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Getting a Classical Education Today

My journey on this topic began when I talked to Richard Heckel of Engineering Trends for my posting of a couple of weeks ago. His concluding remark, that an engineering degree may well be the current manifestation of the classical liberal arts degree, turned my thoughts as to just what it means to be a roundly-educated person in this day and age. Is it really an engineering degree?

Even as little as a hundred years ago, to be educated meant primarily to be read in the classics, and to converse on their grand meaning. That meant, of course, that only the leisure class could even have the chance of achieving this title.

So I started asking friends and colleagues about what the equivalent might be today. Most people looked at me as if I had grown two additional heads, while others simply ran. I understand their confusion. We equate an educated person with lots of college degrees, or a prodigious memory. I wanted something more.

I recalled the 1960s movie You Only Live Twice, in which James Bond is asked if he liked sake. Upon indicating in the affirmative and being served, he took a sip and nodded appreciatively, "Especially when it's served at the proper temperature, ninety-eight point four degrees, as this is." To which his host Tanaka replied with surprise and pleasure, "You are exceptionally cultivated for a Westerner."

Was there some relationship between being cultivated and being educated? I thought so, but had trouble identifying just what it was. An educated person understood more of the nuances, perhaps, and fit into more diverse situations. Or maybe it was the other way around; an open and diverse mind was more open to being educated, as well.

But does it mean that such an education in some aspect of technology, arguably the most dynamic and controversial subject matter in contemporary life? I think that's a part of it; being on the leading edge of trends like the Web (circa 1995), broadband (circa 2001), and VoIP (circa about now) involves both recognizing that these technologies are going to become a part of mainstream life and having the patience to work with them before they are fully standardized.

In that light, my first criterion for a classical education today is to learn about things that intrigue, surprise, or delight you, yet to be willing and able to learn anything. In many cases, the new things are about technology. About three decades ago, there was a two-volume series published called The Way Things Work. This and similar texts provided those of my generation a broad exposure to technology and engineering. There are more contemporary works available today.

But there is much more than technology on the subject of being broadly educated. To be educated means to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Fortune magazine's career columnist Anne Fisher ( recently interviewed author Steve Vernon, who offered the following advice. "Try to pursue things that make life satisfying now, and take care of your health now, rather than deferring these to a vague time somewhere off in the future."

In the same vein, you understand what makes you happy, sad, frustrated, and satisfied. You recognize that others around you may have different motivations, and to take what you don't know about them into account in your dealings with others. This, I think, is the broader meaning of the above-mentioned line from the James Bond movie.

Last, it means that you can discourse with both fact and considered opinion on the major topics of the day. This includes a wide variety of topics, of which technology is only one. It doesn't mean that you want to, however. Many confuse opinion and fact, offering the former in the guise of the latter. Knowing the difference between the two, and knowing when you shift from one to the other, is the difference between being thought insightful and being thought a bore.

But the requisite tools are not enough to distinguish a classical education of today from one of a hundred years ago. Today there is also the obligation to make use of that knowledge, whether in the service of profit or humanity. That is quite a shift from the last century, where knowledge was accumulated for its own sake. The great thing about knowledge is that it doesn't get used up. Rather, the more you use, the more you get.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 04/24/2005

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