Friday, September 10, 2010

Of Education

It was the custom of Protagoras to ask his students only for such payment as they felt his teaching worth. I suppose if such a model were adopted today by any institution of higher learning, or indeed if such a framework were imposed upon the tax rates with which our public schools are funded, a great many diligent secretaries and mediocre lecturers would be compelled to seek other employment, not so much because the labor of our educators, poor though it may be, would go so undervalued or unappreciated (though that it would be), but because the spirit of cheapness and of avarice its sister holds such sway within the tempers of our age.

To be recompensed for the exercise of one's intellect and to be paid wages for the impartation to others of one's long-acquired knowledge are ideas both of which I find abhorrent and repulsive. A teacher is not worthy to have gained such knowledge if they demand some payment to divulge it, just as that student is a base and illiberal learner who cares for either grades or degrees. The student that desires something other than to become a man of learning and the teacher who desires more reward than to be one are both worthy of pity for the same reasons, if not in the same degree; for student may merely be ignorant, but the teacher has drunk of truth without feeling the refreshment of virtue. And those societies which fail to support such as are indeed seekers after truth deserve a harsher condemnation than even these. Boswell relates a story of Dr. Johnson that, when he learned the last surviving granddaughter of Milton was compelled by necessity to maintain herself as a shopkeeper, he considered it a grave injustice and a point of national shame and immediately went about lobbying the influential men of his acquaintance to see if they could provide her with a pension from the crown. Yet today we expect that even the poets themselves should work.

We might ask what can be done, and wonder whether a society of wage labor can ever again accept more aristocratic modes of sustaining our intellectuals. Indeed, even the institution we possess which is closest in spirit to the benefices and pensions of our forebears, the tenured professorship, is today adulterated with quantifiable standards and requirements and nonetheless remains relentlessly and constantly besieged. Yet it is better to ask another question: why must the university remain the model for higher education? After all the university itself displaced the monastery; why should the monastery not again return to the fore? The monks have their gardens and the alms of their benefactors; they have no need to demand a wage for teaching. And the initiate also is hardly pursuing advancement, but rather binding himself to a life dedicated to the highest ideals, a life which neither asks nor expects remuneration in this world. From teachers the expectation to publish would be thankfully removed and the vain and dangerous idol of advancing or expanding knowledge expunged from our world of thought. A world of such scholars would make Protagoras seem the greedy man.

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