The Real Value of an Education
By Dr. Jennifer A. Frey
A Review of "Lost in Thought" by Zena Hitz
June is the month of graduation ceremonies, a time when we honor academic achievements—from winning the race for valedictorian, to celebrating hard-won scholarships, to becoming the first in one’s family to get a diploma. This year, however, many students will not participate in the rituals of academic honors; they must settle instead for well-intended, ersatz replacements. But in the silence where Pomp and Circumstance would have played, we might stop to ask ourselves a critical but oft-neglected question: what was all this hard work for? Was it for the honors, the prestige, the useful skills, or the competitive advantage over others? Is an education best understood in terms of achievements and outcomes, or is its value much deeper?
In her rich and rewarding book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Professor Zena Hitz of St. John’s College in Annapolis argues that the goal of education is not the status or privileges it confers upon us, or even the valuable life skills it demands that we acquire. In line with classical pagan and Christian traditions, she argues that we have a natural desire to understand the world outside of us, and that a true education carefully cultivates this natural love of learning and helps to bring it to its full maturity. A well-educated person is not someone with a set of credentials that will help them live a materially wealthy and comfortable life, but someone who is spiritually free to know and delight in those goods that make a human life deeply and truly happy. A good education, according to Hitz, places us outside the realm of competition, ranking, or use-value, which allows us to discover our intrinsic dignity as human persons. The hard work of learning demands self-discipline, humility, seriousness, and patience, to be sure, but it is work that responds to a deep and powerful human need to know.
According to Hitz, a good education helps us to cultivate a loving vision of the world, in which we can recognize, reflect upon, and savor what is truly worthy of our attention, which in turn inspires us to loving service for others. It requires the cultivation of a deep inner life, which requires a space of solitude and retreat from the competitive, utilitarian demands of the world. While Hitz makes a philosophical case for these claims, she grounds them in exemplars of the intellectual life that have changed the course of history. She considers the Catholic tradition of understanding the Virgin Mary as having a love of study that enabled her to freely consent to God’s will for her to bear the world a Messiah. She discusses Albert Einstein, who wrote his seminal papers in physics during his time as a patent clerk, and Malcolm X and Dorothy Day, both of whom led lives devoted to social justice, but whose ultimate inspiration was the love of God they both developed through years of solitude where they studied for its own sake.
Finally, Professor Hitz sees the truth of these claims about the love of learning in her own story. Lost in Thought is a compelling philosophical memoir, in which the author traces her own educational trajectory from that of a young girl whose unconventional parents fostered a deep loves of learning in her, to her time at a small liberal arts college devoted to the study of great books, to her years running in the prestige race within elite institutions of higher learning. Hitz realized that the more she found academic success, the more her own love of learning and personal dignity was compromised. In the end, Hitz calls her readers to educational reform. We must restructure education so as to safeguard and protect the love of learning as a natural good, essential to human flourishing. We must have the courage and clarity of vision to reclaim, and fight for, the idea that learning is intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable.
As we celebrate the graduates in our lives in the coming weeks—and we certainly should—I can think of no greater gift to give them than Professor Hitz’s rich, timely book, a book educators and students alike would do well to read.
Dr. Jennifer A. Frey is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and a fellow of the Word on Fire Institute and of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. She also hosts a podcast, “Sacred and Profane Love,” on philosophy and theology. She lives with her family in Columbia, SC.
If you enjoyed this piece, try one of our author profiles, on great authors from Boethius to Gandhi. Or take a look at one of our posts on “the Great Conversation,” like this one on the idea of happiness.