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Jun 22, 2021

Learning for Its Own Sake

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Learning for Its Own Sake

A Commencement Address

Eva Brann 2

Editor’s note: The following is the text of the Commencement address Eva Brann delivered to the graduating students of Zaytuna College during an online ceremony on May 23, 2021.

Hello to the about-to-be alumni of Zaytuna College! How I wish I could be with you face-to-face and hear your individual accounts of the education you’re completing today.

But, of course, that last phrase, about completing your education, is just nonsense. This ceremony you’ve so kindly invited me to share with you is not called “commencement” for nothing. As a solemn formal celebration, it is some sort of culmination. You receive a degree, a term which comes from the Latin word gradus, a step, a step up; you can now put “B.A.,” Bachelor of Arts, or “M.A.,” Master of Arts, after your name. But as an acknowledgment of substance, it’s just the opposite: you’re a certified candidate for admission to a life of learning. For learning, being educated, is one of those strange experiential activities: the more you engage in it, the more of it you’re ready for. The more you’ve learned, the more you both want to, and are prepared to, learn. I’ll give you my favorite example.

I grew up speaking German. Then I came as a refugee to America, which has been to me a kind of safe haven and a heaven of opportunity. In this country, we speak a kind of English, a variant of that global tongue. (I think it was Churchill who said that England and America are divided by a common language.)

So I had to learn this English. Well, the regular verbs were easy. “I learn, you learn, he learns, we, you, they—all learn.” And all learned or have learned, and all will learn or would learn. But then there’s the verb “to be”—the most colorless and most substance-laden of terms, the merest auxiliary or copula and the most determinative and self-sufficient of words! I imagine, in my self-entertaining phantasies, the first fully human being awaking from an Adamic sleep in its earthly paradise, standing up, “erect with native honor clad,” as that poet-theologian Milton puts it, and looking into its world. What is the first human word ever uttered? I can hear it: “Being”—and the rebel angel, Lucifer-Satan, lurking in the bushes, mutters as a complement: “Non-being.”

I am making up this origin-tale for you because I’d like a setting for my questions: I’ll have three question to ask you, so whenever, wherever we may meet, we’ll immediately have something to talk about. I do mean “questions to ask,” and not, so help me God, “questioning.” Teachers with a skewed notion of education incite students to “question,” even to question everything. But such questioning is quasi-aggression. Question-asking is primarily an act of care, even love—your desire to delve particularly, now that you’re leaving it, into the inside, the essence, the being of your community, so that you may stay closer to it, recollect it more effectively, and do better by it, and better for yourself.

First I’ll set out, very positively, where I think you’ve been and how it is a remarkable place. And then I’ll form three questions that seem to me deep and perennial, and therefore worthy of taking along into your life.

So: I think you’ve been to a college, Zaytuna, that is a genuine school of liberal education. (Let me take a minute to comment on the name “Zaytuna.” I’m told it means “olive” in Arabic, like the tree that is the symbol on your College seal. Its fruit seems to me an especially telling sign for a school. Olives are hard and bitter, but when marinated in salty brine, in the sweat and tears of hard study, they become a savory food, very good with hard cheese.)

Well, not only is Zaytuna a true college of liberal education, but it is also faith-based. Though its intellect is gathered from all the world, its soul is Islamic. And finally, in normal times it is a living community, face-to-face, and mutually tangible—at a decent distance, of course.

Each of these three basic elements of your college’s description poses a question for me, which I’ll try to deal with in an all-too-hasty way, hoping to leave you with that most enticing of situations: a well-broached question. Well, I’ll try.

The first question is this: Assuming that we all know what is meant by an education—namely, an active plan of study supervised by people who are themselves educated—we read and say the adjective “liberal” but probably don’t mean much by it. At least in my experience, the common talk about it mostly makes you yawn—discreetly, of course, behind your hand. So here is the question, or rather a little bunch of them: “Liberal” is an adjective derived from another Latin adjective, liber, “free.” Does “liberal” mean “free” or “freeing”? Is liberal education for people already free, or does it first make us free? And what actually does it mean to be freed? From what? And most basically, what does “free” mean? Without restraint? Am I free to do whatever I want to do? Or just the opposite: whatever I ought to do? Is free thinking the least constrained or the most rule-governed? That’s the first clutch of questions.

