For me, what makes Berwick Academy’s mission statement most compelling is how adaptable it can be. Nearly 227 years after this amazing school was founded, promoting virtue and useful knowledge among the rising generations remains a relevant, worthy, and powerful goal. What comprises useful knowledge in 2018 is a world away from what the phrase implied in 1791, yet those words still resonate within our fast-paced, innovative, and globalized world.
That said, it’s relatively easy to reduce the concept of useful knowledge to mere career preparation. And while I do recognize that there’s significant value in the way a Berwick education can ultimately result in successful careers for our kids, I believe that we better serve our students when we aspire to useful knowledge as meaning something more than that. Yes, we want our students to think like experts in a variety of fields and to develop collaboration and communication skills that will make them marketable and successful professionals, but we would sell our kids short if we stopped there.
Recently, a friend sent me an article written by a philosophy professor at Brown University. As you might imagine in this day and age, philosophy is not attracting overwhelming numbers of students in the way that pre-law, pre-med, engineering, business, and computer science are. Despite that trend, this professor tried to make the point that there is value in studying philosophy simply for the sake of understanding philosophy. He went on to bemoan the tendency many schools have these days of touting the value of studying philosophy as a great preparation for law school, pointing out that, while this may be true, to frame any area of study as preparation for a particular career path is to fail to recognize the deeper value of that area of study.
This argument echoes points made by our recent visiting speaker, William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz is a former professor of English at both Yale and Columbia, whose book Excellent Sheep makes the case for a liberal arts education as a key time in a young person’s life, not because of career outcomes, but because of the opportunity it provides to discover and pursue passions and appreciate the value of study as a lifelong habit. In fact, Deresiewicz would go so far as to argue that education is about identity itself. As he aptly puts it, “Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP.” In other words, William Shakespeare, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein didn’t pursue poetry, chemistry, or physics to make themselves marketable, they did so out of passion and a deep desire to learn and understand more, and in the process, their studies became who they were. And there’s no way we could make the case that the knowledge they acquired wasn’t worthwhile or useful.
Now I’m not trying to suggest that careers don’t matter or that we shouldn’t want our students to graduate from Berwick with a path to a secure and fulfilling livelihood. Of course, useful knowledge has to encompass these ends to some degree. But overemphasizing career preparation means missing a key component of education – a notion that dates back to John Dewey, who, in 1910, referred to education as “a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” The problem with overemphasizing career preparation is that it implies a finish line; it reduces education to a transaction. If you work hard at a fine school like Berwick Academy, you will be accepted into a highly selective college. And if you work hard at said highly selective college, you will enter the workforce at a high salary and you’ll never have to study again.
Schools should want more than that for their students, and I believe that at Berwick we truly do. Recently, a member of the class of 2018 told me about his upcoming senior project. The student has an elaborate plan to tap into plants at the cellular level and “steal” electrons during photosynthesis to store electrical energy. When I asked him how much energy that might actually generate, he smiled and said “hardly any, but I still want to see if it can be done.” This attitude is similar to what we often hear from our students who are engaged with Innovation Pursuits. They research, create, tinker, and problem-solve simply because they want to see what they are able to accomplish. Yes, IPs pay dividends in the college admissions process, and they certainly can serve as precursors to future careers, but career preparation is not the driving force. Gaining knowledge for the sake of gaining knowledge is the engine that makes it all run.
These student perspectives illustrate a deeper way of thinking about useful knowledge. Even if this senior I mentioned is successful with his project, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to charge an iPhone, let alone light a lightbulb in this manner. So on the surface, the use of this knowledge may appear highly questionable. But if we consider the project through the lens of the student’s experience, I’d argue that it is highly useful knowledge. Any time a student invests the time and effort to pursuing study simply for its own sake (or as this student says “to see if it can be done,”) we should applaud it. Study simply for its own sake leads to more learning, which opens doors to new passions and ongoing pursuits. Perhaps this student’s project will not result in any concrete results, but by following that curiosity, he is likely to uncover new questions in the process, which will lead to future inquiries and experiments, and more curiosity. As that curiosity grows exponentially, a senior project can grow into an authentic passion and, ideally, lifelong learning. If we do our job as educators, our students won’t study biology or Spanish or calculus for the salary potential, but for a genuine love of those disciplines. Pursuing intellectual passions should be the ultimate goal, with careers as byproducts of those pursuits. That is the kind of learning that builds on itself and leads to even more and more learning beyond. And what could be more useful than that?