Education is pursuit of virtue, quest for knowledge


Opinion Column: Waxing Philosophical


After reading Radcliffe Bent’s article on the notion of the dumb university, dumb student dichotomy — which I found to be a very thought provoking column, despite the usual overly-masculine hum on social media — I immediately decided to bring about my own thoughts on the matter. After all, I come from a modest family where college was never expected of me — at one point I too thought college was dumb. However, my passion for reading and writing kept me imbibing books and scratching fresh paper with worn graphite and black ink. One day, I decided to return to college, worked very hard and achieved many things, won an excellent scholarship — and voila, myself in my current form. Had this all been out of institutionalized instinct to follow the rules of a “dumb student” or some other misguided method of false success? Perhaps, but I think there is more to the individual then links of dumb causation.

“Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report (...) if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The latter is part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, 4:8 to be exact. Religious I am not, but I am still an admirer of Paul’s writing. I mention this passage because it is fairly close to my feelings on getting an education. First, I want to mention that most KJV Bibles (such as the one I use), list virtue instead of excellence. After flipping through my dated Westcott and Hort version of “The New Testament in the Original Greek” I found that my suspicions were true, "arete" is the Greek original, which generally means moral virtue, or excellence. Education, I put forth, is an expression of "arete," an attempt at personal virtue, regardless of institution.

Education is the pure pursuit of mind and world, not some feverish soul transgressing mountains of bureaucracy, achieving high scores out of fear and doom. Education is more like Milton’s Eve, “her virtue and the conscience of her worth, that would be woo’d, and not unsought be won.” "Arete," pace Bent’s piece, is my reason for attempting an education. Pure and lovely is education, an exercise of the mind and the best attempt our species has at understanding. Just and honest are not perhaps the adjectives used to describe the University itself, but the material within and learning in it are worthy pursuits in themselves. What is honesty and just if not present in the Greek tragedies, the pursuit of the external world in philosophy and ethical dilemmas in contemporary civilization? Each class and each department strives for some understanding and with this struggle arrives "arete." If there is virtue, excellence then must surely exist in the mission of the students and educators, despite mishaps involving personal experience.

Even the great denouncer of any sense of certainty — one cannot even be certain of him— Socrates, is purported to say, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” Aristotle even went on to say the uneducated are akin to the dead, according to Diogenes Laertius. In essence, there is such a plethora of knowledge to be acquired about the world and oneself, that to merely dismiss higher education as a function of societal woes and a personal health risk, would be to ignore a rich tradition of intellectual prowess and learning that has advanced civilization in ways never imagined. Sure, we have wars and egos, disparity and inequality, but because of education, we now have awareness of such evils, the ability to create a struggle for good, to find our moral virtue in something much larger than ourselves.

The classicist Matthew Arnold argued with Thomas Huxley regarding matters of education and class. While dispensing any notion of one discipline outranking another, Arnold made it clear than any pursuit of knowledge is worthwhile and relative. He said, “If we are studying Greek accents, it is interesting to know that "pais" and "pas," and some other monosyllables of the same form of declension, do not take the circumflex upon the last syllable of the genitive plural. If we are studying physiology, it is interesting to know that the pulmonary artery carries dark blood and the pulmonary vein carries bright blood, departing in this respect from the common rule for the division of labour between the veins and the arteries.” "Arete" is not the product of the dumb institution, or even of a mediocre (borderline dumb, perhaps) student like myself, no. It is the pursuit of something beautiful and instills in one the virtue to view life as an opportunity, rather than some prison of banal expectations.

Jonathan Finnerty is a School of Arts Sciences junior majoring in classics and philosophy. His column, "Waxing Philosophical," runs on alternate Friday's.


Jonathan Finnerty

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