Well, there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on the “uses” of something. The difficulty comes when we operate with too narrow a definition of “use.” At some point, we have to consider the ultimate goals toward which our life’s actions are directed. What makes for a genuinely meaningful human life? Of what “use” are things that fail to promote that end? If you’re so rich, we must ask, why aren’t you wise—or happy?
And that brings me to a characteristically humanistic way to relate a truth: by telling a story. The tale begins with a tourist on holiday, wandering through the back alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he comes upon a little antique shop, filled with curious pieces of bric-a-brac and art objects. What especially catches his eye is a beautifully wrought, life-size bronze statue of a rat. He asks the elderly shopkeeper the price. “The rat costs $12,” says the shopkeeper, “and it will be $1,000 more for the story behind it.” “Well, you can keep your story, old man,” responds the tourist, “But I’ll take the statue.”
Read the rest of the story in Wilfred M. McClay's essay in The Wilson Quarterly on the burden of the humanities.
Good essay. I am reminded of how different we in America perceive what we imagine to be "education" as opposed to the classical Continental model. I met a man once who was a chemist by trade who happened to play the cello well enough to be part of the Prague Chamber Ensemble. And he exchanged stories with a friend at the time who was into Zen Buddhism, telling how he had smuggled forbidden books through East European customs by tying them in the struts hidden under the head of a tympani.
The mention of paideia connects with Mortimer Adler, once head of the board of editors of Brittanica, whose Paideia Proposal is a comprehensive vision of what might be the ultimate "liberal edudation." His Wikipedia article is almost too dense to plow through.
How far apart these notions are from politicians challenged by "the vision thing."
As I recall, Allan Bloom warned against an attitude that would abandon studies that lacked a practical application. It takes us back to the decision to call the study of government "political science" because some felt that an association with science msde it more serious.
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