Here’s my second set: Is a faith-based institution of liberal learning a contradiction in terms or the sensible title of a viable organization? Is the most coldly, uncommittedly objective frame of mind the best for learning, or, rather, is the best disposition the one that is most reverently receptive? Is utility, usefulness, the strongest criterion for a school to be proud of or the most shameful aim for it to pursue?

And here’s the third: If schools should be face-to-face communities, does that intention overvalue the chief manifestation of our individual being that is bestowed on us, that mobile, complex sack of skin, containing bones, organs, flesh, and blood? Does that emphasis on bodily presence mask, denigrate, the invisible soul and its magical appearance in the world of sense as speech? Is physicality crucial to learning or, on the contrary, is setting the body aside crucial to the love of wisdom?

So I’ll lay out, all too briefly, my three answers to these questions: (1) What does “liberal” mean when it modifies “education”? (2) Is a faith-based school capable of offering liberal learning? (3) Is liberal education of necessity carried on in a face-to-face community?

Jane Austen couples “weak understanding” with “illiberal mind”; I think here “illiberal” means “narrow” (see Pride and Prejudice, beginning of chapter 42).

So first, what is the meaning of “liberal” as an adjective of “education”? Two old meanings resonate remotely. When Aristotle first applied the adjective to “education” in his Politics, he meant that this was the education for freeborn children. The alternative was what we would call vocational training, for children constrained to work and without the leisure to learn freely. Nowadays, in ordinary speech, “liberal” means “generous.” Well, your being freed from full-time earning and somebody’s generosity do figure in your education, but the adjective “liberal” surely doesn’t specifically betoken these features.

Here’s what I think “liberal” signifies—be prepared to be horrified. “Liberal” means totally—deliberately and proudly—useless. Here is what I claim.

You can divide the world around you in many ways, into one of many kinds and its opposite. It is a sign of intellectual imagination to do this revealingly. For example, the human world divides about those who decide first and then collect the facts and those who gather facts before they decide. There’s something to be said for either method, but preference aside, it takes some observation to see that the human realm contains this opposition.

Let me take a moment for another aside here: One of the most mysterious and potent conditions of our world is that the moment you discern a kind, a class, a category, you automatically generate an opposite kind, class, or category for free—all you have to do is add “non-” or “not-” to the kind you began with. So if you began with facts-first folks, the empirical type, then, immediately, you get a counter-kind called “not-facts first,” the intuitive kind. To me this pervasive and spontaneous oppositionality of everything whatsoever is a most wondrous characteristic of our world. But that was a digression—back to business.

What is useful is a means to an end. The opposite of being useful is being an end in itself, its own end—not a means. To me an education is liberal insofar as it is its own end. That must mean that the study matter is itself attractive, as you must have found it in your years at Zaytuna—the arts of the thinking mind, of the human realm of artifacts, and the world of nature and her laws—respectively studied in logic and mathematics, poetry and novels, and physics and biology. Here is another benefaction that comes to us as a gift of heaven: the most beguiling, intellectually interesting disciplines also spawn the most beneficial technologies—the studies most naturally done for their own sake are also, but very incidentally, the most useful.

So let me expand my delineation of “liberal” a little: “liberal” pertains to a subject matter of education that is so irresistibly attractive as to be “studyable” for its own sake, though it may also be a means, that is, useful, but incidentally so.

Here is my answer to the second question: Is a faith-based education capable of being liberal? In thinking my own way through the term “liberal” I’ve a little bit lost sight of its straightforward main meaning: free. But in asking whether a faith-based college, like your about-to-be alma mater, can be devoted to liberal education, I have to return to liberal education as somehow very particularly a free education.

Here “free” means “leaving no stone unturned,” looking into, under, behind everything—not, as I said before, “questioning” it, throwing it in doubt, but asking it to speak for itself, approaching it respectfully but insistently.

