higher principle than achieving the most utility out of the college experience. That is the point of scholē. Lewis argues this well:

Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes the potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

All other animals are professionals, because they know all they want about the world and their purpose in it. Animals only survive. They have no leisure—not the kind of leisure that contains the revelation of a mystery, the kind of leisure that involves an encounter with a divinely charged universe. Humans, however, are not professionals; we are amateurs: in the French, lovers. The lover makes room for delight in unexpected things, for epiphanies. What is most useful in the long run may be found in the unlikeliest of places, and what actually benefits us in vocation or even in the acquisition of a well-paying job (and be careful what you wish for!) may come from a source that we did not expect.

When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop.

Consider a prime secular example of this phenomenon. No one would say Steve Jobs was unsuccessful in life. And yet, his college career was by all appearances a dramatic failure. He attended Reed College, took only a few classes, and dropped out six months later. That he founded Apple after this seems only a random and fortuitous coincidence, a happy turn of chance. But his commencement address to Stanford in 2005 says otherwise. Jobs describes a principle of scholē and the unlooked-for inspiration that would go on to become the empire of Apple. It was, of all things, a calligraphy class.

I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. 

Of all the college courses, calligraphy will hardly be one of the G.E. course requirements for undergraduates. For most people, it belongs beside “Underwater Basket Weaving” in that category of classes that seem to exist purely to furnish the butt of mockery. Granted, such courses of study would still be more beneficial than some of the propaganda that passes for curricula in many Humanities departments; after all, calligraphy is a human art, often more humane than the subjects of critical theory. But the real paradox is that the leisure of learning to write beautifully became, for Steve Jobs, the most useful college course he ever took.

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward ten years later. 

Connecting the dots is much easier in hindsight. What advisor would have instructed a young student interested in computer engineering to take a calligraphy course? But perhaps it is we who lack the wisdom to understand the way success truly operates, the value of leisure, and the great use of useless studies.

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 series, check out some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this brief introduction to Euripides, this post on the history of astronomy, or this list of ten outstanding books recommended by some of the guests on our weekly podcast, Anchored.

Published on 7th January, 2021.

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