“What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Wonder and a sincere love for learning are essential to the university’s mission as an institution of higher education. Yet these bulwarks are too often undermined by another of the university’s goals—a career-oriented credentialism that constrains the academic enterprise to a mere acquisition of those skills necessary for ‘professional success.’ In promoting this purely functional approach to education, the university undermines one of its core tenets, which is to promote wonder in the pursuit of wisdom.
At least on the face of things, Notre Dame attempts to reconcile the tension between these two aspects of education: fostering wonder and helping students acquire practical (and employable) skills. On a university website page titled “Why ND,” the university suggests that prospective students should consider attending Notre Dame in order to “Seek Wisdom.” But what is this wisdom?
At least from its promotional material, it seems Notre Dame does not have a clear idea. The entirety of this “Why ND” page is dedicated to the ways in which the university has “created an academic culture that has earned us a place among the nation’s top 25 institutions of higher learning, according to surveys from U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, Time, Kiplinger’s Report, and others.”
It boasts that 89% of undergraduates are engaged in research or complete an internship before they graduate. The page concludes, “So a Notre Dame education goes beyond simply gaining intellect. It’s a path to wisdom.”
As important as prestige may be, none of the metrics mentioned on the page have anything to do with wisdom itself. Wisdom does indeed require skills, yet it cannot be reduced to them nor can it be measured by polls that appear in popular news publications.
The university excessively emphasizes its commitment to highly quantitative measures of success. Undoubtedly, popular prestige is important for any university with aspirations to greatness. Nevertheless, this prestige is a mere façade if the underlying academic edifice is bereft of the very substance of the intellectual life: wisdom.
Rising rankings ought to be a reflection of institutions’ improving capabilities to educate their students. If universities seek to attract the best and brightest researchers, professors, and students by fashioning themselves as mere white-collar trade schools, they have abandoned both their privileged place and their duty as the formative institutions of our society.
Wisdom must be the integrating principle of the university. Wisdom indeed incorporates the technical knowledge of the chemist, the factual comprehension of the historian, and the didactic reasoning of the logician. These skills are understandably prized in the workplace. Yet wisdom transcends these.
Beyond skills like “critical thinking,” “practical problem solving,” and “understanding of complex human realities,” true wisdom requires contemplation of the very source of knowledge. This lofty task, when earnestly attempted, is always accompanied by a profound sense of wonder.
In his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain details his mastering of the Mississippi River. As a young apprentice, Twain experienced the river with a sense of wonder and rapture. In mastering his craft, though, Twain narrowed his view of the river, considering each of its elements only in light of its prospective usefulness. He was able to read the river, and he began to understand every “trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as [he] knew the letters of the alphabet.”
In reducing the river to a workplace, Twain lost the capacity to contemplate its beauty—the Mississippi could no longer enrapture him. Sunsets signaled weather conditions, ripples in the water showed changing currents. Absolutizing its utility, Twain squandered his ability to wonder at the river.
This is the risk one runs when undertaking any sort of serious study. As a place of higher education, it is Notre Dame’s duty to cultivate wonder and to allow students the freedom to pursue their passion for a particular subject in a measured and meaningful way. However, the university undermines this duty when it seeks to fulfill its other—albeit lesser—task, which is to produce economically profitable members of society.
Through the emphasis on using one’s time as a student to do something constructive, the opportunity to simply and truly wonder is taken away.
In this hyperfocus on career-oriented credentialism, we, as students, begin to look at our studies the way that Mark Twain looked at the river. We cease to wonder at it. Our time in college becomes purely utilitarian. Though we may never lose our curiosity—our ability to ask “What is that?”—we will have forfeited this privileged time that is set aside for wonder—the pondering of the question “How can that be?”
Elizabeth Hale is a junior studying political science. She is really just trying to make the case for less homework. Anyone who wishes to join her in this endeavor can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Steamwheeler on the Upper Mississippi, Ferdinand Richardt
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