Now if the “it” is the dogma of a faith, which articulates not only the practices of a religion but our beliefs about the highest being—then is free inquiry, penetrating and persistent question-asking, fitting? Truth to tell, I think not. Here is the way I put it to myself. There is believing that and believing in. If I believe that something is true, I think that a certain proposition holds. If bidden I can defend my belief with propositional argument, not least of which might be that a book like the Judeo-Christian Bible or the Islamic Quran seem to me to be trustworthy by reason of their origin and content, so that I should believe what it says.

But if I believe in a supra-human being, I have no propositional arguments; my very belief is all the certification that I have: something has entered my soul that is more persuasive than an articulated chain of reason and more potent even than the immediacy of self-evidence.

To my understanding, faith is primarily believing in and that betokens that not all the contents of a believer’s soul are available to the asker of questions. There is a ceiling to asking, to inquiry, a level at which the believing addressee of even the most bona fide question cannot respond, and question-asking must, willy-nilly, turn into aggressive questioning. Then it’s a standoff.

So, how can faith and freedom coexist? My answer is: There are usually in inquiries concerning divinity two sorts of questions. One sort concerns existence: Does a transcendent realm, or a supra-human being, exist? Let these go; abstain from questions concerning the existence of God and his realm.

And then there are questions concerning essence or meaning. The people of faith I know delight in these discussions, such as: If God is omniscient, can there be human freedom? They delight in such conversation because it brings them close to the world they long for, just as fond family members like to discuss their relatives’ characteristic ways. Thus, stick to essence and liberal education will dwell happily with belief.

So, finally—the physicality of liberal learning, now so miserably disrupted. We do owe it to ourselves to seize this moment for thinking out what role the body plays in formal education. (You can see that I’m a great believer in the saying: When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.) I’ll give it a try; I’ll try to say why liberal learning in particular (but most learning really) needs people looking at each other, face-to-face; needs people being reachable by touch without touching (this one is difficult); needs people hearing each other—live. I’ll tell you my experience; it’s probably somewhat different for each of you—yet at bottom similar. So what I say will be quite familiar to you. (I’m also a great believer in finding your own words for what we all already know. It keeps the most common, if not always the deepest, truths from falling into disregard—for obviousness is often the prelude to oblivion.)

We speak, “utter”—that is, make “outward” into language—our thought by activating glottis, tongue, teeth, lips. The ears, our own included, are the recipients.

We communicate—that is, make common—what we want, and often more than we intend, with our bodies. (“Communicating” is a larger class than “speaking.”) The body as a whole is particularly prone to large-scale expressions, like inclining and shrinking. But these expressions of inner conditions are, willy-nilly, communications, particularly since they are, though imperfectly, under our control. But it is on the face—which in the highest mammals has a globe of its own, the head, set on a stem, the neck—that the subtler, more differentiated, communicating expressions appear. There too are located the in-portals of the chief senses—taste, smell, sight, hearing, and part of the most local of senses, touch, which for that very reason works through the most enveloping organ, the skin.

So the body might be called a mobile sensorium. It mediates the outside, our world, to the inside, our soul, and without it there’s no experience of otherness. That is a marvel. But here is a marvel upon a marvel: through this physical organism, this piece of nature, we not only learn of our outside, the rest of nature, but we also look into our fellow human’s true inside. Our body gains us entrance to others’ souls.

So our bodies as a whole, when close enough so we can sense each other but not too close to prevent the distance senses need to work panoramically—these receptive parts of nature are crucial to all learning, to the soul’s taking in all kinds of otherness. Masked faces, socially distant physicality—these handicap learning and deliver a sorry second best—though they are vastly better than nothing.

I’ll top off this defense of the physicality of learning with an attempt to say why it applies most particularly to liberal learning: If my understanding of “liberal” as being free from utility, as done for its own sake, is defensible when applied to education, then so is it for much of our relation to our body; the body too has a for-its-own-sake side. We walk, kicking up the fallen leaves in a wood, serve smartly from behind the line of the tennis court, hike out from the gunwale of a little sloop—that’s all for pleasure. There is an incidental utility—health—but pleasure can almost be defined as “sensory in-itself-ness.” Now, if we were together, what a time we’d have talking about the soul’s pleasure in thinking about bodily pleasure.

With that future topic I leave you. So go off into the world, prepared as you are to pull the future toward you, into a great present. For that is freedom.