Thoughts on the value of higher education

Written originally for a friend, on the subject of the usefulness of analysis:

I'd suggest this metaphor: On the Sing-Off, groups perform, sometimes well, and sometimes poorly. One of the best groups, Afro-Blue, does lots of complicated jazzy stuff that is AWESOME to listen to, but I have to read online review to understand how they constructed all of the crazy chords in the arrangement. There's a lot of difficult-to-learn theory in what they do. (

On the other hand, anyone can tell when a performance works - its obvious, and the talent that leads the base in that performance to be so awesome at improvising isn't learned - its grown.

So there's a triad here: everyone can tell if the song works or not; talent (and practice) determines if you can sing it, but education is required to understand what's going on in a communicative way.

Your talent to theorize is different than having real interactions, and different than being able to make rational judgments about the world around you. You can have a constructive voice with just those two, it's true: but there's no learning without the other third; no ability to see, long-term, how things have changed and shifted, and to predict from there the lessons that the first two talents can apply in the future.

Do we need music, or musical training to survive? Nope. Do we need voyeuristic operas? Not really. But are they worth doing, by someone? I'd say so.

And in choosing our leaders, within our own communities and within the wider cities and states and countries we identify with, pragmatic ability and common values might be the most important, but scholarship and study make for valuable components as well. The more stuff our leaders know, the less time they need to spend understanding the complex issues that reach their attention and the more time they can spend leading.

Continued, on the split between educating to do "stuff" or to understand stuff."

The academy is the only professional group in America that gets to take a crack at "everyone" (at least, those who want access to the wide opportunities that a college degree provides in terms of credentials). Ministers used to be the same way - everyone was supposed to go to church, but that role has disappeared. Coaches also only serve a portion of the populace. Only our professors remain.

Out of that comes a dual responsibility - to train and equip *everyone,* and to train and equip those who will join the academy. In a real sense there are two brands of success: the "actual" (and I mean that word in terms of "acting") and the theoretical. Williams has, perhaps inadvertently, promoted both separately: the JA variety for raw social effectiveness (in theory), and the Oxford variety for ass-kicking thinking.

In that way, Williams facilitates both the networking that some of our peers seek and the thinking that we're all "supposed" to be studying, even if its only a true priority for some of us. A lot of me is in the former category - I loved doing things at Williams, and discussions like this, but sticking to established formulae was hardly enjoyable; my largest conflicts were with history books that didn't do what I thought was useful. I picked a fight with the discipline and lost.

But that was fine, for me, because I still learned and grew from the course. I don't want to be a professional historian.

So Williams the institution celebrates its "successful" alumni, and invites Cory Booker to speak at graduation. Williams the faculty DOES NOT approve of the trustees' honorary degrees (and has told me), and celebrates research and so forth.

It's the same fight other D1 schools with big athletic programs have with underfunded classrooms - our professors own the classroom, but the classroom is hardly the whole of the campus.

Some professors engage in the real; they come on Mountain Day and advise Dodd Neighborhood; they bring their children to Shabbat dinner so that I can chase the kiddos around. They step out of math and sociology into this world.

Others choose not to.

Likewise, some at Williams cared a lot about their GPA and others phoned it in. We were a meeting place between the doers, the consultants and leaders and organizers, and the learners. In some occasions, we have individuals that fit both categories, and they (you) can feel the split you describe. 

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