What is Education For, or, Why Did the King Quote Hamlet?
In his deeply moving tribute to his mother late on Friday afternoon, King Charles concluded his speech with a little Shakespeare: “My darling mama, ‘may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”
It was 10AM in California when I heard the king’s address, and I was on my lunch break, briskly walking along Pacific Coast Highway near the store where I work the 6-2 shift. I had been tearful during the speech, but when I heard the concluding lines, I gave a little squeal. Hamlet!? A play about a queen who betrays her son, the story of a feckless adolescent filled with rage, grief, and — some say — a borderline incestuous obsession with his mother’s sex life? Charles and his speechwriters had dozens of other Shakespeare plays at their disposal; they had Milton and Donne and Auden and Hughes and the Book of Common Prayer. They went with Hamlet.
And then it hit me: what good is it to know things like the plot of Hamlet? What good is it to have a mind that instantly starts assessing the less awkward lines that could have finished the new king’s otherwise pitch-perfect oration? I’m a grocery store clerk, for heaven’s sake; my customers want to hear about the new apple caramel mochi, not my thoughts on why a play about a brooding Danish prince was the wrong one for Charles to quote.
Education is in the news this week. This tweet went viral on Friday:
Yesterday, the New York Times launched a broadside against Chassidic Jewish yeshivas that do not provide adequate instruction in secular subjects. Over the weekend, Los Angeles Unified, the massive district in which my children are students, reported dismal testing results, reflecting the devastation wrought by prolonged COVID-related school closures.
Meanwhile, I cannot help my son with his math homework. He is in fifth grade, and this is not because I do not understand the new style of teaching mathematics — it’s because I’ve long since forgotten how to multiply fractions. It simply doesn’t come back to me; I’ve not needed to do it since the Carter Administration, and it’s all gone.
I know a lot of lines of poetry, though, and I can recite the list of English monarchs from Edward the Confessor to Charles III. I can tell you a little bit about tennis and a little bit about the Boer War; I can make conversation about the origins of the World Economic Forum, the logical atomism of Wittgenstein, why Bakersfield emerged as the capital of Western swing, the origins of the Wars of the Roses, the role of women in the Azusa Street Revival, the fin-de-siècle fashion innovations of Paul Poiret, and this fall’s competing California ballot initiatives over sports betting. This is boasting, I suppose, except I am very clearly not an expert on any of these things. Making conversation is not expertise — indeed, it’s quite the opposite, as it’s designed to draw out the real expert. I could probably pull together a lecture on any of these subjects, just enough to skim the surface and entertain, but I’d be undone if challenged by someone who really knew the subject at hand. I was given a broad liberal education, and raised above all else to be a skilled conversationalist who didn’t have to have all the answers as long as he knew some of the right questions to ask.
Intentionally or no, my family lived the trajectory described by a hopeful John Adams in a famous letter to his wife Abigail: I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
I am descended from those who fought, and I am descended from those who sweat and hustled and assembled a little capital to pass on to their descendants. I was very much raised to be part of Adams’ anticipated third generation, the one studying poetry. (And history, which the Greeks rightly considered an art rather than a science.) I know next to nothing about tapestry, but if I were seated next to an expert in the field at dinner, I have the training to draw them out in conversation. I’ve learned almost everything I know by asking experts and aficionados why they love what they love.
Curiosity, real or feigned, has helped me survive. (It’s landed me many a ghostwriting gig, because I am good at adopting the passions and worldview of whomever contracts me to tell their story.) And I stress to my children that while I want them to do well in school, because doing well will increase their options, I remind them too that success is often a matter of combining hustle, genuine charm, curiosity about everyone, and a willingness to ask questions. (Being able to quote Milton or Merle Haggard doesn’t hurt, particularly if you can manage to do so without sounding like a show-off.)
A major federal survey found this week that a very large number of college graduates regret their major — including 25% of those who chose the most employable academic field of all, engineering. As we see clearly in 2022, a college degree is no guarantor of either financial success or psychological fulfillment. The right degree can open some doors, but you still have to walk through them — and it is far from certain you will find deep satisfaction on the other side.
In the Tablet — the American Jewish newspaper, not the British Catholic one — Liel Leibovitz responds to the weekend’s Times attack on yeshivas by suggesting that the purpose of education isn’t always to raise worker bees. He writes:
…we want students invested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We want them to become neighbors who care for the needy next door. We want them to become children who care for their parents as they age. We want them to become siblings who support each other through life. We want them to become spouses who treat their husbands and wives with respect and reverence and love. We want them to become individuals who are self-confident, grateful to their Creator for all of His bounties, and mindful that true joy means balancing personal appetites with communal needs. We want them to be happy… If the problem we’re facing is despair, the cure may be hope, that precious metal that is best mined wherever a sense of belonging is strong and a higher purpose evident. Hasidic communities have all that in droves, which is why they’re faring much, much, better than their nonobservant neighbors.
That’s at least as good a result as studying porcelain, as Adams dreamt his grandsons would do, and it’s probably better than making millions of schoolchildren agonize over the trigonometry they’ll never use.
This is not meant to be a coherent essay. I have a lot on my plate at the moment, including a major ghostwriting gig and various ongoing family crises. It’s just that I think there is a great deal of value in asking what education is for, what we want our children to learn, and what we want them to do with what they learn. Will it make them happy?
I was happy when I contemplated all the less problematic lines Charles could have chosen instead of one from Hamlet. I am happy when someone wants to talk to me about what they do, and whether they’re a deputy sheriff or an insurance adjuster or a derivatives trader or a midwife or a professional bull rider, I can think of questions to ask — and perhaps, if I sense interest, a relevant story to share. There’s a lot to be said for equipping young people to be curious, informed, and possessed of the ability to recognize lines from Shakespeare or 1 Corinthians or Bruce Springsteen and understand why those words are being deployed as they are. Or maybe that’s just a skill for third-rate ghostwriters.
Knowing enough to talk with most people has made me happy, and I think it makes the ancestors smile. They fought the wars and built the foundation that gave me the chance to read what I read and learn what I learned, and no matter what I have become, I am grateful.