Monday, July 7, 2014

A Lesson From Annie Dillard: A Good Life versus a Life of Good Days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by.  A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough.  The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more.  The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.  Who would call a day spent reading a good day?  But a life spent reading – that is a good life. 

            She is, of course, talking about the routine of the creative life—the need for consistency and habits of work through which the writer can create works of astonishing power.  It made me reflect on the difference between being a tourist—living a life of good days experienced through the senses—versus residing in a place and coming to know and participate in its true spirit.  It is what has driven us to vacation every year in the same small town in Maine and, after retirement, to remain in the community where I had been a student, a professional, a husband, a parent, and a grandparent.  A community, as Wendell Berry points out, is a set of local inter-relationships. 
            But—perhaps because of my own habits—her words also made me reflect on what we do in higher education.  So much of our undergraduate curriculum, it seems, is tourism.  We visit history era by era.  We read the modern American writers, then move on to the English writers of the 18th century and travel on to the American Romantics, stopping by Mark Twain along the way.  We take a river tour of chemistry, physics, and biology without leaving the boat.  We read about sociology.  We read about psychology.  We get through math.  At the end, we return home from a journey of good days and find that nothing has changed, but that the mailbox is full of bills to pay.
            The challenge for college and university educators is how to help students turn a journey of good days into a good life.   Education—especially the general education core—cannot be just about gathering knowledge like so many mementos.  It must be about helping students learn to integrate knowledge into their lives as members of a community.  This is especially an issue as we move further into the Information Revolution.  In response to the Industrial Revolution, higher education transformed the classical liberal arts curriculum—which focused on “the discipline and furniture of the mind” (according to the Yale faculty back in the 1820s)—by greatly expanding the subjects studied, adding the social sciences and laboratory sciences, for instance.  However, there was still a focus on “the canon” in most disciplines.  A generation into the Information Revolution, we now can easily see that our students are confronted with a maze of information.  The challenge is to help students develop the skills of finding information, evaluating that information, turning it into useful knowledge, and then applying that to the problems facing them and their communities.   One can argue that this has always been the end goal of general education, but, in an Information Society, these are essential life skills, not the by-products of education.   The test of a modern general education curriculum must be that we produce good citizens, not just experienced tourists.