When I was a young man in college, I was less bedeviled by the question of what I was doing than by that of “how” I was doing. Today I see all over the media people in education arguing among themselves about “what” students should be doing. The “Common Core” issue has got folks with kids in school riled up all around the nation and from colleges and universities come sounds of discord over the conflict between knowledge and training: can the study of philosophy get you a job?
I had, back in the day, a very interesting professor, Elsie Dean Hively. We called her “Sis,” mostly because she lived with her sister in a two-storey 19th-century house on the edge of the campus. Their mother was buried in the garden. Sis had been, in fact still was although they were separated, married to a pianist. Wells Hively had a minor reputation as a concert pianist but had made his name, such as it was, as the accompanist to the soprano, Lily Pons, a considerable figure between the world wars. As a young woman, Sis had followed Wells around the concert circuit, much of the time in Europe and when their relationship fell apart, she was more or less stranded in France, where she had a nervous breakdown. She was institutionalized there, for treatment, and eventually came home to America, to Kansas.
Sis Hively came away from her European life with two strict rules: 1) inasmuch as we are each flawed in our own way, it is incumbent on us to do the least harm possible to others; and 2) the act of listening to music must be an exercise of its own integrity, not an adjunct to some other activity and, as such, should be a matter of listening only to that which you and you alone have chosen for that exercise. Each of these rules hearkened back to Wells; the first a reflection of his failure to observe it and the second a consequence of her institutionalization.
That second rule needs a bit of explanation. Sis had been abandoned by her pianist husband and the abandonment had shattered her. In the hospital, the well-meaning doctors sought to soothe her as she healed. Unfortunately, they assumed that music therapy would be just the thing for her, as it was for so many other patients, so she was subjected daily to a background of classical piano recordings as she went about her therapeutic regimens. The doctors were at a loss to explain why she seemed to be getting worse, not better. I haven’t any idea how or when she convinced them otherwise, but I know that once away, she forbade the piano in her life.
Sis was an English professor when I came to know her in the late 1950s. She looked older than she was; her face was severely lined, perhaps from years of smoking French cigarettes. (Years later I thought I had come across her twin when I saw a photo of Lillian Hellman.) Sis had been at the college for many years by then and was somewhat legendary. She was irascible and strict, profane and worldly, edgy and wrapped in an aura of loss and regret, but clever and funny/witty still. She gave my first essay in Freshman English an “F” because, while technically flawless, it contained not one idea—only words.
But it was Sis Hively who explained to me what it was that we were about in college. The goal, she said, was to become educated for two purposes. One was so that, when you were abandoned in some difficult place, without a book to read or paper and pen, you could understand your situation, place it in its rightful context in the world’s affairs, and entertain yourself until help arrived, no matter how long that took. If, she said, you were lucky enough to escape abandonment and had a full life and made money, your education should be such NOT that you could do your own taxes every year, but that you could hire someone to do them AND know that they had done them correctly.
Those precepts became mine, along with keeping my weight on my elbows, which, as I have noted, I learned later in life. But for today, what can be said of a liberal arts education? The mystery of Malaysian Flight 370 notwithstanding, the likelihood of being stranded in some remote part of the world has become less and less assumed over time. Is there a contemporary equivalent of that first purpose Sis laid out for us? (The second makes even more sense today!)
I think so. I think the purpose of a liberal arts education, a “major” in history or literature or philosophy or some interdisciplinary mix of those should be this: come into the adult world possessed of the things you need so that when you find yourself, as you statistically are likely to, without a job, adrift in an economically horizonless sea of Wal-Mart/MickeyD/food stamp desperation, you can understand your situation, place it in its rightful context in the world’s affairs, and entertain yourself until help arrives, no matter how long that takes.
That help will arrive one day, perhaps not in the form you expect, but those same gifts the study of the humanities have given you are the gifts the world, despite itself, is waiting for and will wait for, long after the beans have been counted, the codes written, the bitcoins transferred. And those of your comrades stranded with you who have only data and charts and multiple choice answer sheets to sustain them at 3 in the morning when the Black Dog comes ‘round; well, we feel sorry for them; they should have taken more electives from Sis Hively.