Yale Senior, Matt Shaffer
, writes a thoughtful essay reflecting upon his own regret at not coming to Yale's so-called "Directed Studies" program (which is really just an intense one-year introduction to the Western canon) in the freshman year. Because of his association with so many peers who did have the good fortune to be so inclined or to be so directed, Shaffer, to his lasting credit and (very likely) eternal felicity, was able to re-direct his own studies and move away from the professional training bent of his Biomedical Engineering major in order to take more courses in the Humanities.
Shaffer has a few insights as a result of this experience that ought to be instructive to young people contemplating what to do with themselves in college and instructive, moreover, to their well-meaning but (too often) simply career-oriented parents. There is this:
There is one point that might appear superficial but is hard to miss.
Quite simply, the students of Directed Studies and the Humanities
appear very happy. . . . They show a love of college and learning that I
do not see from the students brooding over econometric regressions or
Part of the reason students (like me, initially) don't pursue
traditional liberal arts education is that they simply don't know why
they might want to. . . . Nobody doubts the value of the sciences or
the utility of the social sciences. But freshmen aren't so sure about
the liberal arts. As such, the duty should fall to university
administrators to ensure that freshmen at least give it a try and can
find classes about literature that aren't actually about politics.
Of course, what Shaffer is talking about is the pursuit of something worthy and serious--a pursuit inspired, above all, by love. Because so many people today think that love is just a feeling that comes of its own accord and offering no explanation or justification for itself, our educational system is loath to suggest to students that they can develop better and higher loves than those their adolescent brains suggest to them. These more fleeting passions and temporary rushes of excitement--necessary, perhaps, to spark an interest--are not in themselves sufficient or satisfactory to the work of the human mind. Thus, a kind of passing interest in anatomy or mechanics will not sustain a man in long career focused on those things--no matter how "expert" he becomes in that field. Human beings need to love.
In order to grow real love--the kind that inspires devotion and genuine happiness--one needs to develop some powers of discrimination. All things are not equally worthy of our love--however necessary they may, in fact, be. There is a need for an ordering of the soul and a need for coming to understand not only that
one loves a thing, but also why
one loves it. What makes it worthy?
This discovery is always a watershed moment in the education of students. And, while it manifests itself in different ways in different souls, its general impetus is to propel students in the direction of something higher than the practical, the useful, or the necessary. It puts students in touch with something higher in their own nature and, while encouraging them to appreciate that spark of the divine within themselves; it also points to the possibility of something beyond them which is even higher. It fills them with a life-altering and overwhelming desire which, in a balanced soul (and knowing what that is also takes some effort!), works to produce human beings and citizens who--because now freed from the shackles of intellectual tyranny--are now capable both of self-government and of true excellence in any number of the practical endeavors. A chef who understands his work and has learned to love it in its proper place in human happiness, will always be better and more inspired than a mere cook who has mastered technique. A lawyer who appreciates the majesty and the purpose of the law may (though not without much effort!) exempt himself from Shakespeare's injunction about which class of citizens needs offing in the first instance . . . And so on . . .
In short, better human beings make better everything they touch. This used to be the purpose of a liberal education and it used not to require so much explanation--certainly not at a place like Yale. In the past, the acquiring of such an education was not so much of an accident or, even, a choice for undergraduates. But such has been the fate of our "enlightened" times of segmented and specialized "education." That Mr. Shaffer was able to rise to the occasion and elect to travel this older and better path is something that will always remain to his great credit and, no doubt, will serve him well in a lifetime of other more practical pursuits.
On the other hand, had he had the good fortune to consider this program
(and the stuff to prove himself worthy of admittance to it), these things would not have been left up to his own virtue or to accident. Here he would have had the kind of "directed studies" that have, at least by my observation and experience, left not a few Yalies (and, among them, the best) reeling in a good-spirited sort of intellectual jealousy. If fortune is a woman, she will be found both good and serviceable in the Ashbrook Scholar program . . . and without much force required at all.